When staging a revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic musical “The King and I” for 21st Century audiences, one decision for a director to make is as obvious and expected as Anna wearing a hoop skirt:
Pictured above: Pedro Ka’awaloa and Angela Baumgardner in ‘The King and I.’
You don’t cast white people in the Asian roles.
I like the diplomatic tone that Shelley Butler, the restaging director of the national tour making a stop at Fresno’s Saroyan Theatre, takes when she’s talking about the mindset at the time of the show’s creators when it opened on Broadway in the early 1950s.
“They thought about the casting in a way that we would not find remotely appropriate,” she says in a phone interview.
It’s a given, then: In the acclaimed 2015 revival, originally directed by Bartlett Sher, all of the characters from Siam are played by Asian actors.
Rodgers and Hammerstein were politically forward at the time, so drastic changes weren’t needed for a revival. The beloved songs “Getting to Know You” and “Shall We Dance” remain, and even “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” which some over the years have seen as culturally insensitive, is still there, albeit restaged. There are other gentle updates and subtle revisions to this “King and I,” mostly in terms of tone and nuance.
One is an effort not to exoticize the residents of Siam (the modern-day Thailand) through the costumes and sets. These are real people on stage, not fantasy stock characters in a Victorian-era adventure novel.
Another is to dig even deeper into the role of Anna (played by Angela Baumgardner), who travels to Siam to serve as governess to the children of the King (played by Pedro Ka’awaloa), and also the role of Lady Thiang (DeAnna Choi), the King’s chief wife.
“I’m the mother of an 8-year-old,” Butler says. “I started really thinking about Anna as a mother having to support her family. I was impressed when I read the text with her tenacity and independence. It’s impossible as a mom not to burrow into these strong central female characters.”
In his New York Times review of the Lincoln Center revival, Ben Brantley noted that Sher, the original director, was no strong-armed revisionist. “He works from within vintage material, coaxing shadowy emotional depths to churn up a surface that might otherwise seem shiny and slick,” he wrote.
I jumped at the opportunity to talk with Butler, rather than one of the actors in the tour (though I’m sure they’re quite interesting), because of her role as “restaging director.” That isn’t a title with which I’m familiar.
That’s because a Broadway production’s associate director often takes the helm of a second national tour such as this one and retains that credit. (A first national tour usually goes out with an Actors Equity cast and plays in larger cities, and the second tour goes out with a non-Equity cast and plays in medium-sized cities.) But Butler — whose stellar resume includes directing “A Doll’s House, Part 2” at South Coast Repertory — wasn’t connected with the Broadway production.
Instead, Sher asked Butler to take on the task.
“I think the essence of it is essentially the same as the original,” she says of the tour. “Obviously I have the outline of the original blocking. I try first to get inside the original intent. I read the musical fresh and look at what I connect to as well.”
The original New York production starred Kelli O’Hara, Ken Watanabe and Ruthie Ann Miles. As restaging director, Butler cast the actors in the touring version. She says her cast of 33 actors is top-notch — and some could be breakout Broadway stars in the future.
Butler has experience restaging tours, including “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” for a Japanese production. Though she wouldn’t want to spend all her time restaging other people’s work, it has a certain appeal.
“It’s using different muscles,” she says. “In some ways it’s sort of freeing to have this sort of outline and then color within it.”
One aspect of “The King and I” that really speaks to her is how the show can speak to modern politics and the divisiveness in the U.S. today. The depiction of clashing cultures and the show’s “journey toward understanding” is important. To her, that’s key.
“The simple gesture of getting to know you, actually knowing what someone else is thinking, is so important,” she says.