"If somebody had said to me five years ago that I'd be designing Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals and that one of them would be seen on Broadway, I'd have told them that they were off their rocker," says Australian stage designer Brian Thomson.
At least one producer of the 1991 Australian production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I shared his skepticism, believing that director Christopher Renshaw was off his rocker for suggesting Thomson. Even when Thomson himself came around to the idea, certain people were, he recalls, "still very suspicious."
There was no doubt about Thomson's talent. He was firmly established as a giant among Australian stage designers, but his reputation was as a brilliant nonconformist. If there was an expected or traditional way to stage something, you could be pretty certain that Thomson would take a different approach.
One of his trademarks was the ability to distill a design to its barest, most evocative essentials, capturing the themes of a piece in a clean, poetic gesture. Fine for classical drama, but, how appropriate was that for a musical like The King and I?
Thomson had, in fact, designed several musicals, notably the London premiere of The Rocky Horror Show and subsequent productions around the world, and the 1972 Australian production of Jesus Christ Superstar, later seen in London, with its transparent elevator and dodecahedron, which opened and closed like a space-age flower. Neither production, however, was decided to assuage the fears of those worried about what Thomson might do with The King and I. …