Comme Guys and Dolls (), qui avait ouvert plus tôt dans la saison, The King and I de Richard Rodgers et Oscar Hammerstein II a été un succès immédiat et est devenu du jour au lendemain un classique. Il est devenu le musical de la saison avec la plus longue série et celui qui comptera le plus de revivals. Bien que le musical ait été accueilli par de très bonnes critiques, il est surprenant de noter leurs réserves sur la partition et sur la performance de Gertrude Lawrence qui jouait l’enseignante anglaise Anna Leonowens qui arrive au Siam pour enseigner aux enfants du roi du pays (Yul Brynner).
Mais la performance de Lawrence en tant qu’Anna peut être considéré comme un sommet dans une carrière de sommets. Elle a remporté le Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical pour son interprétation chaleureuse, malicieuse et charmante. Elle est décédée pendant la série à Broadway et The King and I fut un chant du cygne glorieux pour l’interprète glamour qui au cours de sa carrière a sublimé des chansons de Noel Coward, George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Kurt Weill, et Rodgers et Hammerstein dans une série de spectacles légendaires.
Although the part of the King was only a supporting role to Lawrence's Anna, Hammerstein and Rodgers thought it essential that a well-known theatrical actor play it. The obvious choice was Rex Harrison, who had played the King in the movie, but he was booked, as was Noël Coward. Alfred Drake, the original Curly in Oklahoma!, made contractual demands which were deemed too high. With time running short before rehearsals, finding an actor to play the King became a major concern. Mary Martin, the original Nellie Forbush in South Pacific, suggested that her co-star in a 1946 musical set in China, Lute Song, try for the role. Rodgers recounted the audition of the Russian-American performer, Yul Brynner: "They told us the name of the first man and out he came with a bald head and sat cross-legged on the stage. He had a guitar and he hit his guitar one whack and gave out with this unearthly yell and sang some heathenish sort of thing, and Oscar and I looked at each other and said, "Well, that's it." "
Brynner termed Rodgers' account "very picturesque, but totally inaccurate". He recalled that as an established television director (in CBS's Starlight Theatre, for example), he was reluctant to go back on the stage. His wife, his agent, and Martin finally convinced him to read Hammerstein's working script, and once he did, he was fascinated by the character of the King and was eager to do the project. In any case, Brynner's fierce, mercurial, dangerous, yet surprisingly sensitive King was an ideal foil for Lawrence's strong-willed, yet vulnerable Anna, and when the two finally came together in "Shall We Dance?", where the King hesitantly touches Anna's waist, the chemistry was palpable.
Pre-rehearsal preparations began in the autumn of 1950. Hammerstein had wanted Logan to direct and co-write the book, as he had for South Pacific, but when Logan declined, Hammerstein decided to write the entire book himself. Instead of Logan, the duo hired as director John van Druten, who had worked with Lawrence years earlier. The costume designer, Sharaff, wryly pointed the press to the incongruity of a Victorian British governess in the midst of an exotic court: "The first-act finale of The King and I will feature Miss Lawrence, Mr. Brynner, and a pink satin ball gown." Mielziner's set plan was the simplest of the four Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals he had worked on, with one main set (the throne room), a number of front-stage drops (for the ship and Anna's room, for example) and the entire stage cleared for "The Small House of Uncle Thomas".
The show was budgeted at $250,000 (US$2,240,000 in 2013 dollars) making it the most expensive Rodgers and Hammerstein production to that point, and prompting some mockery that costs exceeded even their expensive flop Allegro. Investors included Hammerstein, Rodgers, Logan, Martin, Billy Rose and Hayward The children who were cast as the young princes and princesses came from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds, including Puerto Rican or Italian, though none were Thai. Johnny Stewart was the original Prince Chulalongkorn but left the cast after only three months, replaced by Ronnie Lee. Sandy Kennedy was Louis, and Broadway veteran Larry Douglas played Lun Tha.
Shortly before rehearsals began in January 1951, Rodgers had the first Tuptim, Doretta Morrow, sing the entire score to Lawrence, including Lawrence's own songs. Lawrence listened calmly, but when she met Rodgers and Hammerstein the following day, she treated Rodgers coldly, apparently seeing the composer's actions as flaunting her vocal deficiencies. Hammerstein and Rodgers' doubts about whether Lawrence could handle the part were assuaged by the sheer force of her acting. James Poling, a writer for Collier's who was allowed to attend the rehearsals, wrote of Lawrence preparing "Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?": "She took the center of the barren stage wearing, for practice, a dirty muslin hoop over her slacks, with an old jacket thrown over her shoulders for warmth. She began rather quietly on the note, "Your servant! Your servant! Indeed I'm not your servant!" Then she gradually built the scene, slowly but powerfully, until, in a great crescendo, she ended prone on the floor, pounding in fury, and screaming, "Toads! Toads! Toads! All of your people are toads." When she finished, the handful of professionals in the theatre burst into admiring applause. "
At his first meeting with Sharaff, Brynner, who had only a fringe of hair, asked what he was to do about it. When told he was to shave it, Brynner was horror-struck and refused, convinced he would look terrible. He finally gave in during tryouts and put dark makeup on his shaved head. The effect was so well-received that it became Brynner's trademark.
Lawrence's health caused her to miss several rehearsals, though no one knew what was wrong with her. When the tryout opened in New Haven, Connecticut on February 27, 1951, the show was nearly four hours long. Lawrence, suffering from laryngitis, had missed the dress rehearsal, but managed to make it through the first public performance. The Variety critic noted that despite her recent illness she "slinks, acts, cavorts, and in general exhibits exceedingly well her several facets for entertaining", but the Philadelphia Bulletin printed that her "already thin voice is now starting to wear a great deal thinner". Leland Hayward came to see the show in New Haven and shocked Rodgers by advising him to close it before it went any further. Additionally, when the show left New Haven for Boston for more tryout performances, it was still at least 45 minutes too long. Gemze de Lappe, who was one of the dancers, recalled one cut that she regretted: "They took out a wonderful scene. Mrs. Anna's first entrance into the palace comes with a song in which she sings, "Over half a year I have been waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting outside your door." At the end she points her umbrella at him, or something like that, and the King says "Off with her head" or words to that effect, and the eunuchs pick her up and carry her off. The King says "Who, who, who?" with great satisfaction, and finds out that he has just thrown out the English schoolteacher. So he says, "Bring her back!" and she is ushered in ... we all loved it. "
This song, "Waiting", was a trio for Anna, the King, and the Kralahome (the King's prime minister). "Who Would Refuse?", the Kralahome's only solo, was also dropped. Left without a note to sing, Mervyn Vye abandoned the show and was replaced by John Juliano. "Now You Leave", a song for Lady Thiang (played by Dorothy Sarnoff in the original production), was also cut. After the cuts, Rodgers and Hammerstein felt that the first act was lacking something. Lawrence suggested that they write a song for Anna and the children. Mary Martin reminded them of a song that had been cut from South Pacific, "Suddenly Lucky". Hammerstein wrote a new lyric for the melody, and the resulting song became "Getting to Know You". "Western People Funny" and "I Have Dreamed" were also added in Boston.
Brynner regretted that there were not more tryout performances, feeling that the schedule did not give him an adequate opportunity to develop the complex role of the King. When he told this to Hammerstein and Rodgers, they asked what sort of performance they would get from him, and he responded, "It will be good enough, it will get the reviews."