Sunday, 14 September 2008

ORIGINAL MOTION PICTURE SOUNDTRACK: The King And I



(#4: 13 October 1956, 2 weeks; 3 November 1956, 1 week; 17 November 1956, 15 weeks; 9 March 1957, 1 week; 23 March 1957, 1 week; 6 April 1957, 3 weeks; 4 May 1957, 6 weeks; 22 June 1957, 4 weeks; 10 August 1957, 3 weeks; 16 November 1957, 11 weeks; 22 March 1958, 1 week)

Track listing: Main Title/I Whistle A Happy Tune/My Lord And Master/The March Of The Siamese Children/Anna And The Royal Wives/Hello, Young Lovers/A Puzzlement/Getting To Know You/Garden Rendezvous/We Kiss In A Shadow/I Have Dreamed/Shall I Tell You What I Think Of You?/Something Wonderful/Prayer To Buddha/Waltz Of Anna And Sir Edward/The Small House Of Uncle Thomas/Song Of The King/Shall We Dance?/The Letter/Something Wonderful (Finale)/Overture (LP Version)
Here is why I am not composing separate entries for albums which have had more than one spell at the top; although with 21 tracks it would have been theoretically easier to do a Portishead-type track-by-track breakdown, I suspect readers would get bored very early in, and I am not convinced that the album warrants such close attention. However, The King And I soundtrack is the first real example in this list of the musical blockbusters; eleven separate runs at number one over 17 months with a cumulative total of 48 weeks, still the third longest run at the top of any album.

In the context of mid-fifties Britain it’s easy to see why such faux-exoticism should prove so attractive; the musical was a huge hit on both stage and screen and the catchiness of famous songs like “I Whistle A Happy Tune,” “Getting To Know You” and “Shall We Dance?” is unavoidable. Yet as an album The King And I hangs together far less securely than either Carousel or Oklahoma! (and neither of these is exactly secure structurally). The Angel expanded edition (on which, once again, this analysis is based) is not terrifically helpful, either; the musical is so entirely and unanswerably dominated by one man who on this record barely materialises. Yul Brynner made the role his own on Broadway from 1951 onwards and when it came to filming the show he proved himself as absolute and absurdist a dictator as his character; Deborah Kerr and others have attested that Brynner was more or less in charge of making the picture, with nominal director Walter Lang having to swallow his price, sit back and let Brynner get on with it. But on the soundtrack he appears on only four tracks and cannot really be said to be singing on any of them. His mounting befuddlement, mouldering into rage, on “A Puzzlement” is an unsettling blast after a quarter of an hour of Kerr-dominant niceness – I note both his genuine rage at the key line “Every day I try to live another day!” and the Scritti-anticipating “I very often find confusion in conclusion, I concluded long ago” – but it seems stripped of context. Similarly the comedy of “Prayer To Buddha,” which is where we get the “et cetera, et cetera, et cetera” catchphrase, and dull misogyny of “Song Of The King” seem curiously beside the point – even though they are the deadly point – on either side of the demonic cataclysm that is “The Small House Of Uncle Thomas.”

The story is yet another cynical Hardy-esque view of two Cupids without the wit or resources to be Psyches. The difference here is that Brynner’s King is destructive for the sake of maintaining his shaky construction, as leader of a country which (as “A Puzzlement” demonstrates) he isn’t even sure is worth leading. It is his imposition to continue with the way things are done, including thoughtless concubines, unquestioned authority. It is difficult to listen to Lady Thiang’s verging on tearful plea for a behavioural pardon on his behalf, “Something Wonderful,” with its open-Rochester’s-eyes appeal (“This is a man who stumbles and falls, but this is a man who tries,” “He has a thousand dreams that won’t come true/You know that he believes in them and that’s enough for you” – as with “What’s The Use Of Wond’rin’?” the singer audibly struggles to convince herself) in light of what Rita Moreno’s Tuptim brings to the proceedings.

