Article 126

Serendipitous Crown

Richard Chamberlain is the King of Siam and Jan Maxwell is Anna in the Hawaii Opera Theater production of 'The King and I.'
Richard Chamberlain is the King of Siam and Jan Maxwell is Anna in the Hawaii Opera Theater production of "The King and I."

Richard Chamberlain assumes the throne in Hawaii Opera Theatre's "The King and I"

Let's see - historical footnote becomes obscure memoir, becomes best-selling pseudo-historical romance novel, becomes Hollywood movie, becomes lavish Broadway musical, becomes musical Hollywood movie, becomes an animated cartoon, becomes another Hollywood fictionalization without music, becomes a Honolulu stage revival with enough behind-the-scenes drama to float another movie ... yeah, that's pretty much it.

"The King and I" is your basic classic East-meets-West, boy-meets-girl, king-meets-commoner rompingly joyous musicale that has about as much to do with reality as a Pentagon press briefing - the Thais have never been particularly happy about it - and so we make do with fictional reality, which is much more comforting.

Consider Anna Leonowens' actual description of King Mongkut of Siam:

"... A natural king among the dusky forms that surrounded him, the actual ruler of that semi-barbarous realm, and the prime contriver of its arbitrary policy. Black, but comely, robust, and vigorous, neck short and thick, nose large and nostrils wide, eyes inquisitive and penetrating, his was the massive brain proper to an intellect deliberate and systematic."

You're thinking of Doctor Kildare, right?

"They reached into the bottom of the barrel and got me!" stoutly insists actor Richard Chamberlain, who's stepping into the royal slippers vacated by Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa.

"Cary got a film and had to bow out. They were looking, of course, for an Asian actor to play it, partly because we're in Honolulu and partly because the king is an Asian guy. They tried a bunch of other people, and a lot of them were interested, but by that late time a lot of them were engaged in other projects."

As serendipity had it, they didn't have to look far. Chamberlain's long-term partner is "King and I" director Martin Rabbett, and so the production's sudden leading-manlessness was known around their Maui home. In a hiatus between a Irish boxing movie and - ironically - a miniseries set in Thailand, Chamberlain was not only available and game, he's a big fan of the original musical.

"It's a lovely part. I'm taking most of my cues from the script itself. And I'm reading as much as I can about the real King Mongkut - what an interesting life! He was a monk! Extraordinary! - but according to the script, which I have to honor, he adored being king. Being a high muckety-muck and everyone groveling on the floor, he loved all that, and he's really a spoiled brat at the beginning of the thing.

"He saw that it was necessary to bring some Western culture into Thailand, and so he brought in Anna, but he didn't realize that this Western woman would be such a force to be reckoned with. I understand that she influenced his son, Chulalongkorn, tremendously, and they were great friends and corresponded to the end of her life."

At this point in his career, Chamberlain doesn't need to pad his resume. What drew him to the role are two literary aspects to the story:

"The arc of the king's life once she gets there," said Chamberlain. "It sort of destroys him. He had not reckoned with the enormous force of modernizing Thailand, or the amazing difference in the cultural identity of women. That women were actually human beings was a very new thought for him.

"And there is the opening of his heart. He wasn't the least bit interested in love, the way we think of love. He just screwed around and had babies, maybe thousands of concubines eventually - he was very busy! - but suddenly here he is in the presence of a woman who considers herself his equal, certainly in intellectual abilities, and he's extremely attracted to her underneath all of his conditioning. He can't cope with it, and it destroys him."

Although Chamberlain didn't care much for the Jodie Foster/Chow Yun-Fat edition, he enjoyed Rex Harrison in the 1946 movie, although, "well, he was REX HARRISON as the king, and he flavored it with his own personality.

"And Yul Brynner, an extraordinarily exotic character, because he's an extraordinarily exotic person, and so he was 'Yul Brynner As ...,' and now I'm 'Richard Chamberlain As ...,' and I won't be able to help flavoring it with my own personality. I would love to dramatize his inner turmoil a bit more emotionally than I thought Yul did. But I think Yul's performance was practically definitive."

Age-wise, Chamberlain is actually closer to the real King Mongkut, who was in his 60s. "I'm not going to tell you how old I am, but if you look it up, I'm 72," said Chamberlain, rather gallantly.

But all productions of "The King and I" open in the shadow of Yul Brynner's shiny dome. Neither Rex Harrison or Chow Yun-Fat shaved their heads, but neither of them became musical icons either.

"That's just Yul! The real king had a full and glorious head of hair. But people keep asking, 'Is Richard going to shave his head? Is Richard going to shave his head?' Well, NO!

"All you can do is make yourself look as Asian as possible, and there are certain makeup tricks you can do, but we didn't want to go as far as gluing on prosthetics. As far as 'acting' Asian - I don't know, you just do it. I noticed there's something a bit staccato about the speech patterns in Thailand, the movements in the art forms and dance ... something a bit angular."

Not just as an Asian, but as a royal Asian who is master of all he surveys, and as a royal Asian who is a legend throughout the world, do you find yourself posing?

"Oh, my God, yes!" - chuckling - "I hate to admit it! And I often surprise myself by the way I move when I'm in character. Absolutely! Everyone falling at your feet, it's everybody's secret dream."

Richard Chamberlain Online