David Henry Hwang during the open rehearsal of Flower
Drum Song at the 890 Broadway Studio in New York.
Photo credit: Lia Chang
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
C. Y. Lee relaxes in his daughter Angela's apartment in
Photo Credit: Lia Chang
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."
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
Sandra Allen and Ensemble sing "I Enjoy Being a Girl."
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
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.
Salonga sings "A Hundred Million Miracles"
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus.
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
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
Credit: Lia Chang - Sketches by Costume Designer Gregg Barnes
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.
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.
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.
Flower Drum Song cast at the curtain call on opening
Photo Credit: Lia Chang
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."
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.
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.
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. www.flowerdrumsong.com.
see more exclusive pictures from Flower Drum Song, check out the
Flower Drum Song Photo Gallery!