It's a timeless image. A woman dressed in a flowing hoop skirt being flung around a massive ballroom by a barefoot, bald, powerful man to the sounds of a symphony orchestra, the phrase "Shall we dance?" lingering on their lips.
For many fans of musical theater, "The King and I" resonates today as much as it did during the show's initial run in 1951. Now, more than half a century after the show first floored Broadway audiences, Myrtle Beach theater-goers have an opportunity to see this tale of cultural melding, gender clashes and the romance of mutual respect, tonight through Sunday at The Palace Theatre.
Stefanie Powers, known for her role as the saucy Jennifer Hart opposite Robert Wagner in "Hart to Hart," stars as Anna Leonowens, a British governess sent in the 1860s to educate the children of the King of Siam. "The show stands on its own as one of the most exceptional pieces of musical theater ever written," Powers said via phone from a tour stop in Florida. "One must consider these extraordinary pieces from the golden age of musical theater as a true American art form, rather than revivals. They are among the best stage pieces ever created."
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein were revolutionaries in the world of musical theater, whose shows have exhibited unusual staying power in the fickle world of the stage. "Before 'Showboat' musicals were written around the songs, but Rodgers and Hammerstein came up with their own formula, writing the story first and associating the songs with the story points," said Gregory London, an assistant professor in Coastal Carolina University's Theater department. "Musicals before that were more like pastiches or comedy reviews where there would be a juggler, a dog act and some popular songs sung individually, true to the medium's burlesque origins."
And once Rodgers and Hammerstein's formula hit New York audiences, there was no turning back. "They had what was known as the 'RH' factor, and it was something that everyone wanted to emulate on Broadway," London said. "There was one time where Rodgers and Hammerstein had four musicals running at the same time on Broadway: 'The King and I,' 'Carousel,' 'Oklahoma' and 'South Pacific' were all hits all at the same time, truly a testament to their popularity. No other composing team has ever achieved that."
Far from fluffy fare, Rodgers and Hammerstein managed to address serious issues in their work. "The story of 'The King and I' is essentially about cultural imperialism," London said. "What do we do about a show that's primarily racist, a show that says you need to drop your own culture and customs and do exactly what the English white people tell you to do? It's a prime example of how British imperialism polluted many cultures."
As Leonowens begins to educate the children of the King in British manners, culture and language, she clashes with the no-nonsense monarch (a role made famous by the chrome-domed Yul Brynner). "Rodgers and Hammerstein were fantastic humanists and pre-feminists as well," London said. "They wrote very strong female characters like Anna Leonowens. But Anna has her flaws, also. Because the King is a non-white, non-English speaking person, she is much more assertive and aggressive. She would have had a much more difficult time standing up to the King of England."
But once a genuine admiration is established between them, both characters soften considerably. "There's a moment where Anna is dressing and the King spies her bare shoulder upon entering her room, which he finds very erotic," Powers said. "That signals a change in their relationship. Then, after the party that evening, as they relax and after she's had a few glasses of wine, an intimate mood is created."
The moment that follows is fraught with tension and ardor, though both characters do their best to contain it. Instead of leaping in to one another's arms, they release their passion in the whirlwind polka that accompanies the showstopper "Shall We Dance?" Powers and her co-star, Ronobir Lahiri, dazzle the audience with their spinning number, made more difficult by the fact that Powers' gown is an exact replica of the original that Gertrude Lawrence graced the stage in. The dress is six feet in diameter and weighs fourteen pounds.
The logistics of the rest of the show are tremendous as well. With more than 70 people in the cast, simply getting everyone to the next venue is a challenge. But director Baayork Lee, who played a princess in the original stage production with Lawrence and Brynner, has his hands full with this grand and technically formidable show. "Given the demands of the production and the expense of it, this may be the last time this show tours for many years," Powers said.
Powers believes the reason behind the show's longevity lies within the duo that created it. "The lyrics, the libretto, the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein is still timeless, even 50 years after its creation," Powers said. "You come out of the theater humming the tunes, and I don't know any show over the last 20 years that's done that."
Powers hopes to reach not only those who are longtime fans of the show, but younger people with less exposure to musical theater. "I think that what they need are positive theater experiences and good material to see," Powers said.