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Flower Drum Song by David Henry Hwang, music by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, based on the novel by C.Y. Lee + Playwright Profile [in aMagazine: Inside Asian America]

Flower Drug SongFlower Power

Ask any Asian American familiar with musicals, and they’ll probably be able to sing “I Enjoy Being a Girl,” recalling endless images of mirror-cloned Nancy Kwans. Like it or not, as a the first musical spectacular with a virtually all-Asian cast, Flower Drum Song by Rodgers and Hammerstein is ingrained in the Asian American entertainment canon. “It’s loomed so large over my life, and in the lives of other boomer Asian Americans all over the country,” says David Henry Hwang, award-winning playwright of FOB, M. Butterfly, and Golden Child. “I remember being a kid and thinking it was so cool. I think it was the only time I saw Asian Americans acting like Americans.”

Hwang never stopped being captivated. Now decades since its debut, Flower Drum Song is returning to the stage with a completely reconstructed story by Hwang, rebuilt around Rodgers and Hammerstein’s original. “I always wanted to do a showbiz story,” Hwang laughs. After a few funding and venue glitches, Song debuts anew at L.A.’s prestigious Mark Taper Forum. A Broadway run is widely anticipated.

Based on a novel by Yale-educated C.Y. Lee, the original version of Flower Drum Song featured a love triangle: American-born Ta, a privileged young man of means in Chinatown, is in love with leggy dancing girl, Linda Lowe, but his well-meaning aunt and father arrange a marriage for him with Mei-li, a lovely, fresh-off-the-boat immigrant, who is besotted at first glance with her dashing Chinese American knight. The show first hit Broadway in 1958, then became a five-time Oscar-nominated film in 1961 and lived on in revivals and repeats. Detractors hated it for creating a white-man’s version of what Chinatown should be, filled with misconceptions and stereotypes. Supporters adored it because it was the first time that stages, and later the big screen, were filled with Asian-looking faces.

While Hwang kept the love triangle intact, he changed their stories considerably. “I’m bringing my own perspective to the material,” he says. “Whatever my own virtues or faults, they’re now embodied in the new book.” Author Lee adds that Hwang’s version “is a little closer to my original novel,” and that he “like[s] all the changes.”

In Hwang’s brave new Chinatown, no longer is Ta a privileged son of a Chinatown scion; instead Ta and his father Wang run a failing Chinese opera house. Mei-li appears, fresh-off-the-boat, the daughter of Wang’s oldest friend from opera school and herself a talented opera performer, and is welcomed into the fold with open arms.

While Wang performs to virtually nonexistent audiences, Ta packs in standing-room-only crowds each Friday night when he transforms the theater into a burlesque hall, starring none other than Linda Lowe. While Ta longs for Lowe, she’s got plans to get out of the ethnic ghetto and go mainstream. Enter Madame Liang, Linda’s agent, who knows how to peddle orientalism to the masses for massive capital gains. She’s also gets the hots for Wang. No, Virginia, this is not your ‘50s Chinatown.

“In the new version,” says Hwang, “the original clash of cultures becomes a clash of theatrical forms – how traditional theater transforms itself into a nightclub. It’s about assimilation, about the changes that come about from that.” The theater’s not the only thing that’s changed – “the characters, too, have taken on a certain growth over the years,” adds Sandra Allen who plays the new Linda Lowe, who, like her predecessor is hapa of Chinese/Caucasian descent.

Says veteran actor Tzi Ma who plays Wang, “The play offer[s] what I see as the opportunity to present ‘Orientalism’ and ‘Asian Americanism’ side by side.” Lea Salonga, the original Miss Saigon, who plays Mei-li chooses to concentrate on the Asian American side: “… the musical shows the Asian American experience from the point of view of Asian Americans,” she insists.

And talking about those other musicals with mostly-Asian casts, Hwang ironically points out, “For all my complicated history with Miss Saigon,” smiles Hwang, who wrote Face Value about modern day yellowfacing – think Jonathan Pryce as the Asian Engineer, “I have to say, I’ve benefited a great deal from the cadre of strong Asian American performers” – who have at one point or another graced Miss Saigon stages across the country.

But working together here, Hwang’s “triple-threat, talented Asians” are out to make history. “We’re hoping that maybe this is going to be important in the future. Maybe 20 years from now, it will be something to say that we worked on the original production of the new Flower Drum Song,” Hwang says. “We’re trying to create opportunities for Asian Americans. And we’re striving to change perceptions of Asian Americans in the mainstream. That’s our goal. We’ll see if we succeed.”

Playwright profile: “Flower Power,” aMagazine: Inside Asian America, December 2001/January 2002

Readers: Adult

Published: 2001 (play premiere), 2003 (script)


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