Theatre Lover's Journal for Sept. 1999

Yul Brynner: Return of the King

by John Kenrick

Yul Brynner came back to Broadway this August. Actually, it two blocks east of Broadway. No matter – it was still the best show in town.

Over 15,000 jubilant movie buffs packed Bryant Park on the evening of August 23rd to see The King and I in its full Cinemascope glory -- part of a series of free summer screenings. This crowd was serious about musicals. When the names of Rodgers and Hammerstein appeared on screen, a roar went up that literally echoed all the way to Times Square.

In an age of multiplex theatres and videos, we can forget how wide-screen films were meant to be seen. On a typical TV screen, Anna's first ride through Bangkok seems like a lavish bit of filler. On a screen three stories high and half a block wide, it is dazzling. The March of the Siamese Children, charming in the intimacy of one’s den, is magnificent fun when several thousand people enjoy it with you.

And then there is the greatest spectacle of all – Yul Brynner's unforgettable King. Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote The King and I for Gertrude Lawrence, but by the time the film was made it belonged to Brynner. Much as I adore Deborah Kerr (and her unseen alter vox, Marni Nixon), it is the Yul's King who makes this film irresistible. The audience in Bryant Park affirmed this, reacting to his scenes as if they were at a live performance. When Brynner slowly placed his hand on Kerr's waist during "Shall We Dance," the place went wild.

They also went wild for the songs. This score has always been a special favorite of mine, and it may well be Rodgers & Hammerstein's best. What a thrill it was to find myself surrounded by thousands of people sitting beneath the stars and singing along to "Whistle a Happy Tune," "Getting to Know You" and "Hello Young Lovers." It was the kind of moment that makes you more hopeful about this thing called civilization.

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