We just saw “The King and I” at Playhouse Square and the memories came flooding back.
This Rogers and Hammerstein classic was the very first musical I chose to direct back when I taught school outside of Philadelphia in the Lower Merion District. We had scads of money and a beautifully equipped auditorium plus a plethora of talented students.
The thing about theater is this: The performances are memorable, of course, but the real stories come from behind the scenes from read-through all the way through back stage until closing night. Those are the things that rattled through my mind as I watched at Playhouse Square.
As already mentioned, it was my first musical and they are difficult because it’s not just acting, it’s singing, it’s dancing, it’s major set and costume changes and multiple lighting cues, all with a huge cast. Daunting. Luckily, the district had an affable choreographer and built-in carpenter and a lighting expert, so all I had to do was, well… everything else.
My first near-disaster began with the costumer. Clearly, for a period show of this nature costumes had to be rented. I found a lovely older gentleman, Isak Perlman’s cousin, who was loaded with enthusiasm about the show. He had all the costumes and all we needed was to send the measurements. Content that this was a done deal, I moved on to other aspects, only he forgot us. When I didn’t hear from him I wasn’t particularly worried until we got a little less than two weeks away. When I called him, he had no recollection of having spoken to us! Lesson learned: Get everything in writing and even then, always double-check. He was able to produce most of the important costumes and from there we improvised.
I had different problems on stage, however. My Lun Tha could not sing, at least not on key. Imagine this: “We kiss in the sha-dooooow,” about a half-key off. It was painful. I had to put another young man in the wings near where the scene was blocked to sing it correctly, hoping my dear Lun Tha would hear it and follow suit. Even that was minor compared to the other problem with him. He was quite taken with his on stage counterpart, Tuptim. The actress was a beautiful, poised, and luckily professional-acting young lady. She was petite. He was tall and gangly. On stage they struck romantic poses and kissed according to the script. She endured. He was really “into it” and did his best to keep the “act” up. During rehearsals they would exit and exclamations of, “Keep your hands off me, you creep!” could be heard across the auditorium.
My Lady Thiang, my Mrs. Anna, and my King were all wonderful and the production was unfolding very well until about the same time I discovered that we had no costumes. The principal of the high school called me down to the office to let me know that my King, Raymond, had stopped coming to school and if he did not start coming, he would not be allowed to perform. Great!
Come to find out, Raymond hated getting up in the mornings. He lived with his grandmother, who had run out of strength to deal with him. I read him the riot act! I threatened that if he was not in school the next day he was going to come live with me and, doggone it, I would get him up and get him there so that he would not ruin this for everyone else who had worked so hard. That scared him like crazy and he was not only in school every day through the performances, but he was also there early as the compromise was that he had to check in with me before school each day. Sadly, once the show closed he stopped coming and did not graduate.
Then there’s the happy time. That’s the exact moment when a director knows the show is going to be wonderful.
I was walking up the aisle away from the stage and suddenly I realized that there was energy, there was excitement, there was a real show up there on the stage. I scurried to the backstage area and grabbed my student tech director, Tom. It was right before the “Shall We Dance” number. Our set included a movable pagoda that was set center stage for that number. Anna and the King polkaed around it. Instead, after their first revolution Tom and I appeared in full Polish polka style! It broke one of my rules about not horsing around during rehearsal, but it felt mighty good as it was a sort of victory dance.
The show was a success and I went on to direct other productions at Lower Merion before moving back home to Ohio. It was a beginning and a memorable one at that. I went on to direct nine other musicals and more than 100 plays. Over the years, many lessons were learned and I’m pretty sure I’m finally figuring it all out!
Pat Gorske Price graduated from Oberlin High School and taught English and drama there for 12 years. In retirement she continues to enjoy writing and theater. Comments can be made to firstname.lastname@example.org.