A 'Drum' with a Difference

David Henry Hwang repaves Rodgers and Hammerstein's road to Chinatown.

By Misha Berson

Grant Avenue, San Francisco, California, U.S.A.
Looks down from Chinatown
Over a foggy bay…

Anyone who saw  the 1958 stage musical Flower Drum Song, or (more likely) caught the high-gloss 1961 film version, recognizes the snappy Rodgers and Hammerstein tune "Grant Avenue." 

But listen to that song on the Mark Taper Forum stage in the year 2001, belted out by a female character who didn’t even exist in the show’s original production, or in the film. Now the number is no longer just an homage to the main thoroughfare in San Francisco’s famed Chinatown and its proffered delicacies of "shark fin soup" and "bean cake fish."

This "Grant Avenue" is a sly sales pitch by a brassy PR flak, for a tourist-friendly, cross-cultural nightclub mixing Vegas-style flash and flesh with traditional Chinese opera flourishes.

Welcome to the new-minted Flower Drum Song, a runaway hit in Los Angeles that may well land on Broadway soon. And welcome to a new kind of musical theatre revisionism—and, perhaps, a harbinger of things to come.

Flower Drum Song is not, of course, the first aged tuner to be dusted off and revamped in recent decades, as Broadway has spent much—arguably far too much—of its cash and energy scouring the past for potential retread hits.

In the 1980s, Crazy for You and My One and Only successfully raided the George and Ira Gershwin archive for standards to garnish fresh books patterned closely on ’30s musicals. More recently, contemporary playwrights such as Richard Greenberg, David Ives and Terrence McNally have tinkered with the books for older shows like Rodgers and Hart’s Pal Joey and the Gershwin brothers’ Strike Up the Band. And veteran Broadway scribe Peter Stone drew both bricks and bouquets for his "politically correct" retouch of the punchy Irving Berlin musical Annie Get Your Gun

But the Taper’s Flower Drum Song went much farther than nip-and-tuck revisionism. It was a sincere attempt at an intricate operation: a major makeover that aimed to honor the spirit of the original work, while completely rethinking it.

The production also marks the first major renovation of a Rodgers and Hammerstein classic. The setting is still 1950s San Francisco. And most of the songs in R & H’s appealing score—in addition to "Grant Avenue," you may remember "A Hundred Million Miracles" and, yes, "I Enjoy Being a Girl"—are preserved.

But David Chase’s fresh musical arrangements boast more Asian accents and a jazzier edge than the original charts. Two songs have been added: one cut from the original show ("My Best Love"), another from the earlier R & H work Pipe Dream ("The Next Time It Happens").

Moreover, the initial book (by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joseph Fields) has been largely reinvented by prominent Chinese-American dramatist David Henry Hwang, in close collaboration with director-choreographer Robert Longbottom.

Like the dish alluded to in another catchy Flower Drum Song tune, the result turns out to be a very tasty, somewhat overloaded "chop suey"—a stir-fry of global politics and showbiz pizzazz, wisecracks and wistfulness, retro-fun and cultural critique.

"I didn’t sit down thinking, ‘I need to fix the old Flower Drum Song,’" notes Hwang, who got the idea for a re-do six years ago. "I thought, here’s an opportunity to tell a story about assimilation and immigration, but do it in collaboration with Rodgers and Hammerstein, who created this wonderful score around those themes. It meant working with great music that already existed, and trying to make that music flower around a story that would thematically bear out some of their own initial ideas."

Why would the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, which closely guards the artistic legacy (and commercial viability) of America’s most successful musical-theatre duo, give its blessings to such a major overhaul of an R & H property? Ted Chapin, the organization’s president, anticipates some flack from R & H devotees, and others who may consider the new version merely opportunistic. But he justifies Hwang’s Flower Drum Song by pointing out that "the show had success in its original time, but kind of petered out later. It just wasn’t getting produced anymore."

Why hasn’t Flower Drum Song received the wealth of nationwide stock, amateur and school productions accorded to other R & H hits? First, the casting: This tuner demands a large talent pool of triple-threat Asian-American actor-singer-dancers to draw from. (In the Broadway edition, some Asian characters were played by whites, but in the post-Miss Saigon era that would hardly fly.)

