Arts Review

The King and I at Lincoln Center

In this era of the jukebox bio-musical, the snarky, spoofy Something Rotten and The Book of Mormon, and the brilliant hip-hop epic Hamilton, is there still a place for Rodgers and Hammerstein? A new revival by Lincoln Center Theater of The King and I raises the question. The team, easily the most influential and successful in the history of the American musical theater, have long ceased to be just the artists Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein but instead are now R&H: a summoning term not just for a set of shows but also for an entire mid-century mindset. R&H signifies, for many, a time of postwar American confidence and hegemony; of the ascendancy and triumph of masscult, bourgeois art; and of liberal values as the default secular religion of mainstream cultural expression. For two decades, R&H defined American middle­brow (and I don’t necessarily use the word pejoratively). They also happened to be wildly talented.

But then, as the conservatives say, the 1960s ruined everything. Popular music went in one direction and theatrical music went in another, leaving Rodgers & Hammerstein behind. Oh sure, revivals, cast albums, and countless high school and amateur productions kept their work in the public ear. Once a music is designated as “America’s Music,” it can’t disappear entirely. I recall my astonishment at meeting a man at a recent revival of Oklahoma! who had never heard any of the score before. Not recognizing “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’” is like not recognizing “Jingle Bells.” But still, R&H survived more as your parents’ and—later—your grandparents’ music: appreciated and admired but not seen as particularly relevant. Perhaps even a little square.

The overwhelming popularity of the team’s final work, The Sound of Music, didn’t help matters. Entire books have been written about the staggering success and influence of the 1965 film version, a locus of highbrow derision. I could write an essay defending, or at least nuancing, the merits of The Sound of Music in its various incarnations, but suffice to say that its (perceived) sugary sweetness has fueled the reputation that R&H hold as sentimentalists. And worse, there’s the (perceived) whiff of something juvenile about their work, as if it’s one step removed from children’s theater. Maybe it’s all those governesses, all those kids, all that whistling of happy tunes that sound suspiciously like grade school music exercises. And truthfully, many of us first learned Rodgers & Hammerstein at school, singing the kid-friendly, larky melodies of “Do Re Mi” or “Getting to Know You” or “Happy Talk” in music class. When I was five, I drove my parents to distraction by playing the Sound of Music soundtrack LP several times a day. They eventually had to hide the album.

But every once in a while, a smart, searching production of a great R&H work (and with some major caveats about casting, this current revival of The King and I fits the bill) reminds us that their art was the equal of any other great commercial artist of mid-century American theater, including Thornton Wilder and Arthur Miller. The team’s masterpieces (Oklahoma!, Carousel, the “musical maudit” Allegro, South Pacific, and The King and I) survey the same subjects that Twain, O’Neill, Steinbeck and John Ford examined: the tension between conformist civilization and the restless urge of manifest destiny; the responsibilities of the democratic West in the modern era; the essential challenge of remaining optimistic in the face of global catastrophe; the creation of new paradigms of community and even of family; and the constant redefinitions of identity, masculinity and femininity. They accomplished all of this in works that still enthrall, move and provoke, at least when approached with intelligence and fearlessness.

And then there was their sheer craft. I happen to believe that Rodgers was the greatest theater composer of the twentieth century. And that Hammerstein was the most important, influential wordsmith in the American musical’s history. Rodgers’ music, at its frequent best, has the gift of being unfailingly fresh, ravishing and captivating. There are technical reasons for its distinction: the oft-remarked “wrong notes” that Rodgers incorporates into melodies to surprise the ear and avoid “pretty” in favor of “beautiful” being but one example. Mainly, though, the man was simply an endless well of melodic and harmonic inspira­tion, much like Mozart and Puccini. “I can pee a melody,” he once boasted.

Hammerstein was a different kind of artist: a craftsman whose hard-won simplicity stood in contrast to the effortless ease of Rodgers’ art. Hammerstein was a thinker; Rodgers was a natural. Hammerstein was a man who wrestled with big ideas and felt a responsibility to make the world a better place; Rodgers wanted the big second act number to go over. Hammerstein was famously kind, sensitive, idealistic, menschy; Rodgers was aloof, a closed book. An oft-repeated anecdote depicts Hammerstein struggling for weeks on the lyric to “Hello, Young Lovers,” the leading lady’s first act ballad in The King and I. After agonizing over every syllable, he finally sent the lyric to Rodgers, waiting for feedback or at least a few words of praise. Hammerstein had done what some now consider his finest work with this song. “I know how it feels / To have wings on your heels / And to fly down the street in a trance,” is just about my favorite lyric in his oeuvre, and the verse, depicting a summer evening in the English countryside, is almost Wordsworthian. Days went by with no response until finally Hammerstein asked Rodgers what he had thought of the lyric. “Oh, it’ll do,” said Rodgers, who then blithely proceeded to whip out a deathless, perfect melody in an afternoon.

