Monday, October 04, 2004

Sandy the Schoolmarm

Returning to the traveling stage after a long hiatus, Duncan revels in her role in 'The King and I'

It's early afternoon and Sandy Duncan is coming off a catalog bender that lasted till dawn.

On the floor of her hotel room in Charlotte, N.C., the remains of the night: Harry and David, Crate and Barrel, Garden Botanika - catalog after catalog, many of them bearing the marks of a compulsive page turner.

"Last night I had 50 or 60 catalogs, and of course once I got going I have to get through them all," said the Texas-born actress. "I fold the pages in half and put them aside and never order anything. I even look at the crappy ones. They are so amazing. "Who would order this?' I ask myself. I'll see in the light of day if any of them make the final cut."

Life on the road never gets easy, and Duncan - who is playing the role of schoolmarm Anna Leonowens in the touring company of "The King and I" - has discovered tricks for winding down after an evening on the stage. At age 58, Duncan has not taken her act on the road since "My One and Only" toured 17 years ago.

Yet Duncan's decision to join "The King and I," opening Tuesday at Shea's Performing Arts Center, was not a difficult one - despite the 20-city, seven-month schedule.

"In my opinion, it is one of the five best shows ever written," she said during a phone interview from Charlotte. "It combines dance and book and music better than most. And the role of the woman is stronger than in most musical comedy. Very often it's silly and sappy, and Anna is not."

Anna does fall in love, however, with a Siamese king who has a football team of children. Make that several teams and several wives. But that doesn't deter the head-strong governess who, with her son, must adjust to the customs of a Far Eastern country in the 1860s.

Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein wrote "The King and I" in 1951, their first musical play based on a true story. Five years later, Twentieth Century Fox released the film version with Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner in the lead roles. It became the second highest grossing movie of 1956.

The phenomenon known as "The King and I" stems from a novel written by Margaret Landon called "Anna and the King of Siam." The novel was based on the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, a 19th century Brit who was nanny to the king's brood.

In researching her role of Anna, Duncan not only read the novel, she viewed an early film version made in 1946 starring Rex Harrison and Irene Dunne.

"I read everything I could get my hands on," Duncan said, "and I saw this old, old film version. It's kind of an eerie creepy movie, the tone of it. The dialogue is almost a direct left from the stage production."

Interpreting a classic is no easy task. With the touring version of "The King and I," Director Baayork Lee manages to adhere to tradition while maintaining a contemporary sense. Maybe that's because - at the age of 5 - Lee appeared in the original Broadway musical.

"Baayork did not reinvent the wheel," Duncan explained. "She gave it a fresh approach and put her stamp on it, but she was very respectful of the show as it should be done.

"I think the real strength is the purity with which she approached it in terms of the way it looks," Duncan added. "The opulence of it. Being honest to a tradition and upholding that and not doing something that is avant garde and so offhand."

Lee's influence has been felt around the world. On Broadway, she created the role of Connie in "A Chorus Line," serving as assistant to Michael Bennett. Her directing credits include: "Porgy and Bess" at the Tome Opera in Italy and "Barnum" for Cy Coleman in Sydney, Australia. In summer 2002, Lee also directed the European tour of "Jesus Christ Superstar."

Duncan, whose performance in "Peter Pan" earned her a Tony nomination in 1980, was last on Broadway in "Chicago." That was 31/2 years ago. On television, she is perhaps best known for her Wheat Thin commercials and for her comedy series "Funny Face," for which she earned an Emmy nomination.

"I would love to do a wonderful new musical or play, but I don't know what the reality and feasibility of that is because so few are written," Duncan said. "But I'm not going to sit around pining. I've had a very lovely, successful career and I enjoy what I do. So, I'd like to do something new, but I'm not killing myself if it doesn't happen."
Duncan joins a long line of stars who have played the King's Anna including Marie Osmond, Hayley Mills, Angela Lansbury, Jeannette MacDonald, Betsy Palmer, Betty White and Florence Henderson. When Duncan leaves the tour in January, the role of Anna will be played by Stefanie Powers.

"We couldn't be more different," said Duncan. "Physically, and our demeanor."

Duncan pointed to the recent Broadway revival of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" as an example of the evolving state of professional theater.

"They do that every six years," she said. "Theater is almost becoming a repertory in that there aren't any new products. They recycle the standards and the audience goes to see a different actress or actor interpret that role. That is not conducive to creating stars in the theater."

Duncan kicked off "The King and I" tour in Pittsburgh in June, with stops in Atlanta, Dallas, Chicago and Boston. As for touring, she believes that life on the road is best tolerated by the young.

"I think touring is for the very young. My son would love to do a tour. I'm not sure I would do another tour, to be honest with you," she said. "He's got a Pepsi commercial in Europe. I just tell him: "Honey, just be sure you love it because otherwise it won't sustain you. Otherwise you can not take the rejection, the unemployment and all the other things that come with this business.' "

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