In this romantic musical, the boy-meets-girl plot is woven into the historical context of British Imperialism in Asia. Thus it is also the story of a clash between cultures and the dynamics between Great Britain and "oriental" peoples. The King of Siam invites an English governess to come to his country and teach the children of his many wives about the modern world. Yet he himself resists changing his traditional role as benevolent patriarchal dictator until the attractive and bold young governess wins his heart and his respect. It is his son Prince Chulalongkorn who will carry on the King's program of scientific modernization of Siam after the King's death in the final scene. Oscar Hammerstein based the play on a novel by Margaret Landon, Anna and the King of Siam. He and composer Richard Rodgers transformed it into one of the most memorable musicals they produced in their long association together, departing from the more typical "musical comedy" with a more serious treatment of their subject. Yul Brynner played the king in the Broadway production and then in the film version with co-star Deborah Kerr, whose singing was dubbed. Over the years Brynner performed the role over 4,000 times. The film was a box-office success and is still considered one of the better musical films of the twentieth century. The play's enduring popularity was verified in 1996, when film star Lou Diamond Phillips assumed the title role for a successful Broadway revival.
In Bangkok, Siam (which would later come to be known as Thailand), in 1862 a strong-willed, widowed schoolteacher, Anna Leonowens, arrives at the request of the King of Siam to tutor his many children. Anna's young son, Louis, fears the severe countenance of the King's "Prime Minister" the Kralahome, but Anna refuses to be intimidated. She teaches her son to "Whistle a Happy Tune" whenever he is afraid. The Kralahome escorts them to the palace; he rides on a carried chair, while Anna and her son follow on foot behind him. Anna is bristling to confront the King about his broken promise regarding a house for Louis and herself outside of the palace walls. As they await an audience, the King receives a gift from the king of Burma, a lovely girl named Tuptim. The King sends her off to his harem of wives, dismissing the young man who delivered the gift, Lun Tha, who has fallen deeply in love with Tuptim. The King turns to go, so Anna marches up to him, demanding to be heard. She is taken aback by the King's dominance, as he claps his hands and orders her to "stand here" to meet the royal children. Anna plans to depart on the waiting ship if she does not get what has been promised to her, but she is so taken with the children that she decides she will stay. She announces that she will pursue the topic of the house later.
For the next several weeks, Anna proceeds to teach the children songs, proverbs, and poems all having to do with longing for a home. The King recognizes her subterfuge and refuses to supply the house. The handful of wives who also have been allowed to partake of Anna's teaching continually refer to Anna as "Sir." When she asks them why, Lady Thiang, the King's number one wife, explains "because you scientific, not lowly like woman." Tuptim reveals her secret love for Lun Tha to Anna, and Anna sings "Hello, Young Lovers," in sympathy for the star-crossed couple.
The King is quite pleased with Anna's teaching. His eldest son Prince Chulalongkorn has some concerns, however. The young prince asks his father when he will know he knows everything and thus be ready to rule. This prompts the King to sing "A Puzzlement," in which he expresses his own doubts about how best to bring justice and knowledge to his people. In the meantime, Anna confirms that she loves the children, singing to them "Getting to Know You," a song about the joys of new friendship. Then she launches into a new lesson— geography—having just received a more accurate map from England. The new map shows Siam in its proper size in relation to other countries. She has to end her lesson prematurely, though, when Prince Chulalongkorn refuses to believe that Siam is so small and that there is such a substance as snow. His father rescues Anna by ordering the children to believe her.
The Kralahome demands that Anna cease encouraging the King to modernize; he foresees danger ahead because he thinks that the King will not be able to lead effectively if he loses his authoritarian style. When Anna disregards this warning, the Kralahome retorts by predicting she'll become the King's slave. As if to confirm this, the King sends for...
(The entire section is 1330 words.)