Many are the generations that, around the world, grew up with The King and I, the musical and later on the film that first premiered on the Broadway stage in 1951, featuring the likes of Yul Brynner and Gertrude Lawrence in principal roles.
For the famous creative couple, composer Richard Rodgers and dramatist Oscar Hammerstein, it was their fifth musical together, to this day considered one of the jewels in their crown.
The musical is based on Margaret Landon’s 1944 novel Anna and the King of Siam, which took its inspiration from the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, a British governess to the children of King Mongkut of Siam – now Thailand – in the early 1860s.
John Frost’s now legendary Australian production of The King and I premiered at the Adelaide Festival Theatre in 1991 and went on to Broadway to win a Tony Award.
Directed by Christopher Renshaw, The King and I is now back in Australia, with much-loved Australian actress and four-time Gold Logie winner Lisa McCune in the role of Anna Leonowens, and internationally acclaimed actor Jason Scott Lee returning to the role of the King of Siam after his London debut in 2000.
And amongst King Mongkut’s 39 children who have been cast in roles for the Melbourne season of the award winning production, one Greek Australian boy, George Missailidis, shares the principal role of the heir to the throne, Prince Chululongkorn.
Seemingly excited about his time on the stage, George tells Neos Kosmos he is enjoying every single bit of this wonderful production. And for a nine-year-old, stage, singing and dancing come naturally, after he has been training in performing arts since the age of three, alongside his younger brother Alexis who also stars in the musical.
“I love the costumes – I get to wear four, and they are all my favourite colours. I also enjoyed meeting new friends, even though the majority of them are younger than me. We hang out in the dressing room but when we are backstage – we are all silent.” In a professional manner, George reminds me he is not an amateur to this.
Without doubt, what steals the show for the talkative George is the experience he was given on stage with big theatre stars.
“It’s pretty good, talking to some famous actors like Lisa and Lee, my mum told me he is from Hollywood, he is famous.
“He is acting my dad – I mean, having Jason Scott Lee as my dad is just unbelievable,” he says excitedly.
But with his principal children’s role in The King and I, it seems that George is not any less of a star at his Toorak Primary School.
“My principal Ms Julie Manallack announced that I’m in The King and I to everyone – there was a big clap at the end, it was very exciting,” he says proudly.
Maria Mastoropoulos, George and Alexis’ mother, says for the brother duo this is their first professional musical theatre production.
“I signed them up with the agency when they were born, but it was from 2008 they really got into the performing arts, started dancing, training in jazz, tap, ballet, hip hop, acrobatics and musical theatre.
“The King and I is a $6 million production so everything is on a professional scale, they have professional kids’ chaperones who take care of them, they are completely looked after.
“We know and the kids know that it’s work, they’ve been told from the beginning that they are being paid to do this. So they are spoken to and treated like young adults. Producers expect them to be on demand, to be disciplined, to listen, to perform. For the kids it has been a huge eye opener,” Ms Mastoropoulos says.
With the Missailidis brothers being cast as regular background artists for House Husbands, from 2012 to 2014, they’ve known that if they want to act, they have to perform at school first.
“It’s about getting them to appreciate what it’s all about – have fun, but it’s also about working and discipline; it teaches them rejection, it makes them more confident, more determined. Even the dancing instilled them with discipline – they need to discipline their body and mind.
“For many years I’ve been taking them for rehearsals, dance classes, dropping off and picking up, so it’s wonderful to see now how they put everything they learned in dancing and acting classes and apply it to the real deal.”
While I talk to his brother George, Alexis Missailidis is inpatient to have a question addressed to him. For this eight-year-old portraying one of the royal children, Prince Bunmi, the special part of the musical is getting to wear five costumes.
“I am the King’s third son. George is my real brother and he is also my brother in the play.
“I still like it even if it’s tiring sometimes, because after The King and I we just go to bed,” Alexi says.
You would have thought that one eight-year-old may have been intimidated by the lights and the size of the Princess Theatre stage. But not Alexis.
“I feel very happy to be on the stage and in lights. I would like to be an actor in future. Spy, a secret agent spy.”
I imply he would be good for a James Bond movie.
“I reckon – hurray,” he responds cheekily.
Impressed with the talent found in auditions, the recruiting agencies had no trouble in casting three separate casts of children for the Melbourne season of
the musical. Apart from the three boys who share the principal role of Prince Chululongkorn, the 36 other children portray the young Thai princes and
princesses of Siam, with Jorji Loutas and George’s brother, Alexis Missailidis amongst them.
And for one of those talent agencies, The King and I has been an absolute success.
Terri Svoronos, the founder of Showkidz Management, one of Australia’s leading talent agencies, contractor to TV shows like House Husbands, Offspring and Neighbours, was full of pride when recently 10 Showkidz kids were accepted in the children’s cast of The King and I.
And there were some requirements to it – the children had to be aged from 4 to 10 years old, to have charm and individual character, and of course – be able to sing and act.
For many of them this is their first ever musical, but without doubt a thrill to have the chance to be on stage alongside artists of the calibre of Lisa McCune and Jason Scott Lee.
“Some of the things we do are life changing for kids.
“These opportunities don’t knock twice on the door. We can see a little girl playing Princess Ying Yaowalak today and tomorrow she may be Tuptim. It’s a big cast, some of our kids are only four years old. It’s more daunting sometimes for the parents to leave them at the stage door, but when it comes to the kids – they are loving it,” Ms Svoronos says.
For a five-year-old Yorji Loutas, one of the Thai princesses and King’s daughters, this is the first musical she ever has done. She tells Neos Kosmos it was costumes she liked the most and the numerous friends she met.
Jorji’s mother, Elen Loutas, says Jorji has done a couple of smaller theatrical shows in the past with Showkidz, sometimes in both English and Greek, but nothing of the calibre of the musical The King and I.
“When she got through for this we were a bit more excited because it’s a much bigger stage. She was three when she joined Showkidz. She was a very shy child to begin with so I thought this would bring some confidence in her and obviously it has. She loves to sing and dance, from a little girl she would follow and try to copy music clips, so I thought this was a great opportunity to do it.”
Of how much Jorji enjoys her time on the stage of the Princess Theatre, it says enough that when she wakes up, she first asks if that’s the day she is going to The King and I. Then, she will put on the right pair of shoes, set her hair in a bun with mum’s help, and pack the snacks for the long day in theatre.
In Ms Loutas’ opinion, it’s the whole package that creates an enjoyable experience for even the youngest members of the cast.
“Jorji has a stage mother who takes care of her on the stage, when performing. She sent her a card the other day to say thank you for being a good little girl, following my instructions, and Jorji loved it. The chaperones and all other people are lovely to deal with, so it makes it more comfortable for the kids.”
Three shows a week, in front of 1,600 people per show, on the stage of the iconic Princess Theatre – not bad for under-10 year-olds.
The King and I is now showing at the Princess Theatre. For more information and bookings, visit www.ticketmaster.com.au or contact Princess Theatre on 1300 111 011.