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.

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.

While I’m at it, I have a complaint on behalf of the lyricist, too: For “I Am Going to Like It Here,” Hammerstein invented an unusual verse form, something like an Americanized villanelle, presumably to give the song a ritualized, “foreign” quality. It is probably the only song in the R&H repertoire that should never, under any circumstances, be interrupted by dialogue or business, which are guaranteed to break the audience’s concentration. Longbottom and Hwang provide both, a sure sign that their primary interest lies in neither the material nor the performers. Do they think there’s something else we go to musicals for?

Some music, though, almost begs for interruption. Amour is 90 minutes of continuously spun out, always pretty, rarely developing, musical phrases by Michel Legrand. It’s never painful; you just keep wishing that it would occasionally either take a breather or build itself into some meaningful shape. The latter comes close to happening once or twice, when Melissa Errico is warbling the frustrations of a neglected young wife, for whom the composer’s sympathy is tunefully audible. Offenbach being his model, there’s also a climactic can-can, for the almost-happy ending, that tickles the pulse as well as the musical ear. The rest, though helped by a lot of excellent acting and rather good singing, tends to the drab.

Aymé’s story, which gleefully razzes every kind of authority, is full of a cynical panache that seems to have gotten flattened out, in Legrand and Didier van Cauwelaert’s overly tidy work, to a demoralizing extent. Jeremy Sams’s translation rolls through long passages with witty, ingenious precision, and then strangely sinks into globs of what sounds like unmetered gabble, or stupidities like rhyming “Montmartre” with “Sinatra” in one breath and “Sartre” two lines later. Magritte’s paintings are the visual source of James Lapine’s production, but it’s a Magritte with the brightness and savage perkiness removed: Against the flat, mostly blue walls of Scott Pask’s drab set—a Montmartre without hills or steps—Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer project one of the drabbest light plots in memory, painting everyone’s face except Norm Lewis’s a flat pasty-white. Dona Granata’s costumes, though mostly in an equally drab brown, have a good deal more variety: The closest the show gets to dramatic excitement is when the hero, having taken up a life of crime, decides to dress the part and dons a garish red plaid jacket. Otherwise, Amour remains for the most part very blue indeed, even though Malcolm Gets sings the hero with lovely, unforced freshness, and acts out his nerdy wistfulness charmingly. Errico’s sweetness, too, comes with ease and vocal beauty, and there are first-rate supporting turns by Lewis, Nora Mae Lyng, and Christopher Fitzgerald as three local street types, plus one by John Cunningham, as a drunk doctor, that suggests he might be useful to anyone making a musical of Fawlty Towers.

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