When Flower Drum Song opened on 14 October 2001 at the 739-seat Mark Taper Forum with an all-Asian cast the production received rave reviews from the Los Angeles critics. The show regularly sold out and was so popular it became the first show at the Taper to extend its scheduled run. It finally closed on 13 January 2002.
From Talkin’ Broadway:
The marquee and your Playbill may refer to the show as Flower Drum Song, but this is light years away from the show that Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II envisioned.
It’s also as different as can be from the show they actually wrote (with Joseph Fields serving as Hammerstein’s co-librettist) that opened on Broadway in 1958. Based on the novel by CY Lee, the original 1958 Flower Drum Song was a fully integrated musical, professionally and intelligently constructed with plenty of humor, a beautiful score, and a one-of-a-kind story about the generational conflicts among the Chinese in late 50s San Francisco.
The Flower Drum Song currently on view is much like chop suey, “everything is in it all mixed up,” to borrow a line from the original libretto which has been completely scuttled in a favor of a new one by David Henry Hwang. Hwang’s 2002 book lacks much of the charm, warmth, and wit of the original, and never takes the high road where the low road will do, but while Hammerstein and Fields created a well-rounded musical play, Hwang never really comes close.
Yes, there is the basic story at the center of the libretto of Mei Li (Lea Salonga), who escapes Communist China for a new life in San Francisco. She arrives at the Golden Pearl, a theatre owned by Wang (Randall Duk Kim) and specializes in Chinese opera, only to become enamored with his son Ta (Jose Llana). Ta, however, has little interest in the less thoroughly modern Mei Li than the enticing Linda Low (Sandra Allen), who headlines and strips at the theatre’s once a week “night club night.” She catches the eye of theatrical agent Madame Liang (Jodi Long), who, so disconnected from her heritage, she has no qualms about changing the theatre into a trashy nightspot (the Club Shop Suey), capitalizing on Ta’s yearning for mainstream acceptance and Wang’s insatiable desire to perform.
What’s never made clear is why Hwang felt it necessary to reduce the original, uniquely colorful story into just another backstager with a love triangle and lame jokes. One sample: “You know how most jobs involve money? This one doesn’t.” Another: “In China, courtship is easy. You simply marry the man before he gets to know you.”
But the primary failing of the new libretto is that it never feels like an attempt to tell a story, but rather to just string songs together. Functionally, this Flower Drum Song is identical to Mamma Mia!, but this show, unlike that one, doesn’t revel in reversing six decades of musical integration. It just never acknowledges that songs not written for situations in which they’re used are never going to really work right in an entirely different story.
Some songs appear just misguided, as in Mei Li’s philosophy song, “A Hundred Million Miracles,” staged as her trip to San Francisco or “My Best Love,” cut before the original production’s opening and assigned here (nonsensically) to a relatively minor character, Chin (Alvin Ing). Some songs are poorly cued from the dialogue, like “Grant Avenue,” becoming Madame Liang’s cheesy vision of the future or “I Am Going to Like It Here,” (with its references to “the father’s first son,” though Wang apparently only has one). Others aren’t really cued at all, like the nebulously positioned “Love, Look Away,” a gorgeous song put over well by Salonga, but which makes no sense in the context of this story. The two numbers making up the night club sequence at the end of the first act do work well, though it’s perhaps ironic their positioning has changed least from the original libretto.
Two other numbers, though, are flat-out embarrassing, Hwang and director Robert Longbottom forcing them into a parody of Rodgers’s music and Hammerstein’s lyrics. “I Enjoy Being a Girl” has become an embarrassing, overly long strip number for Allen, while “Chop Suey” finds Wang making his second act entrance in an enormous cardboard Chinese takeout box joined by women wearing light-up costumes and men dancing with giant chopsticks. But, as Wang has already been changed from a venerable father figure into a lazy comic device, none of this is really surprising.
Longbottom’s direction and choreography are generally adequate but never exciting, despite echoes of his earlier and better work in Side Show and The Scarlet Pimpernel. He’s allowed for a great deal of gaudy color, reflected mostly in Gregg Barnes’s often striking costumes and occasionally in Robin Wagner’s strangely staid sets and Natasha Katz’s lighting, but it’s never enough to make up for the flaws of the book.
But this Flower Drum Song does have two major assets. The first is its cast, led by Salonga, singing well and demonstrating the warmth and vulnerability necessary to make her character work. Llana is likable in a difficult role, and mismatched vocally with the music until his late second act solo, “Like a God.” Long’s keen comic sense is an asset to every scene she’s in, adding lots of value to many of the cheap jokes, and Allen’s Linda is attractive, if a bit underpowered. Kim, Ing, and Hoon Lee as Mei Li’s old-world friend are saddled with difficult roles but do fine by them, while only Allen Liu, playing the shamelessly stereotypical gay Harvard has real difficulty rising above the material.
The second asset is the most important, and the one that makes this Flower Drum Song enjoyable (at least in part), despite all its problems: its score of delightfully tuneful, varied songs. Though Don Sebesky’s new orchestrations pale in comparison to Robert Russell Bennett’s originals, the songs all bounce and lilt, lifting up the show in its dreariest moments—no one writes songs like these any more. Even if the songs themselves have been treated as chess pieces to be moved about indiscriminately, hearing them sung in a theater by a good cast serves as a strong reminder of the power of good musical theatre writing.
You need reminders like that in this production of Flower Drum Song, perhaps the most visible example of the revival climate of 2002 Broadway. Perhaps appropriately, some of Hwang’s words in the new libretto strike agonizingly true: “To create something new, you must first love what is old.” Hwang and other writers seeking to revise or “improve” on the material of their predecessors should take those words to heart.