Their sensibilities intersected in a love for, and profound understanding of, the theater and, for that reason, their shows still work superbly, building inevitably, with the songs unerringly paced. The actual experience of watching their best work (in reasonably competent productions, at least) never confirms their reputation for irrelevance or insipidness. It helps that almost every number they wrote in their glory years is memorably wonderful. In The King and I, the two romantic duets for the secondary couple of Tuptim, the Burmese slave, and her secret lover, Lun Tha—“We Kiss in a Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed”—might have been just generically attractive detours from the main plot, especially since the two roles are under-characterized. Instead, they are numbers of such aching, soaring beauty that they stand out even among the jewels of the rest of the score and, more importantly, serve as telling stylistic contrasts to the less conventional, more intellectual music of the primary couple, Anna and the King. Or observe how a number like the “March of the Siamese Children” economically accomplishes the multiple tasks of introducing and discretely characterizing the royal offspring, humanizing the formidable King, delineating the formal rituals of the court, and effecting a reversal of Anna’s resolve to leave, all set to a deliciously grand, Asian-hued tune that Rodgers and orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett cleverly put through wildly diverse variations.


Gertrude Lawrence & Yul Brynner in the original stage production of The King and I in 1951
Gertrude Lawrence & Yul Brynner in the original stage production of The King and I in 1951


The original production of The King and I (1951), which depicts the presence of British teacher Anna Leonowens in the court of King Mongkut of Siam (now Thailand) during the 1860s, was conceived as a showcase for a major, powerhouse talent: the massively popular British actress Gertrude Lawrence, muse to Noel Coward, star of dozens of smash Broadway and West End shows, and an extraordinarily idiosyncratic performer who defined “star quality” for an entire generation. Fitting the quirky, inorganic Lawrence into the typically organic, homogeneous world of a Rodgers & Hammerstein show was a chal­lenge, but one that the two easily met. The King and I was built around Lawrence, but the breakout performer was ultimately its King, the then-unknown Yul Brynner, whose career was made—and then remade over and over—by this role. Few connections between performer and character are more iconic in the history of Broadway, and his shadow still looms large over every production including, unfortunately, the current Lincoln Center Theater revival.

In some quarters, The King and I is counted the finest of all Rodgers & Hammerstein works. That’s partly because its film version is excellent, especially compared with the disappointing films of South Pacific and Carousel. Brynner, in his prime, won an Academy Award for re-creating his stage role, and Deborah Kerr is almost perfectly cast, despite being dubbed by Marni Nixon in most of her numbers. The film is sumptu­ous, and the studio-bound aesthetic of the time does not diminish the setting the way it does in the films of Oklahoma! and Carousel. The latter’s score is probably Rodgers’ best, certainly his most ambitious, but The King and I’s book is arguably Hammerstein’s finest work: funny, complex, political, electric in its suggestion of sexual tension that it wisely never makes explicit. The King and I has been lucky in revival as well, especially since Brynner championed the work for several decades in strong productions that toured the country, focused on his star legacy—interesting since, in the original, he had merely been below-the-title support to Lawrence’s star draw.

It’s not an unproblematic work. Several years ago, I found myself (to my surprise) chatting with a well-known Oscar-winning actress, and I told her she should play Anna in The King and I some day. “Isn’t that material a little dicey?” she wondered. I know what she meant. Any work written in 1951 that depicts the third world is going to have some issues. The tools for avoiding Eurocentrism mostly didn’t exist in the commer­cial theater then, and some of Hammerstein’s attitudes, more or less enlightened at the time, feel a bit jejune today. It doesn’t help that the Siamese characters speak, even to each other, in Pidgin English, creating an impression of unlettered simplicity. That they are in need of Westernization is never in doubt. The King’s polygamy is treated first as a joke and then as immoral. In the Act 2 opener, “Western People Funny,” head wife Lady Thiang and the women of the court provide cutesy commentary on how the British think of them as savages while they find the uncomfortable Western shoes and dresses “barbaric”; this cringey number was cut from the film and many revivals although the new Lincoln Center production retains it and makes it work thanks to a tongue-in-cheek delivery.

