National Archives News

Cast and Crew of the Kennedy Center's The King and I Visit the National Archives

by Kerri Lawrence | National Archives News

The cast of the King and I banner image file for the top of the page.

Washington, August 2, 2017 – The cast and crew of the Kennedy Center’s production of The King and I toured the National Archives for a first-hand look at historic documents from King Mongkut of Siam and the United States. 

José Llana, who portrays the lead role as the King, proudly pointed out to other cast members and recited the first line in one of the documents from Record Group 59, General Records of the Department of State, 1763-2002, explaining that “one of my lines in the musical is actually directly from this letter.”

Llana was referring to the February 14, 1861 correspondence between King Mongkut and U.S. President James Buchanan. President Buchanan had previously sent a letter to the King on May 10, 1859, with a gift of 192 books.

“It’s rather overwhelming to see this document that was actually in the King’s hands,” Llana said. “He was such a learned man so it’s quite significant that his gift included a collection of books.  What a beautiful gesture from one leader to another.”

refer to caption

José Llana, points out that a line from the musical

The cast and crew from the touring production of "The King and I" visited the National Archives in Washington, DC, and viewed records related to the King of Siam. José Llana, who plays the King, points out that a line from the musical comes straight from a letter written by the King of Siam to President James Buchanan. NARA photo by Jeff Reed.

The group closely examined the letter of reply from King Mongkut in which he expressed his thanks for the books and explained the three gifts he was sending in return:  a sword and scabbard, a photograph (daguerreotype) of him and his daughter, and a pair of elephant tusks. 

Trevor Plante, chief of the Archives I Reference Services Branch Archival Operations at the National Archives in Washington, explained that the King also sent a second letter, in which he offered to send elephants after learning from a group of U.S. naval officers who appeared before him that there were no elephants in the United States.

Finally, the cast and crew reviewed the contents of a response from February 3, 1862, that President Abraham Lincoln sent in receipt of the King’s three gifts. Lincoln was in office when the letter and gifts addressed to President Buchanan arrived in the United States. 

During their tour, the performers also visited the Rotunda to view our nation’s founding documents, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.  Their tour guide also shared Yul Brenner’s naturalization papers.  Brenner portrayed the King of Siam in the original Broadway production of The King and I in 1951 and the 1956 movie version.

Laura Michelle Kelly, who portrays Anna, shared her excitement at touring the museum.  “As a British immigrant, it is so exciting to see how the nation is built on people coming together to form peace and unity” she said. “One can see over and over again the physical evidence of people overcoming divisions.” 

Kelly added how impressed she was that “anyone has access at any time to these documents. I highly recommend a visit to the National Archives.”