It is mainly Richard Rodgers' luxuriant score, the composer at the very top of his form, and the return of Yul Brynner in what is being proclaimed as his farewell engagement that make the return of "The King and I," last night at the Broadway, such a special - nay, grand - occasion. And, too, the prodigality of the show itself, with its cast of 48 and sumptuous costumes to alert theatergoers to the extraordinary stature of the Broadway musical between the giddy musical-comedy period (in which a great body of our imperishable show tunes were produced) and today's thin and scrambling musical world.
"The King and I" was created expressly, and at her invitation, for the late Gertrude Lawrence, the only R&H work so conceived. But the "King" was not misplaced in the title, and by the time the glamorous Lawrence died during the original run, it was clear that Yul Brynner was the - yes, kingpin of the production. No singer - the King is allotted just a pair of half-spoken, half-sung numbers - Brynner nevertheless dominated the action by the strong presence and resonant speaking voice he brought to the work's choice role.
The part has ever since been his, even though others succeeded him in the original 1951 production, which he left to become a movie star (he won an Oscar for his work in the film version), and it was not until 1977 that he came back to Broadway in it following a long tour. Physically, in scenery and costumes, this is pretty much the same as the 1977 mounting. It has been restaged, adequately, by Mitch Leigh; but, importantly, Jerome Robbins' original choreography, its centerpiece the charmingly fanciful "Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet, has been recreated once more. Though Peter Wolf's scenery, designed for touring, is necessarily less opulent than the original, it is handsome enough and serviceable for the many scene changes in this long, by today's standards, musical work.
Brynner is still a marvelously commanding figure as the severe Siamese monarch who, in mid-19th century, bends, ever so little but ever so fortuitously, to the enlightened, if often quaint, influence and behavior of Anna, the ladylike British widow hired to educate the King's 90-odd children by his innumerable wives. Unfortunately, during Friday's preview, he was suffering from the laryngitis that seems to have afflicted half the city, and had to forgo "A Puzzlement," the King's bigger musical number. But the performance as a whole remains striking and unforgettable, and the ovation Brynner received at the end boded well for the revival's staying power.
The new Anna, Mary Beth Peil, is a lovely and accomplished Anna with an ideal soprano to make the most of the role's rich assortment of songs, which include "Hello, Young Lovers," "Getting to Know You," and the next-to-closing polka, "Shall We Dance," that never fails to bring down the house.
The other voices vary in quality, the best of them belonging to Irma-Estel LaGuerre, who makes the most of Lady Thiang's "Something Wonderful." Sal Provenza, as Lun Tha (Tuptim's lover, who is killed for attempting to flee with Tuptim, the unwilling Burmese "gift" to the King), delivers the enchanting "I Have Dreamed" appealingly, and joins with Patricia Welch, as Tuptim, in the equally silken "We Kiss in a Shadow." The King's No. 1 son and successor is portrayed this time by a 10-year-old instead of the familiar teenage despot, but the small Araby Abaya gives a strong and amusing account of the role.
Seeing what amounts to the last authentic production, with the excellent Brynner firmly in place in the glorious R&H canon, isn't it time for an R&H repertory company to preserve these works, as the late D'Oyly Carte Co. did for so long with G&S light operas, keeping alive and bringing new insights into the remarkable collaboration of Rodgers and his incomparable (sentimentality and all) lyricist and book writer, Oscar Hammerstein II, whom I see I've neglected up to now but who does get the last word?
Watch for the final curtain call. That is the clue. That is what you are really there for.
Yul Brynner rushes on, looking surprisingly like a cross between a Tartar chief and Picasso's Chinese Conjuror from the ballet Parade. He bows, then with a mixture of a smile and a snarl, he vigorously throws his arms into the air as a brave salutation to the Gods.
You will recognize it from having seen the self-same gesture on the TV commercial. It is a symbolic affirmation that Brynner has survived age, cancer, and publicity for one more time. He is alive and well and living at the Broadway Theater, starting what is claimed to be his farewell season of The King and I. And he is indisputably now the star of that show - the King who became the I.
