In this year of the centenary of Richard Rodgers’ birth, it has been commonplace to observe the divided consciousness of his musical achievement, a division rooted in the radically different sensibilities of his two major collaborators, Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II. Hart’s genius was in his clever and ironic lyrics; he often didn’t write or was unconcerned with the book of the show, being content to work within the frivolous traditions of the musical conventions of his time. In their multi-decade collaboration, Rodgers and Hart rarely started from a serious narrative premise, with Pal Joey representing the exception that proves the rule.
But from the very outset of their remarkable collaboration beginning with Oklahoma!, Rodgers and Hammerstein anchored their musical creations in firmer soil. They invariably chose substantial material with serious thematic concerns as their inspiration. Indeed, Hammerstein had helped create this new musical model a decade and a half before joining forces with Rodgers. In 1927 he and composer Jerome Kern had radically escaped from escapism with their adaptation of Edna Ferber’s sprawling novel, Show Boat, a tale replete with broken marriages and racial prejudice. This concern for serious social subject matter infused with a deep liberal humanism defined Oscar Hammerstein’s work until the very end.
It is an ironic truism that time alters our perception of historical events. In its era Show Boat’s attack on "miscegenation" laws through its depiction of the plight of the light-skinned Julie was undeniably ahead of its time. Yet to contemporary eyes its portrayal of African-Americans contains residues of negative stereotyping (e.g., in "Old Man River" Joe is called "shiftless" by his mate), although intentions are clearly the reverse.
A similar historical reassessment has altered our perception of R & H’s penultimate collaboration, Flower Drum Song. In its era, the 1950s, the work was progressive in its acceptance of its Chinese characters as full-blown Americans and as individuals with impulses as complex as anybody else’s. This liberalism was nothing new for Hammerstein who often insisted that prejudice "had to be taught" in the interracial relationships he frequently drew in his his libretti, notably in South Pacific and The King and I. He was always interested in what is now termed the multicultural.
Flower Drum Song was no anomaly. Adapted by Hammerstein from a novel by C.Y. Lee set in San Francisco’s Chinatown, its basic theme was the tension between traditional values and the new modern culture as expressed through a series of romantic liaisons linking FOBs (Fresh off the Boat) with ABCs (American-born Chinese) and assimilated immigrants. Sammy Fong, a westernized night club owner, has arranged a marriage with a mail-order "picture" bride from China, a shy immigrant girl named Mei Li. But Sammy is in love with sexy Linda Low and decides to fob the girl off to young Wang Ta who is also in love with the sexy Linda. Matters familiarly escalate, complicate, and are finally resolved in a classic comic happy ending with everybody ending up with the person he or she desires.
So what’s the problem? Why, despite its progressive intentions, had Flower Drum Song come to be seen as so retro that it became the R & H work least frequently revived? The answer, as Chinese-American playwright, David Hwang explained in the New York Times, lies in the changing times, in the context of the discovery of ethnic identity that arose in the 1960s, first in the African-American community, then elsewhere. Flower Drum Song, by two aging Jewish theatre patriarchs, seemed "quaint, patronizing, and old-fashioned," a work well-meaning but "inauthentic." So Hwang, imbued nonetheless with the "guilty pleasure" of affection for the original with which he identified as a young Californian, approached the Hammerstein estate with a radical proposal that he write a completely new book that would fully respect the integrity of the existing score. Since the songs imbed some narrative material, there would necessarily be a strong connection between the old book and the new. The estate accepted the proposal and, after considerable workshopping, the current production was born.
Hwang’s book introduces two interlinked new elements. To strengthen the character of Mei Li, she is portrayed as a refugee from Communist China which has imprisoned and killed her father to whose ideas and ethics she remains staunchly faithful. Secondly, to enhance the visual distinction between the old and the new, Hwang adds another level of performance convention. The glitzy tackiness represented by the ersatz Chinoiserie performed in the Club Chop Suey is contrasted with the formalized world of Beijing Opera. What is the Club Chop Suey? When Mei Li arrives in San Francisco she has only the address of Wang, the best friend of her father, who was a master of the Chinese Opera. She discovers him running a derelict Opera company playing to a pitifully small audience. In order to pay the rent, Wang’s son, Ta (on whom Mei Li instantly has a crush) has converted one night a week to Westernized entertainment.. In Hwang’s new book Wang, after initial revulsion at the new style, learns to join it since he can’t beat it and evolves into the hip cabaret m.c. Sammy Fong.
The introduction of the magnificently costumed, hieratic movements of Beijing Opera adds the vocabulary of another theatre tradition, one which contrasts sharply with the comic vulgarity of chorus girls as dancing boxes of Chinese takeout food replete with chopsticks. In other dramatic contexts–the playsF.O.B. and M.Butterfly–David Hwang has made more extensive use of his traditional performance heritage in order to transcend the limitations of surface realism. But this is Broadway and Hwang realizes that it is the Club Chop Suey, not the Next Wave festival, that the audience has come to see. Still, the Opera elements work so effectively that they might well have been used even more extensively to further enhance this production’s considerable visual pleasures, including Robin Wagner’s Pagoda-like unit set, Natasha Katz’ lighting, and Gregg Barnes’ striking costume designs. Director/choreographer Robert Longbottom keeps the contrasting performance styles meshed, even if, at times, the contrast is so wide between the old and the new that it occasionally feels like two different plays.
The original Flower Drum Song (staged by Gene Kelly) introduced several very attractive Asian-American performers who had their fifteen minutes of fame: Miyoshi Umeki, James Shigeta, and, most prominently, Pat Suzuki. In the current production Mei Li is played by Lea Salonga who rose to fame as the eponymous heroine of Miss Saigon. If she does not bring down the house it is less her fault than that of her role. Mei Li is not a character with much volatility, and although she is the play’s main protagonist the dramatic spotlight often shifts elsewhere, primarily toward veteran Asian actor Randall Duk Kim who seizes the wild transmutation of traditionalist Wang into hip Sammy Fong to command the limelight. It is an entertaining turn, even if we end up with some doubts about the consistency of character. Other stand-outs include Sandra Allen as sexy Linda who gets to sing "I Enjoy Being a Girl," the one show-stopper in this not quite first-rank R & H score, and Jodi Long as the in-charge agent who helps create the club’s success. At heart this flower drum beats infectiously if sentimentally: "The more you dream, the more miracles you will see." Not the most urgent or even truthful of social messages, but one that is consoling and pleasant, very pleasant.