Red, Misread, and Blue

 Flower Drum Song and Amour both come to us from foreign countries, the latter from France and the former from an incomparably more remote region called 1958. Both began life as prose fictions, Amour as a puckish, mordant 1943 short story by Marcel Aymé called Le Passe-Muraille ("The Walker-Through-Walls"), and Flower Drum Song as a 1957 novel, by C.Y. Lee, of life in San Francisco's Chinatown. Both have further layers to their history: Le Passe-Muraille was made into a 1951 film, often shown to American college French classes in the 1960s, when the collection of which it is the title story was omnipresent required reading, in its green-covered Livre de Poche edition. Rodgers and Hammerstein, hoping that the Asian American atmosphere of Lee's novel would add some zest to their sagging collaboration, turned it into a Broadway musical in 1958. The famously mixed result had a modest success, introduced several appealing performers, then faded, leaving behind some memorable songs and a movie version, worth noting only for the exquisite watercolor paintings, by James Wong Howe, that accompany its titles.

The newly renovated Flower Drum Song has a new book, by David Henry Hwang, that, unlike the original (by Hammerstein and Joseph Fields), retains only passing glimpses of Lee's narrative. In a way, the differing approaches show how far America's gone in what Hwang's barrage of upside-down ethnic jokes tempts me to call the Wong direction. The old book displayed an ordinary—if at times cutely sitcom-ordinary—American family, struggling to shake off its immigrant past. Its implied moral assumption was that assimilation was a good thing, so long as you didn't throw away your heritage. Its twin sources of comedy were Chinese Americans so raffishly busy Americanizing that they virtually ceased to be Chinese, and the unassimilated elder who turned his back on everything Western, keeping his life's savings under his mattress, demanding his American-born son marry an imported "picture bride," and declaring, "All white men look alike!"

Hwang's book takes these familiar domestic types and, in effect, throws them out of the American home and into show business, where there is no assimilation, only continuous performance. The society into which immigrants once dreamed of blending now exists only to buy tickets from, or to discriminate against, Chinese Americans. The show's elaborate musical numbers are oddly bracketed with litanies of complaint that, whatever their truth, add a bumpy texture to the old material's musical-comedy fabric.

Flower Drum Song: Assimilation has fewer fans these days.
photo: Joan Marcus
Flower Drum Song: Assimilation has fewer fans these days.


Flower Drum Song
By David Henry Hwang
Music and lyrics by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
Virginia Theatre
245 West 52nd Street

Music and lyrics by Didier van Cauwelaert and Michel Legrand,
translated by Jeremy Sams
Music Box Theatre
239 West 45th Street

The culture war with which Hwang replaces the original's generational battle is between two modes of Oriental performance so disparate that they make strange bedfellows even in an agglutinative form like musical comedy: Beijing opera versus the seedy nightclub revues of what used to be known as the bamboo-curtain circuit, where the drinks sported paper parasols and the showgirls always waved their fans. My impression is that these institutions, like other aspects of American cornball pseudo-Orientalia, were mercifully on the wane by 1960, when TV was killing nightlife generally. Hwang, however, invents a 1960 Chinatown in which the Golden Pearl opera house, run by Master Wang, is now the waning institution on Grant Avenue, until his son Wang Ta, egged on by glamour girl Linda Low and her sassy agent, Madame Liang, leverages its transformation into the Club Chop Suey, where MSG stands for "more stunning girls." Lured by the sound of applause, the previously unreconstructible Wang senior magically makes a capitalist Great Leap Forward into assimilation, booting out the club's swishy emcee and turning himself into Uncle Sammy Fong, resident dispenser of one-liners and crooned double entendres. While he relaxes into stardom, and an autumnal romance with Madame Liang, Wang Ta tears himself to emotional shreds trying to choose between Linda, who could care less, and the demure refugee Mei Li, orphan daughter of an opera star killed by the Maoists. Naturally, Ta winds up with the right girl, Chinese opera gets to sneak back into the club one night a week, and the show ends with a double wedding in the nightclub (which, with the whole cast clad in the same shade of red, suggests the College of Cardinals convening in Vegas).

This Hwangian farrago, though historically iffy and dramatically tenuous, contains some strong scenes and a few genuinely moving moments. Its chief drawback, enthusiastically seconded by Robert Longbottom's direction, is lack of focus. The story's emotional core should be Wang Ta's dilemma, but Hwang's interest keeps straying back to his father, who's both tragic villain and comic relief. In merging the two, Hwang not only creates an unplayable monster of contradiction (with which Randall Duk Kim does his authoritative best), but steals the show away from his own hero. Understandably, Jose Llana as his son only seems at full focus when bellowing out a song; the rest of his role is, as people in Orientalist musicals say, a puzzlement. Things are even more confusingly divided on the story's female side. When Sandra Allen, as Linda Low, launches her take-no-prisoners rendition of "I Enjoy Being a Girl," you're sure that her beauty and verve will make her a star by the end of the evening. Instead, her role all but disappears, with most of its opportunities going to droll, sassy Jodi Long as Madame Liang, who makes a thorough meal of them from her first head-wagging, power-walking entrance. Meantime, Lea Salonga, the show's nominal star, is mostly called on to radiate sweetness and wounded pathos. She does it very well in her soft-toned head voice, but (unlike Allen) she grates when she belts, and somebody has unwisely told her to belt all of "Love, Look Away." This beautiful song was introduced by the soprano Arabella Hong, who subsequently made a career as a voice teacher; it is sung on the film version's soundtrack by Marilyn Horne. These two facts indicate that Richard Rodgers did not wish to hear the song belted. I'm not a dogmatic traditionalist; what's good enough for the composer is good enough for me.

Next Page »