David Henry Hwang was awarded the 1988 Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and John Gassner awards for his Broadway debut, M. Butterfly, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama as well. His other plays include FOB (Obie Award) and Golden Child (Obie Award, Tony Award nomination), plays that, like M. Butterfly, explore the ideas of Asian cultural identity, history, illusion and reality. Did anyone think the author of such rich plays would later pen the books to the populist hit Disney musical, Aida, or the new book for Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song? Well, why not? The versatile Hwang has also written screenplays ("M. Butterfly," "Golden Gate" and "Possession"), opera libretti (1000 Airplanes on the Roof, The Voyage and The Silver River), and, with composer-performer Prince, the song, "Solo." Asian American Hwang, who was fascinated for many years by R&H's assimilation-themed Flower Drum Song, spoke with Playbill On-Line's Andrew Gans during a recent open press rehearsal for Flower Drum Song. The revised revival of the 1958 show, based on the novel by C.Y. Lee, is currently in previews and officially opens at Broadway's Virginia Theatre on Oct. 17. In the musical, Lea Salonga stars as Mei-Li, a tradition-rooted Chinese woman newly arrived to jazzy San Francisco — a literal east meeting west.
Playbill On-Line: How much free reign were you given with rewriting the Flower Drum libretto by Joseph Fields and Oscar Hammerstein?
David Henry Hwang: I approached them — you would have to ask [Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization president] Ted [Chapin] and Mary [Rodgers] and those guys what their process was to say yes — but once they said yes, I really have had pretty complete reign. I get notes from them, but they're more dramaturgical notes. I've never gotten a preservationist note.
PBOL: Can you speak a little about what Flower Drum Song — the novel and the musical — meant to you growing up?
DHH: When I was a kid, I generally had this policy of avoiding plays or movies or TV shows with Asians because they always made me feel kind of icky, but Flower Drum Song was an exception in the sense that you had an actual love story between an Asian man and an Asian woman, which you still don't see much of today. You had a younger generation that acted pretty much American, and you had this great score and these wonderful dance numbers. And, it also established a generation of Asian stars for my parents — that whole era — and, for me, it was one of the few things I saw on television as a kid that I could at all relate to. So, it actually had a lot of meaning to me as a kid.
PBOL: Rodgers and Hammerstein were writing the show at a time when Asian-Americans were being vilified after World War II. Do you think it was brave of them?
DHH: I think it was incredibly brave of them, and it was incredibly brave of them also to do it with an all-Asian cast. I think this probably relates to — this is just my own theory — Hammerstein with Carmen Jones and having those sorts of breakthroughs. I think, probably, it was part of their principles or their agenda to be able to present this other minority group as being Americans like everybody else. Over the years, that concept of what it means to be American like everybody else has sort of dated a bit. You can quibble whether this part of the original Flower Drum Song is authentic or not, [but] I think it was authentically felt, and I think their intentions were pretty radical.
PBOL: How much has this production changed from its Los Angeles debut last season at Mark Taper Forum?
DHH: It's quite different from L.A. The book is probably 75 or 80 percent the same. I've rewritten about a quarter of it. A lot of the numbers have been restaged. I think the tone is different . . . We're trying to balance the dramatic and comedic elements a little more. L.A. was a little light. It was nice, but we wanted to mine it a little more deeply than we did in L.A. PBOL: How has it been working with Lea Salonga?
DHH: Lea's great. I had never met Lea before this, and I'm so impressed with how down-to-earth she is. We've asked her to do things in this show that are really hard for her. She can sing anything, but in terms of some of the movement stuff, she's had to learn Chinese opera movement. She's had to do a lot of things that are a real challenge for her. She comes in like any other cast member, and she's an incredible trouper.
PBOL: Had she been sought to do the role of Mei-Li? Was the mounting of the show based upon her joining the cast?
DHH: I don't know if it was based on whether she would do it. I think, in L.A., we got a commitment. Because we eventually scaled it down to do it at the Taper, I think they probably would have done it without a star. I don't know whether we would have come to Broadway without a star. We certainly sought her out to do in L.A.
PBOL: The production is being billed as a new musical. Can you comment on that?
DHH: If you ask me, I think the best word for it is a remake. It's most analogous to "Ocean's Eleven" or David Cronenberg's "The Fly," where you take something that existed before and you build a new piece on it. Now does that make it a new musical? I don't know; that's up to producers and critics and other people to decide. It doesn't fit neatly into other traditional categories.