Throughout the performance you have been, in a sense, partaking of the Broadway-star ritual. Which is almost as rigorous in its conventions as a Japanese tea ceremony - and, on the whole, unless you have an unusual love for herb tea, or an unusual hatred for Broadway stars, more fun. Most of the time.
No star has been as closely identified with a leading role in a musical as Brynner with the King in this 1951 Rodgers and Hammerstein popular musicalization of Anna and the King of Siam, not Mostel with Fiddler on the Roof, not Harrison with My Fair Lady, or Channing with Hello Dolly!, or Kiley with Man of La Mancha.
For one thing you never think of anyone else doing it. A few other actors have - I recall most warmly Herbert Lom (later to find immortality as Inspector Clouseau's boss in the Pink Panther movies) in London, who was, in his way, as good as Brynner - but Brynner has been up to bat hundreds of times. The role is his, and he is the role.
Curiously the musical was devised around Anna, and written specifically for Gertrude Lawrence, who naturally had the top billing, while Rodgers and Hammerstein originally wanted Alfred Drake as King Mongcut. Indeed the virtually unknown Brynner, who had auditioned for the role sitting squat-legged on stage and singing gypsy songs, won a Tony Award as "Best Supporting or Featured Actor in a Musical."
The musical has been supporting him, on and off, ever since. Yet his domination of both role and show has, to an extent, put its original casting balance off-kilter.
The present revival, staged by Mitch Leigh, lacks the gloss of a fresh creation. So many classic Broadway musicals (unlike operas) look routine rather than classic on revival - probably because (unlike operas) they are rarely completely redefined. As a result they almost always end up looking a little like a provincial touring production toward the end of that tour.
This is exacerbated here by low-powered casting. The Anna, Mary Beth Peil, has a certain governessy air, and, so far as one could tell given the state of the amplification, a modestly adequate voice. But it is said that a star danced when Miss Lawrence was born. Miss Peil would scarcely persuade a leaf to samba.
The rest of the supporting cast is no less unimpressive although adequate in essentials.
The famous Jerome Robbins ballet, The Small House of Uncle Thomas, has been restaged by Rebecca West, with the leading role of Eliza danced by Brynner's wife, Kathy Lee Brynner. This was once among the most celebrated and admired episodes in the history of Broadway dance. No longer. Anyone seeing it for the first time would wonder what all the fuss was about. It is as tame as a tabby.
The scenery by Peter Wolf could do very nicely in style for a quite high-class Thai restaurant anywhere a few thousand miles from Bangkok; it is serviceable but unsurprising, like a room in a Holiday Inn. The costumes by Stanley Simmons look pretty similar to what I can recall of the Irene Sharaff originals. The sound has been designed by Scott Marcellus. He needs to try harder. Or, perhaps, not so hard.
Which leaves us with Brynner, who, according to the program note, is on the seemingly unlikely verge of becoming a senior citizen. He is perhaps a shade more comically peevish than before, a degree more exaggerated. Yet his pidgin English remains impeccably fractured, he is as charming as ever with those charming-as-ever Oriental children, and as he strides around, hands on hips, his loyal fans will scarcely mind that he husbands his voice rather more carefully than he guards his still blazing eyes.
Nevertheless when he moves into Shall We Dance, the capacity audience goes ecstatic with the fulfillment of an expectation, breaks into mad applause, and accompanies his polka with unison clapping. Baryshnikov could scarcely expect more. Such adulation is beyond criticism.
Etcetera...etcetera. Oh - and welcome back!
Yul Brynner's performance in ''The King and I''- the longest-running theatrical star turn of our time - can no longer be regarded as a feat of acting or even endurance. After 30-odd years of on-and-off barnstorming in the Richard Rodgers-Oscar Hammerstein 2d classic, Mr. Brynner is, quite simply, The King. Man and role have long since merged into a fixed image that is as much a part of our collective consciousness as the Statue of Liberty. One doesn't go to Mr. Brynner's ''farewell engagement'' at the Broadway to search for any fresh interpretive angles - heaven forbid! One goes to bow.
