In the early '80s, I was introduced to the musicals of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II through a touring production of The King and I starring Broadway's original Mongkut himself, Yul Brynner. Thirty-five years later, I still remember the impact of that iconic performance, and so does Ted Chapin, the president of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization and a guiding hand behind the company of The King and I that's camped at Orlando's Dr. Phillips Center this week. I spoke with Chapin prior to the tour's arrival about his long career behind the curtain, and his efforts to keep R&H's canon in the public eye.
Orlando Weekly: How did you land your first Broadway credit as a production assistant on The Unknown Soldier and His Wife when you were only 16?
Ted Chapin: I will confess that my father was involved in the business, therefore it was easier for me to suggest jobs like that. That one was at Lincoln Center, where he was vice president of programming. My older brother had done that for a show the year before and I was seethingly jealous, and he could care less. It started me on my career, and he went elsewhere ... I realized early on that offering myself as a production assistant got me (as Hamilton says) "in the room where it happens." I just wanted to be part of that world. I didn't want to be an actor or writer or director.
OW: Why is Sondheim's Follies (whose creation you witnessed and documented in the book Everything Was Possible) still so influential today?
TC: What ended up being important about Follies was that, on the one hand, it was a completely original musical not based on anything, and they are the hardest to do. You have a collection of musical theater artists, none of whom were at their peak of popularity yet, so they were all hungry and wanted to do the best work they were capable of doing. That should go for every show, you always want to do your best work, but there was a little added zing in Follies [because] you had this extraordinary group of people.
OW: When reviving a show like The King and I, how do you balance faithfulness to the original version versus updating it for a modern audience?
TC: One of the things I learned fairly early on in this position is how good these Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals are, how well-constructed they are. Part of why they withstand a variety of different kind of productions is that they tell good stories [and] if you do them right, they will reward you. Part of the challenge from my standpoint is, how do we get these shows back in the mainstream. ... This is the original version, with some additions from the early draft of the script. I trusted [the producers] enough as dramatically smart interpreters not to fall in love with stuff that was cut for the right reason. They found several lines that they put back in, and cut a couple of things, but it's all stuff that had been there at some point.
OW: Were you concerned about reviving The King and I, in the light of previous productions being criticized over "orientalism" and "yellowface"?
TC: Happily I don't think we had to, because it was very clear to [the producers] that they wanted to cast as authentically as possible, but also wanted a king who had authority. Fifty years from now it may be very different, but at the moment it's OK for the characters in The King and I to be performed by people from somewhere in the Pacific Rim. There are not enough Thai actors to be that kind of authentic, but you don't put a Caucasian man as the King.
OW: What's the future of Rodgers & Hammerstein on stage and screen?
TC: There is some exploratory work going on now about some new film versions. With Disney doing live-action versions of all their [animated musicals], maybe it's a time where we could bring to the table some ideas. On the live stage, it's always good for us to have a show on Broadway every few years, just to keep the Broadway brand available. The two that I think will be next up are the Carousel that's happening next year, and then the Sound of Music that's been touring around the country ... we might rethink that production for New York. As long as we have people who will treat the shows well, not reverentially – that's not what going to make them live – but also not tearing them apart.