Flower Drum Song

November 18, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


SINGING: A hundred million miracles…

JEFFREY BROWN: When actress Lea Salonga taps her small drum at the beginning of the musical “Flower Drum Song,” it signals the latest twist to an unusual American tale…

SINGING: Grant Avenue…

JEFFREY BROWN: …A story set in San Francisco’s Chinatown…

ACTOR: Why are you doing this?

JEFFREY BROWN: …Evoking the clash of generations in a closely-knit ethnic community. It’s also a story of how an artistic idea moves through time, reappearing in different guises. (Applause)

JEFFREY BROWN: “Flower Drum Song” began life as a novel, became a musical and a film, and is now back here on Broadway in a new incarnation. The plot has gone through many changes, but according to those involved, the core of the story has remained the same.

C.Y. LEE, Author, “The Flower Drum Song:” I discovered there’s a main conflict, generation conflict. I thought I should write about it.

JEFFREY BROWN: The story begins with this man, C.Y. Lee, now 84. In the ’50s, the Chinese-born Lee was living here in San Francisco’s Chinatown, working on a local newspaper and writing a story with characters familiar to him– a strong-willed, tradition-bound father. “Master Wang Chi-Yang,” Lee wrote, “was one of those who could not live anywhere else in the United States, but in San Francisco Chinatown.” And his son, Wang Ta, studying to be a doctor and a young American– “quiet and unhappy at 28, he was often embarrassed in his father’s company.”

C.Y. LEE: I saw a lot of conflict in old Chinatown. And the younger generation always fought with older generation, their habits, their cultural backgrounds. So, I put everything into the novel. So, all the conflicts I learned, I put it in “Flower Drum Song.”

ACTOR: What do you know of marriage? What do you know of women?

ACTOR: Sir, what did you know of marriage and women when you married my mother?

ACTOR: Nothing. That is why I obeyed my father and married the woman he chose for me.

JEFFREY BROWN: The conflict was still there when the novel was turned into a musical, first on Broadway in 1958, then in this movie a few years later. But where Lee’s novel was an often angry, bitter tale, the musical created by the legendary team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, made major changes to the plot and characters and turned the story into a sunny romance. Also noticeable: Some of the ethnic stereotypes common to the time, like the overly shy, submissive Chinese young woman.

ACTRESS: You are the first born. I am Mei Li from Hong Kong.

JEFFREY BROWN: Critics were generally harsh, but audiences seemed to enjoy it. The play ran a very respectable 600 performances, a year and a half on Broadway. Soon, though, “Flower Drum Song” all but disappeared from view. But for a younger generation of Asian-Americans, it became a touchstone. David Henry Hwang is author of the new “Flower Drum Song.”

DAVID HENRY HWANG, Playwright: When I came across “Flower Drum Song” for the first time as a movie– probably in the late, you know, ’60s, early ’70s on some late-night television thing– I was surprised to see, you know, an actual love story between an Asian man and an Asian woman, which you still don’t see much today; a strong Asian male romantic lead; a younger generation that spoke without accents and that seemed quite American. Best known for his Tony Award- winning hit, “M. Butterfly,” Hwang has often explored the conflicts of ethnic identity in his work.

JEFFREY BROWN: You grew up in Los Angeles and you talked about how you would go out of your way not to watch television or movies that had Asian American characters. Why?

DAVID HENRY HWANG: You know, I guess they just made me kind of feel bad. And these are people whose faces were the same as mine, so they were associated with me in some sense, and yet they seemed very… they seemed to have nothing to do with me. And, in fact, during that period, most of them were either sort of, you know, comical or villains or they were inhuman in one sense or another.

JEFFREY BROWN: Hwang’s “Flower Drum Song”– this is an early rehearsal– mixes the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein and the more complicated emotions of the novel. Compare two scenes: First from the 1961 film.

ACTOR: A cigarette?

ACTRESS: Oh, Hon, no thanks. I don’t smoke. Your father sounds very Chinese.

ACTOR: He is completely Chinese. And that’s good. It’s good for my brother because he’s completely American. And I’m both, and sometimes the American half shocks the oriental half. And sometimes the oriental half keeps me from showing a girl what’s on my mind.

ACTRESS: Well, let’s start working on the American side.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, a scene from the new “Flower Drum Song.”

ACTRESS: Ta, sometimes I think you’re 100 percent Chinese. Then a moment later you become 100 percent American.

