IN the 1860s the King of Siam--in his attempt to bring Western culture to his country--engages Anna Leonowens, an attractive English schoolteacher, to teach his royal princes and princesses. On arriving in Siam with her son, Louis, she tries to allay her own fears and those of her son by whistling a tune ("I Whistle a Happy Tune"). Once in the palace, Anna is shocked to learn that she and her son will not get a house of their own as had been promised her by the King. She is also witness to the arrival of Tuptim, brought from Burma by Lun Tha, as a gift to the King of Siam. The King is pleased with Tuptim, and turns a deaf ear to Anna's complaints about having to live in the palace. He then summons his sixty-seven princes to meet Anna. They file in in an impressive procession ("March of the Royal Siamese Children"). After they leave, Lady Thiang arouses Anna's sympathy for Tuptim by explaining that Tuptim and Lun Tha are deeply in love, and that once Lun Tha returns to Burma they will never again see each other. Anna can be duly sympathetic, for she can never forget how much she had loved her husband Tom, now dead ("Hello, Young Lovers").
In the palace grounds the King confesses that he is not sure of anything at all, that he does not know how much his children should be taught, and what is right or wrong ("A Puzzlement"). But Anna has no such qualms. After she and the children become acquainted with each other ("Getting to Know You"), a unique bond of sympathy and affection develops between teacher and pupils. Nevertheless, Anna is unhappy, still determined to live with her son, not in the palace like a menial, but in a house of their own. She confides her feelings to the King in no uncertain terms, and the King just as forcefully reminds her that she is just a servant and must behave like one. The exchange so upsets Anna that she leaves the King in a huff. In her bedroom she gives vent to her rage ("Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?"). Meanwhile, Tuptim and Lun Tha meet secretly in the darkness of the palace garden to exchange love vows ("We Kiss in a Shadow").
A crisis is developing in Siam. An agent in Singapore has discovered letters to the British describing the King of Siam as a barbarian and suggesting that Siam be made a protectorate. This information upsets Anna to no end, for despite her differences with the King, she has come to admire him and cannot tolerate his being called a barbarian ("This Is a Man"). She comes to the King's study to apologize to him for having lost her temper. When the King tells her of his political difficulties and advises her that Sir Edward Ramsey and other high-ranking English men and women are coming to visit Siam and judge for themselves, Anna suggests that they be entertained in grand style, but with a European dinner and ball, and with all the Siamese princes and princesses wearing European dress. In another part of the palace, while this is going on, Lun Tha and Tuptim are making plans to run away together ("I Have Dreamed").
The visiting English are entertained with a monster ball and with a ballet, "The Small House of Uncle Thomas", in which Uncle Tom's Cabin is translated in terms of the Siamese dance. The visit is a huge success: Sir Edward needs no further proof that he is dealing here with cultured and sensitive people and not with barbarians. Both Anna and the King are exhilirated by the success of their efforts, which encourages Anna to describe to the King some other European customs, such as social dancing ("Shall We Dance?"). Suddenly Tuptim is brought to the King. She has been caught red-handed trying to escape. The King orders that she be whipped, but Anna fiercely takes her part and prevents the King from carrying out this order. Lun Tha, however, has been killed.
By now Anna feels that she can stay in Siam no longer, and makes preparations to return to England. But before she can leave, the King falls seriously ill. On his death-bed the King implores her to stay on in Siam, promising to meet any conditions she might impose. When the royal children join in this entreaty, Anna cannot find it in her heart to leave a country, a people and, most of all, the pupils she has come to love.
It took considerable courage for Rodgers and Hammerstein to adapt Margaret Landon's novel for the musical stage. Here was a story in which no love interest involved the two leading characters, and which ends with the death of the hero. The authors met their challenge without equivocations. They created a picture of the East with dignity, and without resorting to any of the clichés so long identifying the Orient in musical comedy. Lyrics, dialogue, music, settings, costumes represented to one critic (Danton Walker) "a flowering of all the arts of the theater". In The King and I, as Richard Watts, Jr., pointed out, we see "an East of frank and unashamed romance, seen through the eyes of ... theatrical artists of rare taste and creative power."
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