Featuring a new book by David Henry Hwang and a cast led by Tony Award winner Lea Salonga and former King and I star Jose Llana, Flower Drum Song is being directed and choreographed by Side Show's Robert Longbottom, who also helmed the revised Broadway production of The Scarlet Pimpernel.
After a brief welcome the press was invited to Studio 5 for a preview of numbers from the classic musical, which features such R&H favorites as "Love Look Away" and "I Enjoy Being a Girl." The cast, under Longbottom's direction, had been rehearsing in the studios for the past four weeks. Longbottom, who admitted that he loves the score to Flower Drum Song, said he felt "like the luckiest person in the room."
Lea Salonga, whom audiences still remember as Miss Saigon's Tony-winning original and final Kim (she returned to the Saigon company ten years later to close the production), led the cast in the show's opening number, "A Hundred Million Miracles." The Rodgers and Hammerstein tune builds slowly and finishes with a moving tableau as the Asian immigrants encounter San Francisco's imposing Golden Gate Bridge for the first time. Longbottom then introduced the award-winning author of M. Butterfly, David Henry Hwang, who has contributed an entirely new script, based on Oscar Hammerstein II and Joseph Fields' original. Hwang, who was part of the book-writing team for Disney's Aida, spoke openly about the importance Flower Drum Song has played in his life and the genesis of his involvement with the current version. "I sort of wondered if I could begin to have a conversation with this work," Hwang said, "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 explained that it's been a six-year journey, and after a first draft that was "pretty bad," he was put in touch with Longbottom and Flower Drum's musical supervisor and arranger, David Chase. "[They] gave me a two-year crash course in musical-theatre book writing. We always thought that we would use contrasting theatrical styles as a metaphor for the culture clash. [What] evolved was a story about a traditional Chinese theatre in San Francisco, Chinatown, in the late fifties, early sixties. They're still doing Chinese opera, but they don't have any audiences anymore, and it eventually converts into a Western-style nightclub, using that as sort of a metaphor for assimilation. It's been an amazing privilege to get to work this material."
Hwang introduced members of the cast, including Salonga, who portrays Mei Li, a Chinese immigrant who flees to America in the late 1950's, arriving in San Francisco where she finds work in a Chinese opera house. "We've got this amazing cast," Hwang explained, "which I think is quite a cross-section of America. They all have stories that are very much related to the story that we're telling — from Lea Salonga, who I've found to be so much more a star for not acting like a star in rehearsal and really going places and trying new things and challenging herself. I have so much respect for her. There's a great deal of history in this cast," he continued. "Alvin Ing, who plays Chin, who's a new character, was in the original 1961 touring company of Flower Drum Song where he played Ta, the young romantic lead. Jodi Long, who plays Madame Liang, her father Larry Long was in the original production of Flower Drum Song, so she grew up backstage at the St. James . . . Every ensemble member has a story that relates to what we're trying to tell here in Flower Drum Song."
After Hwang's remarks, Longbottom returned to introduce the next song, "You Are Beautiful," a duet between the golden-voiced Salonga (Mei-Li) and the equally gifted Jose Llana (Ta), a song that finds Mei-Li helping Ta understand what it truly means to be in love. Jodi Long (Madame Liang) led the next production number, "Grant Avenue," in which she persuades and convinces those in charge to turn the run-down opera house into a Western style nightclub. The final offering showcased Longbottom's choreography for "Fan Tan Fannie," which featured the chorus led by Sandra Allen, who plays Linda Low.
After the performances, Longbottom spoke about his joining the creative team, which also includes Robin Wagner (sets), Gregg Barnes (costumes), Natasha Katz (lighting), ACME Sound Partners (sound), David Chase (musical supervision and arrangements) and Don Sebesky (orchestrations).
"I begged them to let me meet with David Hwang," Longbottom laughed. "They didn't have a director, and I loved the score. I suggested we look at it from a backstage musical sort of thing, which would not have occurred to [Hwang], so we sort of corrupted one another — my point of view and his."
Longbottom explained that the Rodgers and Hammerstein organization have been incredibly supportive in the development of the reworked version of Flower Drum. "We haven't borrowed any other [Rodgers and Hammerstein] songs. We've kept it to what was in the [original] show. We had used 'The Next Time It Happens' out in Los Angeles, and we're not anymore, which we're happy about. We think that we fulfilled the assignment to the letter by not borrowing anything else."
He also added that the song "Sunday," which was not included in the Mark Taper production, is now back in the show. As for other changes since the L.A. debut, Longbottom said that some of the dance numbers have been expanded, and "there's a second-act character love interest conflict for Mei-Li, a character Chow, which is a new creation of David's for the show." The director-choreographer also had nothing but praise for his company of actors, adding that Salonga is "a doll. She is the most easygoing, lovely professional. We all love her."
And, Salonga returns the compliment. "I've [gotten] really, really lucky that everyone in the cast is just wonderful and great to work with, as has been Bobby [Longbottom] and David Henry [Hwang] and everyone in the production. Everyone's been just so easy and laid back that it's just been such a pleasure."
Jose Llana, who plays Salonga's love interest, spoke about his character Ta, who struggles with his character's assimilation into the American culture. "I think what's great [about the show]," Llana said, "is that it reads to the general American audiences that the commonality everyone has in America is that either they or their parents or their grandparents came from somewhere else."
Longbottom also spoke about 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, 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."
Hwang, perhaps, put it best, when he spoke about the importance that Flower Drum has had on the Asian population in the U.S. "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 will play the Virginia Theatre, which is located at 245 West 52nd Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue. Joining former Miss Saigon star Salonga onstage at the Virginia are Randall Duk Kim (Master Wang), Jose Llana (Ta), 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.
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.
—By Andrew Gans