We just had a charming song about two different cultures wary of touching the other, but drawing closer and closer. Well, here's the king of those songs. Literally.
This is from the famous 1971 Tony Awards broadcast, which celebrated the 25th anniversary of the awards by bringing back the original stars of each of the past 25 Best Musical winners to recreate their most famous numbers. It was a remarkable show, and remains (to me) one of the best TV specials ever.
In this famous number, the original King of Siam, Yul Brynner, returned to perform "Shall We Dance?" from The King and I. The original Anna, Gertrude Lawrence, was no longer around, but Patricia Morrison (who played the role in a revival) stepped in. (She was the original female lead in Kiss Me Kate.) Happily, it includes the King's soliloquy that precedes the dance.
What's so remarkable about this number is that everyone by this point knows what's coming. Yet when the King holds out his hand, and ever so slowly moves it inchingly towards her waist, and she hesitates, finally lifts the hem of her gown -- and they go whirling around the stage, two very different cultures finally coming together, the audience just explodes in release and joy, as they do here. It's one of the magical moments in Broadway history.
I saw Yul Brynner perform the show live -- which isn't anything special, since he did the role 4,633 times!!! (That's the equivalent of 11 years of doing a show on Broadway.) And yet there was nothing tired about his performance. It seemed as fresh as if he was doing it for the first time -- seemingly because, for him, perhaps some of the audience was seeing it for the first time. And it was because all of his experience with the show that there was one moment which stands out, indelible. It wasn't during the show itself, though but came during the curtain call.
The audience is applauding, enthusiastically, but still waiting for Yul Brynner's entrance -- and when he strides out, it's in the character of the King, and the audience starts cheering. But Brynner stays in character. Swaggering downstage, majestic, proud, pompous, stopping, and slamming his fists to his hips, spreading his feet far apart and standing there, unmoving, starring out, imperiously over the hall. (By the way, the very same pose he holds at the end of this video, though looking out at the audience.) And the crowd keeps cheering and cheering. Yet Brynner wouldn't break character. Holding the pose for what most have been at least a full minute. Maybe two minutes, for all it could have. Letting the audience cheer. Letting them anticipate. Yet still not acknowledging those cheers. But because Brynner had been doing the show for SO long, he knew the moment, the exact moment, the perfect moment when to break character. And at last, when it seemed like the audience was cheering now at its peak, at the right moment --
Yul Brynner finally threw his arms up in he air and a huge smile broke across his face. And the audience went absolutely freaking crazy.
Here's that man.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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