Is ‘The King and I’ the most problematic musical of all time? Yes and No

The King and I

The King and I

Most lavish and exciting musical revival of 2018, so far? No contest: The King and I.

67 years on from its Broadway debut, whatever our differences elsewhere, I hoped there’d be one thing which we’d all agree on. The King and I is a timeless classic and this is a show of considerable quality. This is an evening of full-blown spectacle with swankingly grand West End production values and ranks as one of the most entertaining nights out at a theatre that I have had for quite some time.

An opinion confirmed when I took my seat at The London Palladium this week. Kelli O’ Hara, making her west end debut quietly commanded the stage and wrestled with the complex score and glorious melodies unfurled before me, which, for a theatre fan, is like finding the source of the Nile. The kids are gorgeous, the storytelling is delicate, forceful and ambiguous.

Anyway, this golden age musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein is about a 19th Century British widow who travels to Siam (now Thailand) to tutor its monarch’s many children; think of it as a more nuanced version of The Sound of Music. (interestingly, The King and I was written eight years before The Sound of Music)

I don’t expect you to watch it, obviously, but if you have the time and money, then do. It’s as funny, heart-warming and brilliantly structured as a musical can be. But the most remarkable thing is, major elements of it are now considered politically incorrect. Sure, it is dated, lengthy and teeters on imperial condescension. But for me it is about status, and the old embracing the new. The story and characters are racist in our time but isn’t in its own and occasionally becomes stuck and unable to transcend from that place. Hmm.

If nothing else, though, we can all agree that The King and I is flawed and certain elements are offensive. If you are someone who deplores slavery and colonialism, which is to say you are a sensible person, then well done. As the reviews quickly demonstrated, ranging from three to five stars. Certain critics, and columnists, have of course, leapt on the show and its ‘problematic’ material.

Reviewing the production, which won four Tonys in 2015 for the Broadway revival, the Guardian’s Michael Billington said The King and I “seems to endorse the idea of the civilising influence of the west on the barbaric east.” Time Out’s Andrzej Lukowski labelled the musical “kind of racist… like an elderly relative who you make allowances for on grounds of age.” Meanwhile, The Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish calls the show “one of the most problematic musicals of the 20th Century American canon.”

But do we write The King and I out of history? Surely it is better to present it in all its ‘problematic’ detail and fire the minds of the twenty-first century theatre goer so that such things don’t ever happen again. It should be planting new conversations.

Nevertheless, condemning the unease with which the discourse around this show is something that we should all be doing. The majority of the reviews, interviews and ‘buzz’ having been written by white men who would not dream of admitting that this great liberal democracy has afforded them all the most extraordinary privileges in life, including, an expensive private education, for which without it they would swiftly have no point, purpose, job or income, obviously. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

The King and I runs at the London Palladium until 29 September.