Tony award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang granted AsianConnections Arts & Entertainment Editor Lia Chang an all access photographic pass during this exciting chapter in Asian American theatrical history of the remake of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical adaptation of C.Y. Lee’s novel, Flower Drum Song. Lia chatted with the author, the playwright and members of the cast and production team in rehearsal, in the recording studio, backstage, and on opening night. The revamped Flower Drum Song features a talented Pan Asian cast led by Tony award-winning actress Lea Salonga (Miss Saigon) at the Virginia Theatre in New York.
Tony award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly, Golden Child, Aida) has succeeded in revitalizing Flower Drum Song for a whole new generation. In 1996, after seeing a new version of the King and I on Broadway, Hwang decided to write the book that Oscar Hammerstein would have written, had he been Asian American.
Entrusted with this precious legacy by the Rodgers and Hammerstein powers-that-be, and with the blessings of Flower Drum Song novelist C.Y. Lee, Hwang collaborated with director/choreographer Robert Longbottom and musical director David Chase to rewrite the book and bring the revised musical to Broadway.
“Flower Drum Song, I would argue is the first Chinese American novel to be published by an established publishing house, [and] certainly the first Chinese American novel to be on the best-seller list,” says Hwang. “Flower Drum Song has been a landmark for Asian Americans in each of its incarnations – the novel, the Broadway musical was the first to feature and star Asian Americans, and the movie was the first Hollywood movie to do so.”
Lee, now 85 and living in Southern California wrote Flower Drum Song while working as a social news editor and entertainment reporter for Chinese World and Young China in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1957. His novel on Chinese American life became a surprise New York Times bestseller, and was optioned by librettist and Gentleman Prefers Blondes screenwriter Joseph Fields. Fields collaborated with Rodgers and Hammerstein, the A-team of musical theater, to create the musical stage version of Flower Drum Song directed by the inimitable Gene Kelly. It opened on Broadway at the St. James Theater in December 1958.
The female stars of the show — Pat Suzuki and Miyoshi Umeki — became the first Asian Americans to be on the cover of Time and Newsweek. The Broadway show played for 600 performances, before touring successfully and playing one year in London.
In 1961, when the film adaptation was released, it became the first major Hollywood studio film about and starring Asian Americans, launching the careers of the first generation of Asian American stars — Miyoshi Umeki, Jack Soo, James Shigeta, and Nancy Kwan.
This would not happen again until 1993 when The Joy Luck Club, based on Amy Tan’s best-selling novel was released.
Over the years, Flower Drum Song languished and was dismissed by activists and Asian American studies scholars for perpetrating stereotyped clichés of Asian Americans.
Now, in 2002, more than 44 years later, playwright David Henry Hwang has stepped up to the plate.
David Henry Hwang, the only Asian American playwright to be embraced by Broadway and win a Tony Award, took a new look at the old, tired, much criticized show. Like so many others of his generation, he had been entertained by the Asian American cast in the movie version as a child, but later turned-off by the same movie when he was in college in the ’70s, joining others who pointed to the clichéd stereotypes and antiquated story as not “politically correct.” Now, 45, and at the pinnacle of his career, Hwang has taken a fresh view of the work.
“A lot of you who are like myself – Asian American baby boomers – we’ve grown up with a complicated view of Flower Drum Song, Hwang told the audience at a revival screening of the 1961 Hollywood film version, at the Asian American International Film Festival in New York. “As a kid I remember liking it very much because it had an actual love story between an Asian man and an Asian woman which you still don’t see much of today. It had a strong Asian male romantic lead. It almost had an all Asian American cast and of course the Rodgers and Hammerstein numbers and an opportunity to see Asian Americans singing and dancing on the screen. And then by the time I got to college we were protesting it because it was too patronizing, too stereotypical and too cute. Now as a middle-aged person, I’ve rewritten it.”
Novelist C.Y. Lee, in town for all of the pre-opening festivities surrounding the show, praised the outcome. A few days after the Broadway bow, over dinner with the author in his daughter’s East Village apartment, Lee revealed, “…the book and the musical were almost dead after 30 years… And suddenly David wrote me a letter saying that he would like to try to rewrite the musical…I visualize a man on a white horse and he came and picked up the dead body and revived him and rode into the sunset. Like the lovers. The play, the show and the book become like lovers.”
“…. I discovered when I moved to San Gabriel Valley, [in California] the Chinese community…a lot of younger people, they never heard of Flower Drum Song. Especially those who don’t speak English. In those days, only the mainstream learned about Flower Drum Song, Chinese didn’t. This time luckily…the Chinese community discovered it. This time we have Chinese community activities. And I am very happy about this.”
Hwang revisits the themes of Lee’s original novel staying true to its generational and cultural relationships but not one word of dialogue remains from the original show. While the playwright retained certain character relationships and plot elements, addressing issues of Asian American identity and the addition of relevant historical elements, new characters make the show edgier and in the moment. He utilizes the contrasting theatrical styles of traditional Peking Opera versus the Western style razzle dazzle show stopping nightclub numbers choreographed with flair by director Bobby Longbottom as a metaphor for culture clash.
