It seems inconceivable today, but the original 1951 Broadway production of The King and I was not an equal opportunity employer. “There were only two Asians in the cast,” recalls one of them, Yuriko, a Japanese-American who created the role of Eliza in Jerome Robbins’ classic ballet “The Small House of Uncle Thomas.” But in ensuing years, including the 1956 movie adaptation (also featuring Yuriko), the Asian ratio increased to the point that the Chinese “gypsy” in A Chorus Line cracks about her career opportunities: “If you’re short and Oriental, it’s The King and I!” Yuriko’s own daughter, Susan Kikuchi, 28, has played in 10 different revivals, and in the latest opening next week on Broadway, she stars as Eliza. Even more heartening, Yuriko, now 56, has replaced choreographer Robbins and become director as well.
It was not tokenist sentimentality on the part of composer Richard Rodgers and Yul Brynner (still the king at 56). Yuriko was long one of Martha Graham’s principal dancers and apostles—with a Guggenheim-funded troupe of her own that toured internationally. Her Japanese immigrant parents ran a midwifery clinic in San Jose, Calif. until they were all uprooted to a detention camp in Arizona during World War II. Yuriko’s husband was also interned there, but they didn’t meet until New York, where he was a clinical social worker. Now retired, Charles Kikuchi manages his wife and has published a memoir of his years in Arizona (The Kikuchi Diary: Chronicle from an American Concentration Camp).
Daughter Susan “originally didn’t want to dance but learned by osmosis.” Graham is her godmother, and as an infant in the wings during the first King and I run, she would hold Gertrude Lawrence’s chewing gum while the star was onstage. A grad of the U. of Rochester and some “hippie days” bumming around Europe, Susan will return to the Graham troupe after Broadway. She lives (alone) a few blocks from her parents’ Manhattan apartment.
The day after the show opens Yuriko enplanes for Poland, where she will coach and choreograph for the Warsaw Ballet Company. The restaging of The King was untaxing, she found, except for the casting. She had to audition 2,500 before settling on the final cast of 48. Forty-four of them are Oriental.