The King and I: in conversation with Helen George

Interview by Jasper Rees

The King and I is the most sumptuous musical of them all. One of the great classic musicals from the “golden age” of Broadway musicals with one of the finest scores ever written including Shall We Dance and Getting to Know You.

It opens on the deck of a ship as it snakes up river at dusk, heading for a glimmering royal palace in 19th-century Siam. No production of the timeless classic by Rodgers and Hammerstein has managed to lay on a feast for the eyes quite like the one now touring the UK, following its record-breaking runs at the London Palladium and on Broadway and with an internationally renowned creative team headed by Bartlett Sher (My Fair Lady / To Kill a Mockingbird / South Pacific).

As it journeys around the world, audiences will be able to see for themselves what critics in New York and London all agree is a definitive version. “I doubt I’ll see a better production in my lifetime” said the Wall Street Journal when it opened at the Lincoln Center in 2015. “Breathtaking. Exquisite. Remarkable” agreed the New York Times. After winning four Tony Awards, it first arrived on these shores in 2018 to another chorus of cheers. The Daily Mail “left the London Palladium on a bright cloud of music”. “Looks and sounds ravishing,“ said the Daily Telegraph, while the Financial Times found it “simply spellbinding”.

The powerful spectacle staged by the acclaimed multi Tony Award-winning director Bartlett Sher (To Kill a Mockingbird, My Fair Lady, South Pacific) now welcomes two new stars to lead roles famously occupied by many before them. Helen George, star of Call The Midwife, returns to the stage after many years to play Anna Leonowens, a widow from Victorian England who has travelled to Bangkok to teach English to the King’s many children.

“I’d been wanting to do a musical for a while,” she says, “and I was waiting for the right one to come along and just couldn’t say no. It’s just such a classical musical theatre part.”

Though better known for bringing babies into the world on TV, her first job after drama college was in the ensemble of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Woman in White in 2004. She has since sung at the BBC’s VE Day 75th anniversary commemoration and on the cast album of Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella.

As for dancing, she took the dancefloor by storm on Strictly in 2015, so she won’t have any trouble with “Shall We Dance?”. In the show’s climactic song, Anna and the King dance a sweeping polka that is an ecstatic meeting of minds, hearts and, most of all, feet.

“When we do this incredible dance I wear this incredible dress,” she says. “I’m as big as a house. In the rehearsal room everybody has had to get out of the way. I lift up the skirt and drag scripts and tea cups with me along the way. It weighs ten pounds and it’s uncomfortable but this was the life of a Victorian woman.”

The role of the strutting, domineering King of Siam will always carry a trace memory of Yul Brynner, who clung to it tenaciously for 34 years and 4,600 performances. However, returning to the role is Broadway star Darren Lee, who has himself made the role his own since he first played it there in 2016.  “I started my career primarily as a dancer so early on it was not on my radar,”  says Lee “but growing up as an Asian American performer you know that there is this role, and it sits within the top five to ten shows of classic musicals.”

It also represents a wonderful opportunity to see a parade of talented young performers dressed to the nines in beautiful costumes. The King’s large brood of cute children is played on this tour by eighteen actors ranging in age from 13 down to only seven.

The story of a young English widow who takes a job teaching the children of the King of Siam is one of the big five from composer Richards Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. Most will know it from the 1956 film which won five Oscars. And yet it’s in a theatre that The King and I really needs to be seen.

The King and I is a multi-generational musical, and generations of families come together to see it. That means there is a new generation who, like Helen George, won’t realise much loved songs such as “I Whistle a Happy Tune” and “Getting to Know You” belong to The King and I. “I went to see the show when I was seven or eight when I was growing up in Birmingham,” she says. “I haven’t gone back and watched the film because I need to find Anna myself, and I hadn’t realised how many songs she sings. I knew them but I hadn’t quite figured they were all together in this show.”

It’s an oddity of The King and I that the musical duties are shared out far from equally. Anna, the “I” of the title, gets most of the best tunes. The King has just one number on his own. Composed with Brynner’s limited singing abilities in mind, “A Puzzlement” is a high-speed patter song in which an absolute monarch puzzles how to reconcile tradition and modernity. Darren Lee compares it the songs written for Henry Higgins to deliver in My Fair Lady.

“The show was crafted to maximise that person’s acting ability without exposing him too much as a singer,” he says. “‘A Puzzlement’ does not melodically do a lot so you have to be able to deliver it like a monologue. But it allows you to express a large range of emotion.”

The reason he’s singing it goes to the heart of The King and I, and explains its continuing relevance. Siam, which became known as Thailand only two years before the musical’s premiere, was surrounded in the 19th century by countries which were colonised by Britain or France.

“The King brings Anna to teach his children English because he’s concerned that being a tiny country it is very easily swallowed up by other countries,” says Darren Lee. “I would argue that it’s completely current,” agrees Helen George. “What’s so brilliant about this progressive king is he is passionate about educating his daughters.”

The woman he chooses to teach his children is based on an intriguing figure from the mid-Victorian era. The real Anna Leonowens kept a diary of her time in Siam in the 1860s. It was published in 1870 and remain a fascinating snapshot of a hidden world emerging into the light. Three quarters of a century later, the novelist Margaret Landon fell on the journal as a rich source for a heavily fictionalised reimagination of her story entitled Anna and the King of Siam. That was instantly snapped up by Hollywood producer Darryl F. Zanuck and filmed with Rex Harrison.

Then Rodgers and Hammerstein decided to make it into a musical. A story about Siamese royalty might have seemed unusual for a duo whose shows were all about Americans. But in South Pacific, their most recent hit, they had tackled the issue of racism head on. The King and I was also about promoting harmony between cultures.

This is most apparent in the show-within-a-show in the second half. To impress visiting diplomats with Siam’s project to modernise, the king commands Anna to stage a version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the book by Harriet Beecher Stowe which in the 1860s was a very current commentary on slavery. It doubles as a wonderful opportunity for dazzling spectacle, courtesy of Jerome Robins’ astounding original choreography (restaged by Christopher Gattelli), set designer Michael Yeargan and costume designer Catherine Zuber.

In Anna and the King, we see two worlds collide not just geographically and culturally but also of course in terms of gender and wealth. He is the magnificent one and she the servant. But through compromise on both sides comes genuine respect and love. The critical acclaim for Bartlett Sher’s Production is phenomenal – a captivating, sumptuous  revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s production that reminds us that human nature is timeless.

With a stunning score, given the full velvet touch by a sublime orchestra, exquisite costumes, a stellar cast that discovers dark, rich, exotic layers through incredible storytelling and the most charming and endearing group of young children performers, you have the ultimate classical musical theatre show. It’s rare to feel such warmth and delight about a production but The King And I delivers that and so much more in abundance.

The King and I is playing at Bristol Hippodrome on Tuesday 28 March until Saturday 1 April. Tickets available at