In its current rendition, Mr. Brynner's King cannot, in any case, be called mechanical. The performance is ritualistic, all right, but the high stylization the actor brings to every regal stance, arrogant hoot and snarling declaration of ''etcetera'' has the timelessness of Kabuki, not the self-parody of camp. Even his flaring eyebrows suggest exaggerated Japanese stage paint: Mr. Brynner is the only performer around whose photograph might be indistinguishable from his Al Hirschfeld caricature.
At Friday's critics' preview, the star, according to the show's press representative, had a cold. This prompted some hoarse diction, as well as the deflating omission of Mr. Brynner's only solo song, ''A Puzzlement.'' Far be it from me to dispute the King's royal prerogative to remove that number on occasion - even if it reduces him to something of a functionary in Act I - but the gap might be less of a puzzlement for the audience if an announcement were made in advance.
Even without his solo, Mr. Brynner still dominated the production, and, even with his cold, he looked extremely fit. His high points included his fond, paternalistic joshing with his brood in ''The March of the Siamese Children,'' his dumb-show antics while attempting to force the English schoolteacher Anna to bow, and, of course, the death scene. It's not the passing of the King of Siam that makes the end of ''The King and I'' so moving; what we mourn is the inevitable passing of an archaic but entirely lovable tradition of Broadway showmanship.
The star aside, such showmanship is too often lacking in this ''King and I.'' The production has declined steeply since its last, elegant New York outing in 1977. As perfunctorily staged by Mitch Leigh, Act I seems almost painfully sluggish, and, if Act II picks up, that's mainly because Mr. Brynner has more to do in it.
The trouble with Mr. Leigh's direction is that he treats ''The King and I'' as a period piece far more geriatric than it actually is. To be sure, the book is dated now. The subplot for the star-crossed young lovers is creakily managed; the show's theme, the civilizing influence of the West on the barbaric East, is presented from a patronizing perspective equally redolent of old-time English colonialism and 1950's Broadway liberalism. But in this work, as in their previous shows, the authors were attempting to bring a new realism to the Broadway musical; they wanted their story played for keeps. Mr. Leigh's staging and casting are throwbacks to the soupy, artificial operettas that Rodgers and Hammerstein had rebelled against.
While most of the supporting players can sing, almost none of them can act. Impassioned ballads like ''We Kiss in a Shadow'' and ''I Have Dreamed'' are robbed of all meaning and spontaneity when sung by standard-cut ingenues who don't even pretend to have any romantic interest in one another. The book scenes fare worse: the lines are treated as inconveniences that must be disposed of as expeditiously as possible.
The evening's crucial role - far larger than Mr. Brynner's - is Anna. Mary Beth Peil, who plays it here, is a handsome woman with the right accent and a big voice. Hers is a respectable performance, but it has no glow: The heroine's schoolmarmishness takes on an excessive, almost Margaret Thatcher-like chill. We don't really feel this Anna melt in ''Getting to Know You'' and ''Hello, Young Lovers,'' and we don't really feel her anger in ''Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?''
Still, some of the evening's components continue to click along. Peter Wolf's gilt-edged sets, well lighted by Ruth Roberts, retain their hokey picturebook charm. Stanley Simmons's re-creations of Irene Sharaff's bright, silken costumes are gorgeous. Jerome Robbins's Act II ballet, ''The Small House of Uncle Thomas,'' lacks a witty edge in Rebecca West's restaging, but it is still the most sophisticated embodiment of the show's cultural clash: Look closely at Mr. Robbins's Oriental burlesque of ''Uncle Tom's Cabin,'' and one sees the genesis of ''Pacific Overtures.''
The pit band, conducted by Richard Parrinello, does splendidly by Robert Russell Bennett's orchestrations (uncredited in the Playbill) and makes important contributions to the show's more stirring moments. Nowhere is this more true than in the unbeatable climax, ''Shall We Dance?'' - in which the band so famously swells as the King at last takes Anna in his arms for a whirling polka. Even if this turgid ''King and I'' weren't so easy to halt, this number, as performed by Mr. Brynner, would still be the most authentic show stopper in town.