The reality of the presence and influence of the real Anna Leonowens in the nineteenth-century Siamese court is much more complex than what is depicted in the play, and the differences go beyond the usual dramatic compression. For starters, recent scholarship has shown that Leonowens seems to have been a bit of a shady character, exaggerating or outright fabricating her background and first marriage to a British officer. The ur-sources for the story are her two episodic books (in which the King barely appears). These pot­boilers completely downplay the presence of other much more influential English and American men in Bangkok and were severely criticized upon publication by the Siamese, especially by Chulalongkorn, the young Crown Prince who ultimately became the country’s most revered king to date and the father of modern Thailand. The story found a new popularity upon the publication in 1944 of Margaret Landon’s novelistic adaptation of Leonowens’ stories as Anna and the King of Siam. Landon’s book was the basis of Twentieth Century Fox’s popular film, released in 1946 and starring Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison. Most of the structure of The King and I, including the invented supporting characters, as well as some of Hammerstein’s dialogue, comes straight from the Fox film.

The King and I has been banned in Thailand since its debut. The Thai still venerate the monarchy and have little sense of humor about its depiction in art, which is seen as displaying bad taste. Bootleg copies of the film can be found on the streets in Bangkok, but they hold little interest for the populace who find the whole affair, particularly the fact that the King sings and dances and bares his chest, rather preposterous. I understand why some feel uncomfortable with the show’s somewhat dated mindset. But I think critics take a simplistic view of Hammerstein’s achievement. Siam occupied an unusual strategic role in late nine­teenth-century Southeast Asia. The British had occupied all of the area to its west and south (including present-day India, Burma, Malaysia and Singapore), and the French had colonized the areas to the east (Indo­china, comprising present-day Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia). Siam managed cleverly to play the competing European powers against each other and remained, astonishingly, independent throughout the colonial era. Hammerstein presents this historical context as the basis for the show’s clash of personalities (and the new Lincoln Center revival expands on the show’s political stakes by incorporating new dialogue about the impending colonization of neighboring Cambodia), equating character with strategic approach. His great feat is to embody the fate of a small corner of the world within a juxtaposition of powerful and vividly theatrical personalities. And when all else fails, Rodgers’ score soars above the potentially retro politics, gracing, complicating and ennobling the work.

In 2008, director Bartlett Sher revived R&H’s South Pacific at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater to major acclaim. Many felt that he had saved the work from years of bland stagings that depicted the wartime island setting as if it were a summer camp and soft-pedaled the ugly prejudice of the lead female character for fear of alienating the audience. Working with a superb design team and with his frequent leading lady, Kelli O’Hara, Sher reinvented South Pacific for the twenty-first century, and if some of us rolled our eyes at the claim that he had discovered dark, rich, erotic layers that we always had known were there, we were nevertheless pleased to see the work being taken seriously and received with the rapture it deserved. A second foray at R&H was inevitable, and The King and I was the obvious choice.

Sher can be an earnest director, downplaying the laughs in favor of the truth of the moment. One of the joys of The King and I is its delicious, character-driven humor, and, in this production, Sher was able to let the laughs come without compromising his integrity. At Anna and the King’s first meeting, she uses the phrase “etc., etc., etc.,” and the intrigued King halts all further conversation until the meaning of the expression is explained to him. He then manages to work it into almost every subsequent scene in the play, and Sher made sure he always accompanied it with a self-satisfied, sideways glance toward Anna, a look that just got funnier with each repetition. Sher also judiciously opened up the staging of the numbers, adapting a cinematic approach to smart effect. Anna’s first number, “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” is traditionally staged entirely aboard the ship that brings her to Bangkok, but Sher brought the second chorus onto the crowded, disorienting streets of the city as Anna and her son coped with a grasping, unnerving populace, heightening the stakes and giving this potentially sugary tune a needed edge.