Originally Dorothy Dandridge was earmarked to play the key part of Tuptim, the girl who will cause the house of cards to collapse, but Moreno ended up in the film; while the thought of what Dandridge might have brought to “Uncle Thomas” in particular is fascinating, Moreno brings a shot of colour and writhing carnality to shame the muddle-along politesse on display elsewhere. Her “My Lord And Master” is “Something Wonderful”’s antithesis, a slowly mounting condemnation of this Rochester ’s wilful blindness (“So he thinks…just for him,” “The smile beneath my smile he’ll never see”; hello, Smokey Robinson), and it is her vitality whose eventual extinguishment will hasten the King’s own end. Irritatingly, on the extended fantasia of “Garden Rendezvous/We Kiss In A Shadow/I Have Dreamed” – it plays as one continuous piece – one Leona Gordon dubbed the singing track for Moreno for reasons unclear, such that she lends the petrified duet an unlikely and unfeasible touch of Judy Garland. The sequence itself is a kind of obverse of “People Will Say We’re In Love”; here is a love they can’t let anyone know about for fear of brutal death, and it isn’t simply the presence of Moreno that makes it a forebear of West Side Story; Carlos Rivas (dubbed by Reuben Fuentes) turns it into a Puerto Rican declaration of dangerous faith.

And Deborah Kerr’s Anna sees all of this and knows that even without her frowning moon of a mouth, her furtively turned on eyes, they are doomed; “Hello, Young Lovers” sees her as a grieving widow singing a lullaby to someone she knows is predestined to become another one; “a night when the earth smelled of summer” suggesting a sensuality which will not be rekindled in Siam until it is too late. “The same silent tear, the same blue sea”; the story is being played out again and she knows her Victorian pernickitiness and human grief will combine to prevent a happy ending here too.

“Hello, Young Lovers” is such a movingly constructed song that I would perhaps have preferred Kerr to attempt to semi-sing it than the professional job done by Marni Nixon. The latter makes her first notable (audio) appearance here as the voice of others in Hollywood musicals but unlike subsequent ventures Kerr was in the recording studio with her; they both learned from each other and both have a great deal of fun with the enclosed bitching of “Shall I Tell You What I Think Of You?” (“Toads, toads, all of your people are toads!,” “bigamy” rhyming with “prig of me”) exchanging dialogues mid-line and sometimes mid-word; John Cale and Lou Reed did a similar trick on “Lady Godiva’s Operation” a dozen years later. However, I regret to report that Nixon’s remorselessly bright and pitch perfect tones set my teeth on edge; in something like “Hello, Young Lovers” where suppressed and horrific proto-mourning is the emotion that dare not speak its name, Nixon can’t really get beyond proto-Julie Andrews piercing wholesomeness, and her “you are precisely my cup of tea” in “Getting To Know You” (in the “preferred to sex” sense, even if she is singing in the company of the King’s children) provokes multiple cringes in this listener.

The problem with the soundtrack, though, as I said, is that it doesn’t hang together as a coherent story, even or especially with the generous (and, in one case, essential) additional material on the Angel edition; there are far too many of what technically are known as “underscores,” i.e. music soundtracking spoken dialogue, which in listening terms turns out to be acres of dreary MoR string sequences. Thus the attempted sexual charge of “Shall We Dance?” (subtext: “Shall We Fuck?”) peters out into orchestral flourishes and both the King and Anna vanish from the picture forever; nothing of the final betrayal, the reluctance which will cause the King’s heart to break and his life to end; merely the mildly baffling return of “Something Wonderful” sung by a Home Service choir – and then all of a sudden it’s The End. Other than a souvenir of songs from the show, which is clearly why so many people bought it and ensured that it spent 48 weeks at number one, the package is frustrating; as with opera, the whole story, including dialogue, needs to be told and preferably seen as well. We simply know that no one has been saved; the King is dead and his son will take over and Anna will stay there for the rest of her days, content in some ways but deserted in so many others; that Lun Tha and Tuptim will have no opportunity of being a Mr and Mrs Snow or even a Will and Ado Annie. And that Brynner too would never escape; he continued to resurrect the King in various guises – Broadway revivals, TV spinoffs, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera – until virtually the end of his life (stricken with cancer in 1985, he was still playing the King on stage, as health and strength allowed), that shaven head making him ageless and nearly immortal, if (as Westworld would subtly go on to point out) already something of a machine.

