Right now, PBS is helpfully reminding us of a key fact: Musicals can be very different. Very.
Last Friday (Nov. 1), the network had the relentlessly shallow “42nd Street.” It had sharp songs, zesty dancers … and a plot so thin that some (but not all) actors gave campy performances.
And this Friday (9 p.m. Nov. 8)? “The King and I” (shown here) is pretty much the opposite. It has some flaws, but dead-serious intentions.
Both are part of TV’s current musicals surge, outlined in stories at the left. Now for a few “King” comments:
Oscar Hammerstein had already shown strong feelings about culture clashes and biases. In 1949, his Pulitzer Prize-winning “South Pacific” included “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught,” a song about prejudice. When the show reached Atlanta, it was denounced by some Georgia legislators.
Then British actress Gertrude Lawrence sent him the memoirs of Anna Leonowens. In the 1860s, while Civil War was raging in the U.S., this Englishwoman was the tutor for the wives and children of the king of Siam.
The result, which opened in 1951, was a natural for Hammerstein. He and Richard Rodgers filled the show with hummable hits – “Shall We Dance,” “Hello, Young Lovers,” “Whistle a Happy Tune,” etc. But at the core, this is a serious show.
It deplores despotism, but makes the king easy to empathize with – so easy that audiences considered Yul Brynner (as the king) the star, not Lawrence. With the original run, tours and a Broadway revival, he would do the show 4,625 times.
Now we get the recent Lincoln Center revival, a lush production starring Kelli O’Hara and Ken Watanabe.
Modern viewers will have trouble with the length. It runs two hours, 40 minutes … including a 16-minute show-within-a-show, re-doing “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” as “The Small House of Uncle Thomas.”
They’ll also have trouble with the accent Watanabe uses. It may be accurate or authentic, but it also tips the show’s balance when we can’t tell what the king said.
But O’Hara is terrific, as are the supporting players. Sturdy, serious and sometimes tragic, this offers a quick counterpoint to “42nd Street” silliness.