In all of his efforts, Sher was aided mightily by his regular collaborators, set designer Michael Yeargan, costume designer Catherine Zuber and Donald Holder, the creator of the stunning lighting, among the finest I’ve seen on a New York stage. The talented choreographer Christopher Gattelli did well with the big second act ballet, “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” Tuptim’s adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Relying heavily on original choreographer Jerome Robbins’ structure and steps (and, truthfully, it would be impossible to improve on them), Gattelli, working with Holder, created images of spectacular beauty that, true to the R&H aesthetic, always felt organically tied into the broader themes of the play: in this instance, the uses and limits of authoritarian power and the efficacy of educational fiction in highlighting abuses and changing hearts and minds.

As with the South Pacific production, an undeniable highlight of this King and I is the full-sized pit orchestra, grandly conducted by Ted Sperling. I have some quibbles with the rearranged and shortened overture, particularly the addition of “Shall We Dance?” to the set of tunes. Yes, it’s probably not in the original overture because it was composed while the show was already in its out-of-town tryouts, and yes, it is the work’s best-known number, but its fame is such that it takes the audience out of the show in the first few minutes, engendering a round of applause and, worse, a few rhythmic clap-alongs. The original overture is heavier, almost somber in its weight and focus on the ballads, like something out of Borodin, which is why I love it. It sets a tone of unsettling grandeur. The revised overture is a less interesting hit tune potpourri. Once past that caveat, however, I luxuriated in the sound and splendor of Sperling’s pit, which is ingeniously covered and uncovered at strategic moments thanks to the Beaumont’s superb technical capabilities. Lincoln Center has done musical theater lovers a major service by performing these classic works with their properly generous allotment of players. To hear gorgeous ballads like “I Have Dreamed” and “Something Wonderful” with a full array of strings is worth the price of admission.

The three principal supporting roles in the show are written for legitimate voices (perhaps as compensation for the fact that neither Lawrence nor Brynner had stellar instruments). In fact, the music for Tuptim, Lun Tha and Lady Thiang verges on operetta, which had not quite yet disappeared in 1951. Here, I found myself disappointed, truly missing the refulgent tone that previous interpreters have brought to these roles. Ashley Park, as Tuptim, was the most successful of the lot to my mind, bringing feisty anger and a small but solid soprano to “My Lord and Master” and visceral intensity to her narration of the ballet. At a subsequent performance, her understudy, Ali Ewoldt, was equally fine. Conrad Ricamora, however, so good as Benigno Aquino in Here Lies Love, was in over his head vocally as Lun Tha, a role that requires not much more than a mellifluous tone and a few ringing high notes, neither of which he had.

Ruthie Ann Miles (also a Here Lies Love veteran) won a Tony Award for her Lady Thiang. She’s a fine actress, but I prefer a much more trained, legitimate, indeed operatic voice in that role; her lyrical pop approach robbed the character of its gravitas. She did benefit greatly from Sher’s attention to her character’s dramatic arc, something that has been ignored in previous productions. Sher foregrounded Lady Thiang’s role as a prime mover of the various plot developments; he often placed her on stage in the background, observing and analyzing the developments and then taking charge of the situation. The character’s big moment comes toward the end of the first act when she begs Anna to stay and help the King in a moment of crisis. Anna acquiesces and, at the end of the act, when it’s clear that she has been successful, Lady Thiang mouthed an unscripted but intensely moving “thank you” to Anna—a lovely touch.

Miles’s Lady Thiang also had a clear and powerful single motivation: the promotion and success of her son, the Crown Prince Chulalongkorn. I’m not the only observer to say that one of the unexpected strengths of this production was the marvelous performance by young Jon Viktor Corpuz in this pivotal role. The ultimate, underlying historic theme of the play is the education of the man who would eventually become Thailand’s most famous king. Here again, Sher’s attention to detail paid dividends, particularly in the first act in which he created an ongoing psychodrama for the character that played out non-textually but no less powerfully for that. As Anna and the children sang “Getting to Know You,” Corpuz skulked around the edges of the stage, wary of committing to the love fest between teacher and students, partly out of adolescent diffidence and partly out of a sense that his stakes were higher. But as Anna’s message of international cooperation began to work its magic, Corpuz’s Chulalongkorn found himself irresistibly drawn to her optimism and ultimately took her hand for a few dance steps, a concession that O’Hara’s Anna movingly acknowledged as a major breakthrough.