Also problematic: charges over the years that Flower Drum Song is stereotypical in its depiction of the central female character in the Hammerstein-Fields book, the sweet Chinese mail-order bride Mei Li, and the patriarchal figure Wang Chi Yang, a conservative Chinatown elder who contrives to wed Mei Li to his Americanized son, Ta. And that it was inauthentic, even offensive in its relentlessly upbeat picture of a big-city Chinatown—a complaint that led to the picketing of a short-lived production of Flower Drum Song in San Francisco in the 1980s.

Hwang says he understood the antipathy Asian-American cultural activists had for the show in the late ’70s and the ’80s. "There was great interest at that time in portraying the social ills of Chinatown, instead of doing what one Asian scholar called State Fair in yellow face," he reflects. "The show was perceived as this very cheery look at what was ostensibly an Asian-American community, when that community was trying to rid itself of its false image. So it was a logical thing for us to react against."

Flower Drum Song had also aged less gracefully than some other R & H hits. It always lacked the seamless integration of story, song and dance that was R & H’s innovative gift to the Broadway musical in such seminal shows as Oklahoma!, Carousel and South Pacific. While engaging, Flower Drum Song was thinly plotted, and the songs were rarely organic expressions of character and story.

Yet, paradoxically, this long-ignored, least artistically inventive of R & H’s hits was also among their most daring works. Its origins—and its bold current makeover—exemplify the elasticity of America’s most popular theatrical form as well as the changing face of adaptation.

A hundred million miracles
Are happening every day
And those who say they don’t agree
Are those who do not hear or see…

Flower Drum Song, the musical, first sprang from from the 1957 novel The Flower Drum Song, by C.Y. Lee, a work Hwang calls "a classic of Asian-American literature." Lee’s book paints a tragicomic portrait of Wang Chi Yang, a stubborn Chinese anti-assimilationist whose hostility toward American culture isolates him from others—including, ultimately, his son, Ta. The story probes well beyond a picture-postcard view of Chinatown. It’s a more candid, complicated look at a man trying to cling to his Old World culture and authority in an American society fueled by constant change and adaptation.

Fields brought the notion of dramatizing Lee’s bestseller to Rodgers and Hammerstein, who also admired the book. But after acquiring the rights, the three refashioned the book into a sunnier, more romantic tale with a nightclub backdrop. The musical Flower Drum Songshifted the focus from Wang to romances between Ta and the new immigrant Mei Li, and between the sexy singer Linda Low and a character not in the novel, the brash club owner Sammy Fong.

Yet with all its standard musical comedy elements, Flower Drum Song retained Lee’s central theme—a theme coursing through much 20th-century American literature: the conflict between Old World immigrants and their New World offspring.

Also, just as R & H dared address class tension in Carousel and racial bigotry in South Pacific, this musical dared consider a milieu most Americans knew little about. True, Flower Drum Song belonged to a post-World War II flurry of Broadway shows with Asian accents. In the 1958-59 season, Leonard Spigelgass’s East-West love story A Majority of One and Paul Osborn’s Hong Kong tale The World of Suzie Wong also premiered.

But the latter shows were set in foreign locales. Flower Drum Song had an intrinsically American setting, amidst an ethnic group that had long been harshly caricatured and marginalized in our mainstream pop culture. Notes Chapin, "Rodgers and Hammerstein were risk-takers. And to have done a show about the Asian-American community and cast it with as many Asian Americans as possible was, at that time, very risky."

It also wasn’t easy. In his memoir Musical Stages, Rodgers noted that "while all of the characters in the play were of Chinese ancestry, it was impossible to find Chinese actors to fill every part." The creators searched in earnest, but the talent pool was small—largely because Asian Americans had found few opportunities in mainstream theatre.

The original cast did include Chinese-American film actor Keye Luke as Wang, while Japanese native Miyoshi Umeki played Mei Li, Hawaiian actor Ed Kenney portrayed Ta, and Japanese-American singer Pat Suzuki was Linda Low.

The casting challenges and steep learning curve of first-time stage director Gene Kelly (yes, that Gene Kelly) gave Flower Drum Song a rocky out-of-town tryout period. But when it reached New York, most reviewers liked it fine. ("The atmosphere is attractive, the score ingratiating and the company good," wrote Walter Kerr in the New York Herald Tribune—though Kenneth Tynan dubbed the show "the world of woozy song.") And audiences kept it running for 600 performances on Broadway. A national tour followed, then the popular Technicolor film.

