King and I

Jose Llana and The King and Laura Michelle Kelly as Anna in Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I.
Production photos by Matthew Murphy
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East Meets West

King and I video

The King and I is a musical portrait of two fascinating historical figures—Anna Leonowens and King Mongkut of Siam (Thailand). It chronicles a turning point in Siam's history in the 1860s when the threat of Western imperialism casts a shadow over the country. King Mongkut must find a way for his country to embrace modernism while still honoring it traditions and maintaining its independence. When the king hires an Englishwoman, Anna Leonowens, to provide a western education for his children and wives, they are both challenged to understand one another amidst cultural differences. But who were these two protagonists who made such an impact in each other's lives?


King and I
Anna Leonowens

The real Anna Leonowens was a multicultural, multilingual woman with a comprehensive understanding of Eastern religion and culture from her years growing up in India and traveling throughout Asia. She was born on 1831 in India to a poor British soldier and an Anglo-Indian woman. Anna's father died before she was born and her mother remarried an Irish soldier. During her teenage years the family spent time in Yemen, and she later traveled with her missionary tutors to Egypt and Palestine. The family returned to India, where Anna married her childhood sweetheart, Thomas Leon Owens, a civilian clerk in the army.

King and I
Laura Michelle Kelly as Anna and the Royal Children

After living in Australia for a number of years, Thomas, Anna and their two children moved to Singapore, where Thomas became ill and died. At 28, Anna was left an impoverished widow. In order to support her children, she started a school for children of British officers. It was not financially successful, but helped establish her reputation as a teacher.

Throughout this time, Anna made efforts to conceal her racial background, believing it would protect her children, who would have greater opportunities if their mixed-race heritage was unknown. She presented herself as an English aristocrat, which would serve her well with her next teaching endeavor.

In 1862, Anna accepted an offer to teach the children and wives of King Mongkut of Siam. She served in the court, both as an educator and the language secretary to the king for almost 6 years. She left Siam in 1867, a year before the king died.

King and I
Laura Michelle Kelly as Anna

A few years later she moved to New York City where she began writing articles for magazines about her experiences in Siam. These were expanded and became her first published book, The English Governess at the Siamese Court. It brought her immediate fame, but also greater scrutiny for what was believed to be a "sensationalized" version of court life and an unflattering portrayal of the king's character. She wrote a second book, The Romance of the Harem, that was published in 1873 and which spotlighted the slave girl Tuptim. These works were never embraced in Thailand for what was believed to be an inaccurate portrayal of the king and his court.

King and I
Manna Nichols and Kavin Panmeechao

Anna travelled throughout the United States giving lectures about her writing and teaching experiences, and advocating for western education and women's rights. She settled in Canada where she actively promoted educational initiatives for women and joined the suffragette movement. She died in 1915 at the age of 83.


King and I
King Mongkut and son Chulalongkorn

King Mongkut was born in 1804 and groomed to be king, but when his father died, the royal accession council chose his older and more experience half-brother to reign. At 20 years old, Mongkut became a Buddhist monk and took a vow of poverty. As a monk he learned firsthand about life in Siam, something that was unusual for a ruler at that time. He also met missionaries and foreigners, from whom he learned a great deal about technology and science. He became proficient in English and accomplished in science.

King and I
Jose Llana and The King and Laura Michelle Kelly as Anna

In 1851 at the age of 47, his half-brother died and he Mongkut became king. During his reign he initiated a policy of learning about the West, and became adept at modernizing and adapting Siam to a world dominated by Western imperialist power. His innovations included bringing western teachers into the country, promoting the construction of canals, roads and ships, hiring Europeans as political advisors and western soldiers to train Siamese troops in western-style combat, and he signed treaties opening up trade with European countries.

An exceptional astronomer, he invited dignitaries to join him on the coast of Siam to witness a solar eclipse in 1868. Unfortunately, while camped, he and his son Chulalangkorn contracted malaria. His son survived, but the king died.

Chulalongkorn succeeded King Mongkut to the throne and expanded his father’s reforms. Chulalongkorn ruled for 42 years, introducing significant social reforms, including the gradual abolition of slavery.

© 2018 Lincoln Center Theater Open Stages Education Program


Dates: February 27 – March 11, 2018
Tickets: $29 and up
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Performance sponsor:
Omaha Steaks International

Media Partner:
Spectrum Reach




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