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True Story! Getting To Know You: The Story Behind The King and I

Welcome to the very first post of our True Story Series!

This series is dedicated to my love of theatre history and will focus on sharing the true stories behind many well-known musicals.

We are starting off with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I which inspired this series.

Recently, a live filming of the London production of The Lincoln Center Theater’s revival was available for free streaming on BroadwayHD. This show is one of my favourites, and after watching I sat down to prepare a blog post on it. It was while I was preparing this piece that I found myself falling down an internet ‘rabbit-hole’ discovering the real story of Anna Leonowens and King Mongkut.

The King and I is the fifth musical by legendary team Rodgers and Hammerstein and was inspired by Margaret Landon’s 1944 novel Anna and the King of Siam. The novel was based off of the memoirs of Leonowens, whose story has been adapted several times since Landon’s retelling.

Naturally, the real story lacks some of the magic of this Golden Age musical masterpiece.

Anna Leonowens was an educator, social activist, and author known for her memoirs, mainly The English Governess at the Siamese Court. This is the memoir on which Margaret Landon based her novel, and where the central plot to The King and I came from. In 1862, Anna Leonowens went to Siam (now Thailand) to serve as a governess to the royal family of King Mongkut where she worked for five years.

As it turns out, historians have picked apart Leonowens’ memoir, finding a myriad of inaccuracies. The memoir is full of exaggerations and shows a misunderstanding of Siamese culture. However, what it captures truthfully is the ‘culture shock’ between the parties involved.

Please keep in mind that I have not read her memoir, nor am I a historian, I am simply relaying the facts I have found.

Before becoming the King, Mongkut spent 27 years as a Buddest monk. During his time at the monastery, he studied many subjects and was an extremely well-educated man. As king, he worked hard on social and education reform, which led to the hiring of Leonowens. King Mongkut is remembered for opening Siam to international trade, providing education to women and children in the palace, and predicting a solar eclipse.

As a response to Leonowens’ claims, Seni and Kukrit Pramoj wrote The King of Siam Speaks before passing it on to Abbot Low Moffat, who used the manuscript to write the biography Mongkut The King of Siam.

I feel like I would need more information and probably a deeper historical understanding to form a large opinion on this, so all I can do is pass it for you to decide for yourself.

However, I will say this.

Both King Mongkut and Anna Leonowens were formidable people who were each trailblazers in their own right.

I hope that this piece inspired you to take another look behind your favourite shows. You never know what true stories you may be missing out on!

Stay tuned for next month when I’ll be discussing the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning musical Hamilton!

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