“Stories about our past can lend opportunities to talk about the present,” reflects director Bartlett Sher, ahead of the opening of The King And I in London this week.
The beloved Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, set in Bangkok during the 1860s, is based on the novel and film, Anna and the King of Siam, which in turn is derived from the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, a British schoolteacher brought over by the imperious king to tutor his many wives and children.
Back in his native US, Sher’s revival enjoyed a critically-acclaimed run in New York, a sold-out tour and four Tony awards, including Best Musical Revival.
Now The King and I is transferring to the London Palladium for three months, starring Broadway favourite Kelli O’Hara as Anna and The Last Samurai actor Ken Watanabe in the title role.
The 59-year-old award-winning director, who only discovered his Lithuanian-born father was Jewish during his teenage years, is no stranger to revivals or historically-based shows and often feels “drawn to stories that lie somewhere between the old and the new”.
He explains: “Stories from the past give us a fascinating opportunity to look at then and now and to question our own values”.
While The King And I is set 150 years ago, the themes are more than pertinent to today’s world.
Sher, who lives in New York with his wife, actress Kristin Flanders, and their two daughters, tells me: “The King And I is basically a story of changing culture. The King is trying to modernise his country through industrialisation, but living in an extremely traditional country.
“We see the struggle now in countries which have very traditional religious practices, but also these great pressures from modernity.”
Speaking of changing cultures, the theatre maven was more than aware of the differences between putting on The King And I for today’s audience, and that of 1951, when the show originally opened on Broadway.
“In the 1950s there was this feeling about “Orientalism”, a fetishizing of the east, which is not acceptable today,” says Sher. “I wanted to strip that away and present a more contemporary point of view on different cultures.”
Sher also had to grapple with the challenges of putting on the revival of a show that millions are likely already familiar with.
“Revivals are really memory exercises. There’s a part of the audience who have seen the film or stage musical more than one time and for whom these are very special stories.
“That’s a great thing, but it can also be a burden, because you have to live up to certain expectations.”
So for Sher it was a case of in with the new – “leaning more into themes like racism, sexism, the education of women” – and away with the out-of-date attitudes.
But the Rogers and Hammerstein score, including such classics as Getting To Know You, Whistle A Happy Tune and Shall We Dance? remains.
Prior to his latest show, Sher forged a name for himself with another Rogers and Hammerstein revival, South Pacific, for which he won a Tony in 2008.
He has also previously been at the helm of Oslo, which transferred to the National Theatre last summer and a revival of Fiddler On The Roof on Broadway.
All three shows reflect Sher’s interest in not only the past, but also more specifically, his own multicultural upbringing in a Catholic-Jewish household.
“I grew up in a very unique family. I was raised Catholic, but my father was Jewish, even though I didn’t really know until I was almost 14-years-old, when my parents started to go through a rancorous divorce.
“Both my grandparents, who were fluent Yiddish speakers, and father were born in a shtetl in Lithuania.
“My father was very assimilated and didn’t want people to know he was Jewish. It was something I never heard him talking about, ever.
“I never really got to have the conversation with him and he died when I was 21, but I had always wanted to ask. When I did Fiddler, it was sort of in my own way, of exploring my grandparents and father.”
As for how his Jewishness affects him today, Sher unhesitatingly responds, “constantly”.
He adds: “I’ve always felt drawn to certain kinds of work, so I feel it, even in a subconscious way. I think of myself more as an artist first before establishing whether I am Jewish or Catholic, but it is certainly something I’m very proud of.”
The King and I runs at the London Palladium until September 29. Details: kingandimusical.co.uk