The Rodgers and Hammerstein score, which includes the classics “I Enjoy Being a Girl,” “You Are Beautiful,” “A Hundred Million Miracles,” and “Grant Avenue” remains intact but the numbers have been staged differently from the original production with new orchestrations by Don Sebesky. The “Chop Suey” number is presented with a comedic tongue-in-cheek twist against the backdrop of the late 50’s – early 60’s era ala The Forbidden City, a San Francisco Chinatown nightclub reminiscent of the Harlem’s Cotton Club, but on the Chop Suey circuit.
From Mao’s China for the poor cross section of immigrants, to Western styles worn by assimilated Chinese-Americans of the 50’s and 60’s, designer Gregg Barnes’ costumes are a combination of disparate styles, drawing inspiration for his sexy and stylish suits from the beautiful tailored-movie star Hollywood glamour that is vintage Lilli Ann. The Peking opera costumes are infused with authentic tradition and splendor direct from the costume shops in China. In the nightclub numbers, as the play progresses and the nightclub becomes more successful, the showgirls’ outfits get splashier and raunchier. In the second act, the dancers are practically naked with strategically placed lights under their Chinese take-out containers for the “Chop Suey” number.
While the themes of immigration and assimilation have been updated with a keener sense of historical perspective, the familial and love relationships maintain their timeless universality.
In Oscar Hammerstein’s 1958 version, Mei-Li is a blushing picture-bride from China promised in marriage to Sammy Fong, a nightclub owner in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
In the 2002 Broadway revisical, the show opens with Mei-Li (Lea Salonga) and company singing “A Hundred Million Miracles.” Mei-Li’s father, a Chinese opera master falls under persecution from the Maoist Communist Chinese government and at his dying wish, she escapes to America. Hiding in a crate as a stowaway aboard a ship, she carries the cherished painted instrument in the title given to her by her father before he dies. Arriving in San Francisco, she is taken in by Master Wang (Randall Duk Kim), her father’s best friend who employs her in his run-down struggling Chinese opera house, The Golden Pearl Theatre.
Quite taken with his American-born son, Ta (Jose Llana), who has dreams of converting the space against his father’s wishes into a Western-style nightclub-starring brassy showgirl Linda Low (Sandra Allen), Ta only has eyes for Linda, who can’t wait to get out of San Francisco and make it big in Hollywood. With the infusion of cash provided by Linda’s persuasive agent Madame Liang (Jodi Long), Ta turns The Golden Pearl Theatre into Club Chop Suey, a popular nightspot. Hwang has added the twist of Master Wang enjoying the nightclub success, while Ta discovers his roots by embracing the traditions of Peking Opera and ultimately finding happiness with Mei-Li.
In revamping the storyline and creating new characters, Hwang provides a fresh opportunity to showcase a terrific cast of Asian American artists who can all sing, dance and act. As the lovers, the appealing Lea Salonga and Jose Llana bring the lush romantic melodies of Flower Drum Song exquisitely to life once more. Sandra Allen is a dynamic triple threat as Linda Low who takes Mei-Li under her wing. Jodi Long who made her Broadway debut at age 7, has a sense of comedic timing that is dead on from the moment she hits the stage as Madame Liang. She grew up backstage at the St. James Theatre, where her father Larry Leung appeared in the original Broadway production and she herself appeared in the touring company in which her father starred. Randall Duk Kim’s transformation from the traditional Master Wang to the Catskills comedian and showman Sammy Fong is multi-layered as he pursues romance with Madame Liang. Alvin Ing who appeared in the original touring company as Ta, is a delight as Uncle Chin and sings a beautiful rendition of “My Best Love” which was added to this production. Allen Liu is over the top as the flamboyant, yet earnest Harvard, and Hoon Lee plays Chao, a new suitor for Mei-Li that escapes with her from China but is one of the many disillusioned by their experiences in America that he returns to Hong Kong and tries to take Mei-Li with him.
The fantastic ensemble includes Susan Ancheta, Raul Aranas, Rich Ceraulo, Eric Chan, Marcus Choi, Ma-Anne Dionisio, Emily Hsu, Telly Leung, J. Elaine Marcos, Daniel May, Marc Oka, Lainie Sakakura, Yuka Takara, Robert Tatad, Kim Varhola, and Ericka Yang.
A line from the show sums up the swell of Asian American pride onstage at Virginia Theatre, ” To really appreciate who you are, you really have to appreciate where you come from.”
This universal story of immigration and assimilation, told by the Pan Asian cast of Flower Drum Song is entertaining and enlightening a new audience of theatergoers. In a heartfelt moment during the finale, each individual castmember reveals where they were born, America, Asia, and Canada. At each of the four performances that I attended-the cast received enthusiastic standing ovations. With the reissue of C.Y. Lee’s novel, The Flower Drum Song in September, the new production on Broadway and the cast album due out in January, Hwang’s exploration of the American Dream by Chinese immigrants, a relevant and contemporary American story, is a winning combination with the Rodgers and Hammerstein score to be cherished anew.
FLOWER DRUM SONG is produced by Benjamin Mordecai, Michael A. Jenkins, Waxman Williams Entertainment and Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum/Gordon Davidson/Charles Dillingham, with Robert G. Bartner, Stephanie McClelland, Judith Resnick, Dragotta/Gill/Roberts and by arrangement with The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization. Dallas Summer Musicals and Ernest Escaler are Associate Producers.
Flower Drum Song plays at the Virginia Theatre (245 West 52nd Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue). Tickets are available by calling Telecharge at (212) 239-6200. http://www.flowerdrumsong.com.
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