A reworking of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song — featuring an all-new book by David Henry Hwang — begins previews at the Virginia Theatre Sept. 23. The official opening is scheduled for Oct. 17.
Lea Salonga, the Tony-winning star of Miss Saigon, heads the cast of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical as Mei-Li, a Chinese immigrant who arrives in San Francisco. In a recent interview for Playbill On-Line, Salonga spoke about her character: "Her name is Mei-Li, and she is an illegal Chinese immigrant, having been shipped in a crate from China, and she finds herself in San Francisco, finds herself sort of adopted by this family in a Chinese opera theatre/night club. She falls in love with Ta, and basically everybody takes her under their wing, but a lot of things happen that burst her bubble and her ideal picture about what America is. She does have to struggle a little bit and comes to who she is at the end of the show, and she comes to that place on her own terms." Ta, Salonga's love interest in the musical, is being portrayed by Jose Llana, who has starred in the Broadway companies of Rent, Streetcorner Symphony and The King and I.
The remainder of the cast includes Randall Duk Kim (Master Wang), Jodi Long (Madame Liang), Sandra Allen (Linda Low), Alvin Ing (Chin), Allen Liu (Harvard), Hoon Lee (Chao) and Ma-Anne Dionisio (Little Girl). The ensemble comprises Susan Ancheta, Raul Aranas, Rich Ceraulo, Eric Chan, Marcus Choi, Emily Hsu, Telly Leung, J. Elaine Marcos, Daniel May, Marc Oka, Lainie Sakakura, Yuka Takara, Robert Tatad, Kim Varhola and Ericka Yang.
Robert Longbottom, who helmed Broadway's Side Show, directs and choreographs, with music adaptation and direction by David Chase. At an open press rehearsal Sept. 4, Longbottom spoke about the musical's themes — fitting in to society, whether it's cultural differences or a plethora of other perceived challenges that might divide people. "There are things about this show that speak to me in the same way as Side Show," Longbottom said, "the marginalized community to the left of life . . . I didn't immigrate from China, but I took my own boat, if you will, running away from home with tap shoes. A lot of people who wind up in New York have that similar story. We come here and reinvent ourselves. I get that, and I hope the metaphor is universal enough that you find yourself up there onstage."
The creative team also includes Robin Wagner (sets), Gregg Barnes (costumes), Natasha Katz (lighting), ACME Sound Partners (sound), Don Sebesky (orchestrations), Seymour Red Press (musical coordinator), David Brian Brown (hair), Perry Cline (production stage manager), Tom Kosis (associate director), Darlene Wilson (associate choreographer) and Jamie H. J. Guan (Chinese Opera consultant). A Tony Award-winning playwright for his Broadway debut, M. Butterfly, David Henry Hwang has written a completely new story for the musical. At the Sept. 4 rehearsal, Hwang explained his journey with Flower Drum Song. "I sort of wondered if I could begin to have a conversation with this work, so I approached [Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization President] Ted Chapin and Mary Rodgers and James Hammerstein and asked if it might be possible for me to do something, which, I guess, was sort of unlikely at the time — to be able to take the songs, keep the spirit, keep the themes, and in essence do my best to try and write the book that Oscar Hammerstein would have written had he been Asian-American."
Hwang also added, "Flower Drum Song has been a landmark event for Asian-Americans in each of its incarnations. The novel by C. Y. Lee was the first novel by a Chinese-American to be published by a major publishing house and the first to become a best-seller. The Broadway musical was the first to feature and star Asian-Americans, and the 1961 movie was also the first Hollywood movie to do so, and it was not repeated until 1993 when The Joy Luck Club was released, so we consider this to be a very precious legacy. We're all thrilled to be entrusted with this legacy, and we hope we do well by it."
Flower Drum Song originally opened at Broadway's St. James Theatre on Dec. 1, 1958. Directed by Gene Kelly and choreographed by Carol Haney, the cast featured Larry Blyden as Sammy Fong, Pat Suzuki as Linda Low, Miyoshi Umeki as Mei-Li, Juanita Hall as Madam Lian, Arabella Hong as Helen Chao and Ed Kenney as Wang Ta. It ran 600 performances. The classic score features such tunes as "A Hundred Million Miracles," "I Enjoy Being a Girl," "I Am Going to Like It Here," "Chop Suey," "Grant Avenue" and "Love, Look Away."
Directed by Henry Koster, the 1961 USA film starred Nancy Kwan as Linda Low, James Shigeta as Wang Ta, Benson Fong as Wang, Jack Soo as Sammy Fong, Juanita Hall as Madame "Auntie" Liang, Reiko Sato as Helen Chao, Patrick Adiarte as Wang San, Kam Tong as Doctor Li, Victor Sen Yung as Frankie Wing, and Soo Yong as Madame Fong. Joseph Fields wrote the screenplay for the film, which also included several Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes.
The Virginia Theatre is located at 245 West 52nd Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue. From Sept. 23 to Oct. 19, Flower Drum Song will play Monday through Saturday evenings at 8 PM, with matinees Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 PM. Beginning Oct. 22, performances are Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 PM, with matinees Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 PM and Sundays at 3 PM. Tickets, priced between $65 and $95, are available by calling Telecharge at (212) 239-6200. For more information, go to www.flowerdrumsong.com.
This revised version of Flower Drum Song premiered at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum to much acclaim.