The new Broadway production of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song, now at the Virginia Theatre starring Lea Salonga, is not so much a revival as a revisal of the 1958 musical. The score, which includes such songs as "You Are Beautiful," "A Hundred Million Miracles," "I Enjoy Being a Girl," and the haunting, underappreciated "Love, Look Away," remains virtually intact. But the book by Hammerstein and Joseph Fields has been rewritten by playwright David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly), whose childhood affection for and subsequent disenchantment with the 1961 movie ultimately propelled him to reexamine the piece.
"My relationship to the original show is ambivalent and maybe a little complicated," says Hwang. "It is a musical that I grew up loving as a kid. As a child I wouldn't watch anything in film or on television that had Asian characters, and I couldn't articulate to myself at the time why they made me feel bad. But Flower Drum Song was the singular exception, because it had Asian characters — at least the younger generation — who were clearly American. It had a love story between an Asian man and an Asian woman, which you still don't much see today. And they were singing and dancing. But by the time I got to college in the seventies, we started to emphasize and discover the ways the work felt sometimes patronizing and sometimes stereotypical."
Set in San Francisco's Chinatown and based on a novel by C.Y. Lee, Flower Drum Song was the third Rodgers and Hammerstein show with an "East-meets-West" theme. But unlike South Pacific and The King and I, the clash of cultures — Chinese traditional vs. American contemporary — was handled as musical comedy. In the original production, a mail-order bride named Mei Li is promised in marriage to Sammy Fong, a nightclub owner (who was played by the decidedly non-Asian Larry Blyden). But Mei Li is in love with Wang Ta, who is in love with nightclub singer Linda Low, who is in love with Sammy, who loves her in return. Wang Ta comes to realize he really loves Mei Li, and in the end everyone ends up with the person he or she desires.
Hwang began to consider the idea of taking a new approach to Flower Drum Song after seeing the acclaimed 1996 production of The King and I, in which Eastern culture was given as much weight as Western culture. "I started to wonder whether it would be possible to take this great score and try to create my own story about the joys and the costs of assimilation," says Hwang. "But I wanted to do it in 'collaboration,' so to speak, with these two great giants from the past, and also return more to the spirit of the original C.Y. Lee novel, which is more bittersweet than the Hammerstein-Fields book, which is mostly pretty sweet.
"The themes in this production are the same as in the original," Hwang continues, "but I don't think there's a line left from the original book. Most of the characters have the same names, and the character relationships are similar. I was trying to think of ways to represent the clash of cultures onstage, and the idea came to me to create a theatrical metaphor so that we could look at opposing forms of theatre as representational of the cultural and generational clash. The show is now set in a traditional Chinese theatre in San Francisco's Chinatown in the late fifties, where a patriarch is still doing Chinese opera for almost no audience. His son wants to turn the place into a Western-style nightclub. This allows us to juxtapose theatrical styles of the Old World and the New World. So the new story is about how a traditional theatre becomes a Western-style nightclub. It's a metaphor for assimilation and change, and the joys and challenges of that." "My Best Love," a song that was cut out of town in 1958, has been added to the score, and "The Other Generation" has been dropped. "I Enjoy Being a Girl" and "Chop Suey," songs that today would likely be classified politically incorrect, have been carefully retained. "Those are the two songs that are generally considered problematic, if you look at it from a 'P.C.' standpoint," says Hwang. "I think that by setting the show in a nightclub in that period, what we're able to do is re-create the spirit of numbers that would have been done on the Chop Suey circuit in the fifties. We should be grown up enough to recognize that there are certain things that perhaps reflect a sensibility different from our sensibility today, but that may have been important and even progressive within the context of their time."
With the passage of time, Hwang has again grown fond of Flower Drum Song. "My main feeling about the show at this point is that Rodgers and Hammerstein sincerely tried to do something quite revolutionary," he says. "Flower Drum Song was in some ways very daring for its time, particularly in the casting of mostly Asian actors. But the original musical feels a little bit like a tourist's-eye view of Chinatown, as opposed to something viewed from the inside looking out. I tried to write the book that Oscar Hammerstein would have written if he were Asian-American. I didn't approach this thinking I need to fix Flower Drum Song. That would be patronizing or arrogant. It's more a question of trying to create something new, but which hopefully respects the spirit and the intentions of the original."