When previews began for the production in the spring, early word on the theater chat boards focused almost exclusively on Ken Watanabe, the Japanese film actor who was cast as the King. His English was more than problematic, complained the chatterati. Half his dialogue and most of his sung lyrics were almost unintelligible. By the time I first saw the production, on April 3, that problem had not been solved, although I understand he got better as the run progressed. Watanabe was well cast in other ways. He is handsome, with a physically imposing stage presence, not unlike Brynner’s. He is a game actor, willing to throw himself into the scenes and to play big emotions and big gestures without compromise. But there was no question that the language was a major barrier. He was clearly working very hard simply to wrap his mouth around the words in a way that made semantic sense, and the result was the impression of a lack of confidence (a big problem for this bravado character). Whole sections of his big soliloquy, “A Puzzlement” (missing an entire verse, by the way, although perhaps that was a mercy), went by as a jumble of garbled words.


L-R: Jose Llana and Ken Watanabe


Watanabe left the production after only four months, so on my second visit to the show (on August 4), I saw his replacement, Jose Llana, who had played Lun Tha in the last Broadway revival of the show in 1996. I still think of Llana as a jeune premier, but he is now 39, significantly older than Brynner was when he created the role. Llana has a beautiful voice (not actually a requirement for this role which is half spoke-sung), and English is his native tongue, so there were no linguistic issues. He is a smart and capable actor, with a nice sense of comedy, who just lacks that last dollop of regal charisma. He’s youthful-looking for his age, which makes him feel like a “boy king,” standing up to his English nanny, rather than a virile ruler finding himself fascinated by an intellectually curious, non-subservient woman. Watanabe had more of a primal sexuality, a sense of danger that did not come naturally to Llana.

Casting of roles via designated national origins has, in the past, been contentious, but the presence of the Japanese Watanabe and the Filipino Llana went unremarked upon, despite what I think is a troubling and perhaps unthinking essentialism. As long as the actor is of Asian heritage, it seems, it’s fine for him to play a Thai character, despite the fact that many Thai people would be horrified at the idea of an actor from Japan (for which there is still a great deal of animosity even 70 years after World War II) playing their esteemed monarch. Thais do not identify Japanese as members of their own “race,” the way that white Americans might feel about the British. I understand that there may not be an actor of Thai descent with the proper experience and name recognition to anchor a major and expensive Broadway produc­tion. I also understand that the casting issue is much more complicated than racial identification: affirmative action is a critical and admirable goal, and perhaps the opportunity for actors of Asian descent of any nationality to be cast in roles that have traditionally been cast with white actors trumps concerns about the appropriateness of actors from one Asian region playing those of another.

And so we come to Kelli O’Hara. Over the years, I have found myself in an increasingly small circle of skeptics when it comes to this popular performer. O’Hara has a lovely voice, no question. In fact, she may be the finest vocalist to perform Anna in any Broadway production (Lawrence was notoriously pitchy). She’s an intelligent actress who clearly thinks about motivation and subtext. She has technical limita­tions—her British accent was variable, and she tends to fall back on repetitive vocal cadences—but she projects words beautifully and has ready access to a host of rich emotions (she’s a great crier). What she doesn’t quite have, in my estimation, is star quality: that elusive blend of idiosyncrasy, brash confidence and outsize personality that has historically defined the great musical theater performers. The giants of the golden age of Broadway—Lawrence, Mary Martin, Bert Lahr, Ethel Merman, Judy Holliday, Alfred Drake, Gwen Verdon, Robert Preston, Elaine Stritch, Carol Channing, and so on—were all, in their way, highly unusual performers, “freaks” in the word used so tellingly by seminal theater historian Ethan Mordden. O’Hara is an accomplished but careful actress who has spent a significant portion of her career in revivals of works that were written for big, honking show-biz stars. When she has been called on to play broad or daffy comedy (as in The Pajama Game and Bells Are Ringing), the results have been unconvincing. But even her praised turn in South Pacific fell flat for me, as does her Anna Leonowens. She doesn’t have a preexisting outsized personality upon which she can build a larger-than-life character, and so she always seems a bit wan. I didn’t believe for a minute that her character’s nickname in South Pacific was “Knucklehead Nellie”; she seemed far too sensible. And in The King and I, I don’t buy her as a woman so outrageously head­strong and reckless that she’d pack up her young son, move to a distant country and fearlessly go head to head with its king, in the presence of his entire court.