End of story—at least for the next several decades, during which Flower Drum Song all but disappeared from the boards.

I am going to like it here.
There is something about the place,
An encouraging atmosphere,
Like a smile on a friendly face.

When Hwang was starting his own career in the budding Asian-American theatre movement of the late 1970s, Flower Drum Song represented political incorrectness incarnate. But the playwright confesses he and some Chinese-American friends had a secret soft spot for the movie version. "It was kind of a guilty pleasure," he recalls, "and one of the only big Hollywood films where you could see a lot of really good Asian actors onscreen, singing and dancing and cracking jokes."

Later, Hwang saw a link between his own interest in cultural dislocation and assimilation (central themes in F.O.B., Golden Child and other Hwang dramas) and the concerns at the core of Flower Drum Song. He also connected the musical’s nightclub ambience with the lively Chinese-American cabaret scene of the ’30s and ’40s depicted in Arthur Dong’s film documentary Forbidden City USA.

When Hwang approached the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization about writing a new book for the show from scratch, he had a firm concept. "From the beginning there was always this notion of representing the clash of cultures theatrically by juxtaposing a very traditional dramatic form, like Chinese opera, with this very American genre of musical comedy," he explains. "It seemed to me that the collision between the two could symbolize some of the central issues and disputes in the piece." 

Chapin found Hwang’s ideas intriguing, as did James Hammerstein (the son of Oscar Hammerstein, who is now deceased) and Mary Rodgers (Richard Rodgers’s daughter).

"The issue of assimilation hasn’t dated," declares Chapin. "In fact, it’s very universal. What’s dated is the idea that the height of being American is getting a Thunderbird and a TV set, which is partly what the original show and especially the movie conveyed. Today when you come to America, it’s important to hold on to some of what you brought with you, and David wanted to look into that."

But Hwang’s first draft for a revamped Flower Drum Song was a fizzle. Confides Chapin, "It was completely unproduceable, because as good a playwright as David is, he didn’t know how to structure a musical." Agrees Hwang, "I had a lot to learn about musical theatre."

Enter Robert Longbottom, a veteran director of musicals, including Broadway’s Side Show. Working closely with Hwang and musical supervisor David Chase, Longbottom says he was determined to "make the transitions between song and story seamless"—in fact, to integrate them more smoothly than in the original show.

"It did make me squeamish to tamper with an existing work by such giants," Longbottom admits. "But it was also thrilling. We wanted to be faithful to the heart of C.Y. Lee’s book, and to the score. And ultimately, the show is still about making peace with your parents, your children and your world."

Though the remake Hwang and Longbottom developed in workshops retained most of the names of the first Flower Drum Song characters and some of their relationships, almost everything else changed. Hwang added history, substance and grit to the role of Mei Li, played movingly at the Taper by the dulcet-voiced Filipina actress Lea Salonga (a Tony-winner for Miss Saigon). And for the most part, the 50-year-old songs arose very naturally from the new story.

The opening number, "A Hundred Million Miracles," blossomed into an extended mini-drama in flashback. Stylized techniques from Chinese opera (martial arts-style moves, the use of poles and mime to create scenic illusions) helped convey the persecution of Mei Li’s Chinese opera-star father by Maoist Chinese officials, and her own difficult journey of exile to the West.

The patriarch Wang (played in L.A. by Chinese opera-trained Tzi Ma) became the proprietor and star of a classical Chinese theatre in Chinatown, fallen on hard times due to changing times and tastes. His son Ta (Jose Llana) rebelled against his dad’s rigid traditionalism by trying to westernize the dying theatre’s fare.

Linda Low (Sandra Allen), if still a major babe, is now an independent woman with real showbiz ambitions. And "I Enjoy Being a Girl" is no longer a preening fashion show, but Low’s tongue-in-cheek lesson on crafty American womanhood sung to the naive Mei Li.

Fending off potential criticism that this ditty and such leggy floor-show numbers as "Fan Tan Fanny" are still retro or chauvinist, Hwang says, "I feel two ways about this. ‘I Enjoy Being a Girl’ sort of dovetails now with the ‘girl power’ we keep hearing about in pop music today. Also I think we’ve come around, in a way, to accept and appreciate some things with a certain amount of distance and irony we didn’t have 20 years ago.