ACTOR: So what does that make me, 100 percent nothing?

ACTRESS: No, I think you are 100 percent both.

ACTOR: Is that possible?

JEFFREY BROWN: The new play uses theater itself as a plot device. Father and son run a traditional Chinese opera that no one in Chinatown comes to see.

ACTOR: Master, can’t you see we’re performing?

ACTOR: Dad, there’s no one in the audience. ( Laughter )

ACTOR: Honorable ladies and gentlemen, welcome to…

JEFFREY BROWN: The Son turns it into a wildly successful nightclub called “Chop Suey,” allowing the new show to have plenty of glitz. Hwang and director Robert Longbottom aren’t above having some fun with old stereotypes. Where else might you find women garbed in little but Chinese take-out containers?

DAVID HENRY HWANG: That’s a really, you know, sick, twisted moment. And it’s… I really like it.

JEFFREY BROWN: But this is a play where the stereotypes are in the service of a bigger idea.

ACTOR: Feelin’ hungry yet?!

ACTOR: Are ya?

ACTOR: I know I am, and I just ate an hour ago.

DAVID HENRY HWANG: Nobody nowadays thinks, “oh, if you eat Chinese food you’re going to be hungry an hour later.” So by bringing it back, the… it ends up serving a different function now, because you don’t end up laughing at Chinese people per se, you end up laughing at the fact that the society at a certain point actually believed that if you ate Chinese food, you’d be hungry an hour later.

ACTRESS: My father always told me, to create something new, you must first love what is old.

JEFFREY BROWN: Another key point here: The complex interplay of old and new. Mei Li, the shy picture bride of the original musical, is now a determined refugee from Communist China. And while she, too, wants to be part of her new country, it is she who teaches those around her to cherish the old as well. Lea Salonga, who was born in the Philippines and first gained fame on Broadway in “Miss Saigon,” plays Mei Li.

LEA SALONGA: She tries on the skins of different things, but when she realizes that it’s not her and when it doesn’t fit her, then she’ll, you know, she’ll see which path is the best one for her, which is… which is how a lot of people go about their lives.

JEFFREY BROWN: But did that… did that submissive stereotype ever ring true for you at all?

LEA SALONGA: For me? No. (Laughter) Me, submissive? No.

JEFFREY BROWN: Several actors in the new cast have had a close-up view of the evolution of “Flower Drum Song.”

ACTOR: So what’s your secret to a long and happy marriage?

ACTOR: For one thing, I’m hardly ever at home. ( Laughter )

JEFFREY BROWN: Alvin Ing played the young male lead in the first national tour of the Rodgers and Hammerstein show.

ALVIN ING: Then it was the first musical… Asian musical that was… and we… it was a multi- racial cast, and that makes it different from our cast today, because in our cast today we are all Asian or part Asian, which I’m very proud of. And in those days, that was the only job we had as musical performers. So I can probably say I did more productions of “Flower Drum Song” than any man alive those days. (Laughs) It was my whole career.

ACTRESS: And you’re still doing it.

ALVIN ING: And I’m still doing it, 30 years later. ( Laughs )

ACTRESS: People in San Francisco…

JEFFREY BROWN: Jody Long, who plays the tough-talking show biz agent Madame Liang, used to watch from backstage as a child, while her father performed in the original Broadway production. It gives her, too, the long view.

JODY LONG: I mean, it started with an Asian-American point of view with C.Y., And it was taken by Rodgers and Hammerstein and done lovely things to. But to come back full circle to an Asian-American point of view from one of our playwrights, David Henry Hwang, it’s a great thing to actually put that forth. He’s talking about all the things that we’ve experienced.

JEFFREY BROWN: When the show opened in October, most reviews were respectful, but negative. Ben Brantley of the “New York times” noted the “honorable intentions” of the effort to update the material, but the “evident strain” of the result. For his part, David Henry Hwang says the very attempt to re- imagine “Flower Drum Song” for a new generation has a value all its own.

DAVID HENRY HWANG: All the incarnations of “Flower Drum Song” essentially deal with the process of Americanization and what it means to come to this country and be part of this country from a Chinese-American perspective. I think that identity is a question that gains its strength from our ability to ask it over and over again and continue to change and redefine ourselves and evolve.


JEFFREY BROWN: Once again, audiences will decide the fate of “Flower Drum Song.” So far, ticket sales remain strong.