Today for Throwback Thursday, Arts in Color looks back at the 1958 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Flower Drum Song. In reviews of the original 1958 production, Flower Drum Song was fairly criticized for perpetuating inaccurate stereotypes. Indeed, even the central conceit of the play, the picture bride, was wildly anachronistic for the 1950s. However, the production was also arguably groundbreaking for late 1950s Broadway. It was based on source material by a writer of Chinese origin (C.Y. Lee), it focused on a story-line about Asian American characters with no mediating white point-of-view character, and it featured actors of color in all except one principal role (that of nightclub owner and rival love interest Sammy Fong, played in yellow-face by Larry Blyden).
Set in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Flower Drum Song tells the story of a love quadrangle between picture bride Mei Li, her reluctant intended, the nightclub owner Sammy Fong, the brassy and confident nightclub performer Linda Low, and young Wang Ta, who is torn between his attraction to two very different women and what he feels they culturally represent. Central to the play is also Wang Ta’s family, who represent different degrees of (or approaches to) cultural assimilation: Master Wang, Ta’s father, who wants him to marry Mei Li and stay connected to his Chinese heritage, Madame Liang, his aunt who is studying for her American citizenship exam, and Ta’s baseball playing, slang-dropping, American-born teenage younger brother Wang San.
Flower Drum Song was based on a 1957 bestselling novel by C.Y. (Chin Yang) Lee. Lee came to the US from China in 1943, and subsequently earned an MFA in playwriting from Yale’s prestigious graduate theatre program. In a 2004 MELUS journal interview, he disclosed to writer Andrew Shin that he switched genres as a writer (from drama to short stories and novels) when the Broadway agent who requested a meeting with him after attending his MFA showcase performance suggested he do so. She warned him that while she saw “sparkle” in his writing, there had never been a Chinese American play produced on Broadway. In the same interview, Lee revealed that, years later, because of his background in playwriting and continued interest in the craft, he followed Rodgers and Hammerstein and watched how they worked when they adapted his novel. He said that during the pre-Broadway Boston tryouts, Hammerstein would close his eyes and listen for the squeak of people in the audience shifting restlessly in their chairs as evidence that something needed to be revised.
Rodgers, Hammerstein, and director Gene Kelly conducted a nationwide casting search for Flower Drum Song. According to Lee in his MELUS interview, they were specifically trying to avoid telling a story about Chinese Americans with white actors. While they succeeded in putting together a diverse cast, most of the actors were not actually Chinese American. Japanese actress Miyoshi Umeki, the first (and still only) Asian woman to win an Oscar for acting, played Mei Li. Japanese American actress and recording artist Pat Suzuki played Linda Low. Japanese American actor and comedian Jack Soo, who would later become famous for his role on Barney Miller, was discovered performing at Forbidden City, a Chinese Cabaret Nightclub in San Francisco that inspired the one depicted in Flower Drum Song. Soo was cast in the supporting role of a nightclub emcee Frankie Wing, but would later replace Larry Blyden as Sammy Fong mid-way during the Broadway run, and go on to play him in the movie version of the musical. Perhaps of interest given Rodgers and Hammerstein’s implicit message in Flower Drum Song that to be Asian American is to be American, Jack Soo and Pat Suzuki, like thousands of West Coast American families of Japanese descent, had both spent time in Japanese internment camps during World War II. Rounding out the cast were the Filipino American actor and dancer Patrick Adiarte as Wang San, half Chinese-Hawaiian and half white actor and singer Ed Kenney as Wang Ta, Chinese American Hollywood actor and artist Keye Luke as Master Wang (the first Chinese-American contract player for RKO and MGM studios), and Chinese American actress and classical singer Arabella Hong as a third love interest for Wang Ta: seamstress Helen Chao.
The part of Madame Liang was played by African-American singer and actress Juanita Hall. Hall won a Tony for playing another Asian role in a Rodgers and Hammerstein play: Bloody Mary in South Pacific. Because of her involvement, Flower Drum Song was noticed by the leading African-American newspapers of the time, and theatre scholar Kathryn Edney has pointed out that the reviews from these newspapers were much more positive than those in the mainstream press. Edney’s 2010 analysis of these reviews published in the journal Studies in Musical Theater reveals that the African-American press saw the play and the multicultural cast as delivering an implicit pro-integration message at a time– a year after the state versus federal battle over the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas– when integration was at the forefront of the civil rights movement.
In 2002, the original Hammerstein and Joseph Fields book of the play was completely rewritten by David Henry Hwang with permission from the Rodgers and Hammerstein estate and the blessing of novelist C.Y. Lee (Hwang sought Lee out personally to obtain his permission, even though he didn’t legally need it). Hwang’s version of the play places the cultural and generational conflicts squarely in the theatre world, making Wang Ta’s father the owner of a classical Chinese Opera Company that his son turns into a nightclub once a week. Hwang merged the parts of Sammy Fong (a character that was created for the musical and did not appear in the original novel) and Wang Ta, making “Sammy Fong” Wang Ta’s nightclub performance alter ego. The original Flower Drum Song had a 600 show run but did not appear on Broadway again until Hwang’s revised revival. Hwang’s version only ran for 6 months on Broadway but is now often chosen over the original for regional performances.
A final fact is for our Arts in Color readers who have enjoyed our past interviews with Telly Leung! He was in the ensemble for the 2002 David Henry Hwang version of Flower Drum Song and understudied for the role of Wang Ta. Also in the cast was Lea Salonga as Mei Li. Both are now currently on Broadway together in Allegiance, a musical inspired by George Takai’s experience in a World War II Japanese internment camp.
Which fact surprised you the most? Leave a comment below!