"We don’t intend to subvert the number—if anything, we’re recontextualizing it to be about Western femininity as opposed to the historic Chinese oppression of women. Hey, if you compare that to foot-binding and throwing girl babies down the well, the Western kind looks pretty good to Mei Li!"

Even if one doesn’t buy that, there’s no doubt the new character of Madame Liang is plenty liberated—and a different gal from the wise-owl aunt of the same name in the Fields-Hammerstein book. As played with panache by Jodi Long (whose parents appeared in Flower Drum Song on Broadway), this savvy career woman is a glib mover who turns Wang’s empty theatre into a red-hot nightspot—with, eventually, his enthusiastic help.

Hwang’s book directly confronts the enticements and pitfalls of such cultural accommodation, while also cramming in allusions to poverty and labor conditions in Chinatown and the American obsession with the almighty dollar. "Nothing buys respect in this country like money," Madame Liang observes. "We’ll give tourists what they want, but we’ll have the last laugh."

Explains Hwang, "If the first act of the show is the bright, glossy side of the American dream, I wanted the second act to be about some of the more problematic things."

In the end, he does have Mei Li and Ta marry—in a ceremony symbolic of a new American pluralism that honors ancestry, without forgoing modernity. In a parallel sense, Hwang, Longbottom, scenic designer Robin Wagner and company wed the heart of R & H’s Flower Drum Song—its songs, its milieu, its old-fangled song-and-dance zest—to a contemporary "fusion" theatricality and social perspective.

Mark Taper Forum artistic director Gordon Davidson got involved at the invitation of Chapin, after the show had two workshops in New York. "I immediately responded to the quality of the writing, but also to what David seemed to be doing with the story—filtering it through a Chinese-American point of view," says Davidson, who aimed to produce the revamp at the Los Angeles Music Center’s 2,000-seat Ahmanson Theatre. But after the sudden loss of some "enhancement money" from Singapore investors, Davidson had to cut the budget and move Flower Drum Song next door to the cozier, 750-seat Taper. The resulting immediacy in the thrust-stage house, says Hwang, "was an unexpected gift."

"It was much more powerful to do it closer to the audience, on Robin’s ramps and runways, than with a lot of huge scenery," agrees Longbottom. "It helped us see all the creative possibilities."

L.A. critics greeted the show’s October premiere with an encouraging mingle of warm praise and constructive advice. "For all its nutty contradictions, and ultimately because of them, Flower Drum Song succeeds," wrote L.A. Times critic Michael Phillips. Another review said it all in a nutshell: "What a difference a play makes."

C.Y. Lee, now in his eighties, lauded the outcome. And cast members of Broadway’s 1958 Flower Drum Song, many of whom have kept in touch through periodic get-togethers, praised the new version at a post-performance reunion.

Due to ticket demand, the Taper extended the run a month (though Salonga had to leave early to honor a prior commitment). At a typically sold-out show last November, the interracial crowd included many Asian Americans—laughing at the gags, cheering the splashy chorus numbers and initiating a standing ovation.

Chop suey, chop suey!
Good and bad, intelligent, mad and screwy.
Violins and trumpets and drums,
Take it all the way that it comes,
Sad and funny, sour and honey dewy.
Chop suey!

Though there were no firm plans at press time, it’s likely the new Flower Drum Song will have a second regional run to work out its kinks, then move to Broadway.

If the show succeeds, will other on-the-shelf musicals with attractive scores but unwieldy books be lining up for revamps soon? "Every musical produced by the giants of Broadway’s golden era of musicals has been examined with the possibility of finding some new life in it," says Chapin. "That will always be done, I think. But this is really a new musical which has a pre-existing score—that’s a real different entity from what we usually see."

Perhaps the salient difference is in the passion of Hwang, who always viewed Flower Drum Song as something more than a chance to market old wine in a snazzy new bottle.

"Creating a new book for an old musical can feel very much like a craftsman’s job, a gig," he observes. "But for me it’s always been something incredibly personal. I consider this very much my new play. I’ve had the benefit and privilege to use the real materials that are my inspiration, and on which I’m commenting. It’s been amazing, and a very rare opportunity."

Misha Berson is theatre critic for the Seattle Times and a frequent contributor to this magazine.

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