Some things in life are just classics. Like khaki shorts, cheese puffs, Taco Tuesdays, and Seinfeld reruns. And the musical, The King and I. Written by the famed musical duo Rodgers and Hammerstein in the 1950s, the show has a certain timeless appeal that just never grows old. It has seen several successful revivals over the years, and its latest big comeback is a traveling Broadway production arriving at the Saenger Theatre tomorrow.
“The story is still popular today because it’s genius writing. Like Shakespeare is ageless, so is Rodgers’s and Hammerstein’s work! The songs should always keep being sung,” says Laura Michelle Kelly, who plays Anna in the show. “We have had three or four generations of families come and say they loved seeing it with their grandparents and now they are watching with their grandchildren. It’s a memory they get to share forever.”
The King and I is based on a real-life story, first described in the 1944 novel Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon. In Bangkok in the 1860s, the King of Siam decides that he needs to keep up with modern times by recruiting someone to teach his children and several wives English, as well as the ways of the Western world. This embodiment of modernization appears in the form of Anna Leonowens (played by Kelly), a prideful and progressive British schoolteacher who comes to show the King how things should be done. Though the two butt heads constantly, they also seem to share a mutual love for one another that neither one of them can own up to.
Kelly, who has been working in the theater biz since she was 11, feels that her role as Anna is one of her most exciting and challenging roles yet. “The show is epic,” she says. “I love going to Siam every day on a huge boat and telling this story. It’s a role you just can’t sit back and relax in; it’s compelling and thrilling.”
But what is it about this musical that so endears it to cast and audience members alike? For starters, there’s the music, which Kelly describes as “soaring, lyrical, and memorable.” These are recognizable songs—songs like “Getting to Know You” and “Whistle a Happy Tune”—that you’ve probably known your whole life, whether or not you knew they came from The King and I.
And then there’s the relationship between Anna and the King, which seems to constantly straddle the line between love and hate. This makes for a lot of witty banter and an entertaining on-stage dynamic. “It’s constant teamwork between me and Jose Llana, who is incredible as the King,” says Kelly. “We have a lot of fun goading each other as our characters.”
With such a beloved musical, it’s easy for the audience to get caught up in the show, and Kelly draws a lot of her inspiration for her role from that. “I find the audiences’ reactions interesting. They change depending on which city we go to,” says Kelly. “The dynamics of the audience are as unique as the personality of the city itself.”
And how does New Orleans measure up? “I love New Orleans!” says Kelly, who travels all around the country with all her theater work, but is a New Orleans resident herself. “I have totally fallen in love with the city and the people, and I’m so happy to call it my home.”
The King and I is 66 years old this year, and still going strong. Not only does the musical’s allure stand the test of time, but it also has a powerful message which remains relevant in today’s political climate. “The language is still as prevalent today as it was in 1863 when the real-life Anna was fighting for women’s rights—when there was segregation and fear of different cultures and oppression in countries,” says Kelly. “That’s still happening now, and it’s a message that we seem to need to keep telling for change to come.”
Come to the Saenger to see, and listen, and learn for yourself.
“And,” Kelly adds, “it also gives us hope for a happy ending. We all need that!”
The King and I plays at the Saenger from Tuesday, November 14 thru Sunday, November 19. Tuesday thru Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday at 8:00 p.m.; Saturday at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.; Sunday at 1:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. For more information or to buy tickets, click HERE.