But then we have to consider “The Small House Of Uncle Thomas,” nearly thirteen minutes long, now added to the soundtrack album and easily – and still – one of the most extreme pieces of music to appear in this reckoning. I am indebted to Lena for pointing out that the “Out Of My Dreams” ballet sequence in Oklahoma! is initiated by Laurey sniffing a strange, new perfume and that the sequence is to all intents and purposes the first example of a drug trip on a number one album. The East-via-West reshaping of Harriet Beecher Stowe, however, anticipates “A Day In The Life” in different, if equally radical, ways.

“Uncle Thomas” is Moreno ’s show and she grabs it; it is where all the resentment and rage felt by both her and Anna (and, in his own stupidly stubborn or imprisoned way, the King) swell up and reach resolution. Set as an after-dinner entertainment for the King and the visiting British dignitaries – he is keen to put on a show for people whom he probably rightly suspects see him as a laughable anachronism and ripe for toppling and perhaps even executing – Moreno ’s Tuptim slowly and steadily turns the analogous screws on his regime. Recorded in two separate studios facing each other on the same street, with conductor Alfred Newman and his orchestra of sixteen percussionists, playing everything from bass marimba to tuned radiator pipes, plus small string and woodwind contingents on one side, Moreno , the Siamese chorus and live dancers (!) on the other, and each communicating with the other via closed circuit TV, it was a remarkable feat of logistics in itself.

And the words and music are the most radical that Rodgers and Hammerstein ever dared. The sequence starts with soft grace and not a little humour (the deadpan mewing Siamese chorus with their “Ge-OOORRR-GE!”s) over patiently pattering marimbas and vibes, but as the slave Eliza sets to escape from the evil “King” Simon Legree the music abruptly darkens and amplifies; at the word “rainstorm” it suddenly and shockingly explodes into dissonance, huge battalions of atonal percussion hammering against contrasts of quiet but harmonically restless rhythms. The chorus’ “Run, Eliza, run!” is reminiscent of similar sequences in Britten’s Peter Grimes while their “Poor Eliza”s lose all sense of courtliness and degenerate or escalate into Penderecki-anticipating screams. Again one thinks of Scott Walker, but now it’s the Scott Walker of Tilt and specifically the very similarly constructed and themed “The Cockfighter.”

Certainly Walker comes to mind when Buddha appears with his miracle and the music’s sky suddenly clears and the tenor of the story subtly shifts; Tuptim is no longer telling the story of Uncle Tom’s Cabin but mutating it into the story of Moses and Exodus, with its frozen river, its drowned pursuers, the snow as “veil of lace.” She escapes, then, and a solitary guitar appears to pick out the melody of “Hello, Young Lovers” as George Crumb might orchestrate it (the thundering descents of xylophones and timpani earlier are worthy and anticipatory of Makrokosmos III), but now it is time for her to turn Exodus in turn into a direct protest and damnation; we have already seen how her “I beg”s have hardened up to become “I regret to put before Your Majesty,” and now she breaks free of pantomime altogether and alone roars “I too am glad for death of King, of any King who pursues a slave who is unhappy and tries to escape!,” Brynner’s handclap terminating her tirade like the whip he will ultimately be afraid and unwilling to use on her for real. And the story is not an unqualified happy ending; Little Eva is sacrificed, as Tuptim knows she must soon sacrifice herself, and the sequence ends with a slowly and terrifyingly building crescendo, culminating in an enormous, shattering detonation of massed, beyond tonal, free form percussion and bells ready to drag the world down to destruction and hell. “Beyond tonal”? Not quite, actually – the final chord is an E major and we’ll be coming across something rather similar in time. After that, back to Brynner being all Henry Higgins about women as though the apocalypse never happened. But catch the buried dread of Kerr’s “When the last little star has left the sky, will we still be together?” in “Shall We Dance?” knowing that a world, if not the world, has already ended, praying for a final explosion that will obliterate Victorian gentility as fully and mercilessly as the House of Siam. But then, was the Unabomber not Jud Fry’s final revenge?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is an excellent and wonderful project. I have nothing to add to that. I expect attention will pick up when you get to move past the freaking musicals.