Sam Yo, King of Siam, in The King and I on UK Tour

Sam Yo, King of Siam: There Is So Much Here You Probably Didn’t Know

Peloton Instructor Makes Musical Theater History

On October 7, Sam Yo became the first Thai actor to play the King of Siam in Rogers and Hammerstein’s The King and I. The musical, premiering in 1951, depicts the relationship between the King and the British governess of his royal children in 1800s Thailand. While Sam’s primary role in this current UK tour has been as Kralahome (the King’s minister and antagonist), he announced on October 1 that he would be taking the stage as the King for one night. The Clip Out is thrilled for Sam, and wants to take the time to examine the play, since it’s not as simple as it seems. We were lucky enough to hear from Vin Kridakorn, a Thai-American actor and Peloton rider, who tells us that “it’s important to acknowledge the stereotypes in the musical… old tropes that still perpetuate a very tired imperialistic narrative,” but agrees that “it would be hard to say no to the role of the King!” There are definitely two sides to the story of this play.

Vin Kridakorn on Stage

Vin Kridakorn on Stage

Where did The King and I Come From?

Much has been written about The King and I, but in summary, it hasn’t aged well. The play originated as a true story- Anna Leonowens, a British-Indian widow, traveled from Singapore to Siam (the historic name of Thailand) in the 1860s to tutor the King’s many children. Anna wrote several memoirs not long after, which became the basis for a 1944 novel (Anna and the King of Siam, by Margaret Landon), a 1946 movie by the same name, and finally the musical (later itself filmed in 1956– and as a cartoon in 1999!) By the time the story reached the stage- and stayed there- it was heavily fictionalized.

Unfortunately, the stage musical- the most enduring version of the story- was also written in 1950, by Americans with limited knowledge of either 1860s Siam or then-present-day Thailand. “As someone who grew up in Thailand as well,” Vin tells us, “the musical does not depict an accurate portrayal of the Thai people, its culture, or traditions.”  Rodgers and Hammerstein were rather enlightened for their time, and The King and I is considered a work taking a stand against racism. However, it was (and still frequently is), unfortunately, replete with “orientalist” Western stereotypes about Asia. 

A Musical With Problems

In short, The King and I depicts a version of imperialism: a British woman coming to civilize a barbaric, polygamous King. The Siamese characters, speaking in broken English, are presented as desperately in need of modernization. The musical was banned in Thailand in 1956. One of the most bothersome things about it, though, has been the historic casting of non-Asian actors. This article lays out quite a few of the issues in detail; in short, as musical theater audiences have learned more, the play becomes more concerning.

By the time of the non-musical movie Anna and the King in 1999, the situation had improved, with Hong Kong-born actor Chow Yun-Fat playing the King. It became more common to stage the musical with more realistic costumes, sets, and accents, and less ordinary to see white performers playing Asian characters. In a highly praised 2018 revival of the musical, Japanese actor Ken Watanabe played the King of Siam both onstage and in a live-filmed version. 

Vin tells us, “It’s important to acknowledge that as time goes on, attitudes shift and perspectives change. What was hailed as a progressive show in its time is now seen as dated. I do think it’s layered and complicated, but The King and I can be both – it can be a beautiful musical, but also problematic. I don’t think it should be banned, however, I do believe new productions have a responsibility to make sure the cast is represented accurately. Looking forward, I do think we need more representation on stage with new shows that represent where we are today.”

Sam on the Stage

Sam has frequently spoken about his musical theater background during Peloton rides, having taught numerous Broadway and musical-themed classes. However, it might be less well-known that his West End debut was actually in a 2000 production of The King and I at the Palladium in London. While he’s played roles in many other shows, The King and I kept his attention, and he returned to the Palladium again in 2018 in the same production as Ken Watanabe. 

In a 2022 interview with Broadway World, Sam spoke of both these productions and listed The King and I as the musical he’d most love to see revived to “finally, be the first Thai actor to ever play the King,” saying, “I think if I ever got the opportunity, I will bring something authentic and different to it.”

It was a pleasant surprise to discover Vin is a Peloton rider- and knew exactly who Sam was before his return to the stage, saying “his classes are always fun!” 

Sam’s 2023 Return

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A post shared by Sam Yo (@yoiamsamyo)

In September, The Clip Out reported Sam’s return to the stage; last week, Sam told us himself that he would be playing the King. He is the first Thai actor ever to play this role- the most famous fictional (well, mostly fictional) Thai man in American and British musical theater. While the historical implications here are huge, this can be noted, at a minimum, as long overdue. 

His Peloton fans were there in force. And while no professional reviews of his performance are available, we have the opinion of fellow instructor and friend Jermaine Johnson, saying in an Instagram comment, “Sam you are incredible. I’m still in awe from your amazing performance. You’re a legend!” Other instructors chimed in as well, with Hannah Corbin “bursting with joy” and DJ John Michael saying, “Would’ve loved to see you in this!” It’s our hope that Sam was able to give the “layered and nuanced performance… veer[ing] away from Asian tropes,” which Vin says would be key to moving the show forward, “pav[ing] the way for more authentic and diverse representation on stage.”

And what’s next? In his Instagram post, Sam asked his commenters to drop a theater emoji if they’d like to see him in the role “on the West End”. Is it possible this isn’t the only chance to see Sam in the role he’s waited for? 

A Step Forward

The King and I isn’t perfect, but it’s a (again, mostly fictional) story about Thai history, and it is, still, banned in Thailand in every single version. While the situation has improved, musical theater fans wonder if the play should even continue to be in production- or perhaps changed drastically. Vin notes that “to have a Thai actor like Sam Yo play this iconic role speaks to how far we’ve come.” 

Seeing Sam take such a major part in moving this complicated production forward in today’s world is a privilege for his Peloton fans and, we hope, for the greater musical theater fan community as well. We appreciate Vin weighing in, both as an actor and as part of the Peloton community; he works primarily in plays and TV, and will be seen next in Warrior Sisters of Wu in 2024, with the Pan Asian Repertory Theater – if you’re in New York, be sure to check him out!

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