The King and I Kelli O'Hara and Ken Watanabe Bartlett Sher: Director Credit Photo: Paul Kolnik nyc 212-362-7778
Ken Watanabe and Kelli O’Hara


This miscasting has real implications for the meaning of the show. O’Hara’s Anna comes off, from the very start, as sensitive and prudent. Her exchanges with Watanabe’s King were characterized by a calmly condescending tone. He, on the other hand, was slightly buffoonish, whereas the King is meant to be well read and scientifically minded (in the first shot of the film, Brynner is discovered sitting on his throne reading a book). The result was that, for the first time in my experience of seeing this show, I felt like it really was the smug, imperialist piece it is sometimes accused of being, a colonialist take on how an everyday, sensible Western woman saved an entire kingdom of childlike people thanks to good old Enlightenment values. O’Hara’s deeply sincere and self-actualized Anna is not at all what Hammerstein intended. Instead, I think The King and I is meant to be a titanic clash of two powerful, obstinate, smart, volatile personalities who are initially mired in their own prejudices but must eventually learn something about each other and themselves. This intense disruption of their respective status quos is traumatic, exciting, and, much to their surprise, more than a little sexy. One of the iconic photos of the original production, found on the cover of many LP reissues of the cast recording, is of Brynner and Lawrence facing off with their hands on their hips, their expressions a mix of fury, defiance, and a detectable twinkle in their eyes. I don’t think O’Hara has the chops to pull off that kind of explosive personality; she can only play sensitive and knowing. She simply doesn’t have a baseline of smoldering volatility on which to build a convincingly aggressive—and therefore vitally flawed—Anna. And so the whole work felt lessened to me, too much about themes and moral lessons and not enough about imperfect, charismatic people in conflict, which is always more interest­ing. This is not a play about civilized West vs. developing East. It’s a play about two stubborn, difficult people who get turned on by each other’s intelligence and ideals and learn how to forge a working relationship. That’s why the climax of the show, the grand polka at the end of “Shall We Dance?,” works so well. It’s a culmination of all of the thrilling con­flict between the two characters, crystallized in a moment of ecstatic release in which dance, as always in musicals, represents sublimated sexual energy. It’s bogus history but electrifying theater.



I have a big, heretical problem with the ending of The King and I. I believe the work is well enough known that spoiler alerts are unnec­essary, but please be warned forthwith. When Anna and the King’s final fight ends with what seems to be a final break, Anna decides to leave Bangkok but is persuaded to stay when she learns that the King has suddenly become deathly ill. His “heart has broken,” we are led to understand, due to the irreconcilable differences between his desire to adapt progressive policies and his need to assert his authority. My problem is that I think the King’s death feels like a convenient plot device, a deus ex machina that has not previously been foreshadowed and that, indeed, feels out of character. That such a physically and intellectually vital man should be brought literally to death because of cognitive dissonance feels vaguely preposterous. “Maybe he had cancer, or a weak heart,” friends have said to me. All right, then at least give him a commented-upon cough or two in the first 90 percent of the play so that we don’t feel like the final twist was an act of authorial desperation to bring the play to an emotional conclusion. It doesn’t help that the King’s death with a weeping Anna at his side has no basis in reality. Interestingly, the film’s screenwriter, Ernest Lehman, came up with a much more interesting, believable and nuanced alternative finale in the first draft of the screenplay. The King and Anna reach an uneasy rapprochement, and she stays in Bangkok for many more years. We see a montage of late-night debates, arguments that dissolve in laughter, eyes rolled as dozens of new royal children are added to her classroom every year, and, finally, a tearful farewell as Chulalongkorn graduates and Anna sees that her work is done. “Nice try,” said Hammerstein, and the original ending stayed in the film. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a tearjerker, but it always feels manipulative in a way that Hammerstein usually avoids.

Great theater never dates, and Rodgers and Hammerstein at their considerable best are never less than enthralling. The King and I may be a work of its era, but the deep roots of Hammerstein’s craft and the imperishable gift of Rodgers’ art, not to mention the insight that all politics are psychological, mean that the personal and partisan clashes of Anna and the King will live forever. The underlying themes and structures of their work: the need constantly to redefine identity and community, synthesis as the key to progress, tolerance as a universal virtue—all of these are as relevant as ever. And all, incidentally, are central to the current season’s smash hit, Hamilton, playing—wait for it—at the Richard Rodgers Theater. In this era when American hegemony is fast collapsing and Asia is ascendant, the context in which The King and I was written may be retro, but Lincoln Center Theater’s production reminds us that its insight into human nature is timeless.