That other musical
Flower Drum Song
Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote some of the most famous musicals in the business, including Oklahoma!, The King and I and South Pacific.
And then there’s that other musical, the one many folks have never seen performed—Flower Drum Song. It hit Broadway in 1958, one year before the debut of the final Rodgers and Hammerstein blockbuster, The Sound of Music. (Hammerstein died in 1960, ending the partnership.) The first big Broadway show starring Asians, Flower Drum Song ran for 600 performances—hardly a flop. The movie, made in 1961, was a mixed bag.
Then Flower Drum Song disappeared, for two obvious reasons. First, the show needs an Asian cast, which scared some producers. (By that time, it was considered uncouth to have white actors pretending to be Asian.) Also, the world had moved on. The arrival of Mao Zedong’s Red Guards and the work of gutsy writers like Maxine Hong Kingston, author of The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, made Flower Drum Song seem dated.
Playwright David Henry Hwang got permission to revise the show. The version of Flower Drum Song running in Sacramento’s Broadway Series reflects his changes. The character Mei-Li, formerly a mail-order bride, now flees China after her father is dragged to prison for shredding Mao’s Little Red Book. Other characters reflect similar transformations. The setting remains in San Francisco, and the songs are intact, but the plot is reorganized and more realistic.
Not everyone likes the changes, but for my money, the updates make sense. What we have now is a Flower Drum Song that’s set against world events. It contrasts tidbits of Chinese opera with lavish, fleshy, cabaret-style nightclub numbers. Watch for a naughty routine during the song “Chop Suey,” involving female dancers dressed as boxes of Chinese takeout food. The production has a sassy, sexy showgirl twist that is worlds away from the singing nuns in The Sound of Music.
For someone like myself, who knew Flower Drum Song only from the movie (which I didn’t like), this production is a delightful surprise: an engaging, very entertaining musical with a wonderful Rodgers and Hammerstein score.
The cast features a carryover lead from the Broadway revival—the handsome Jose Llana as Wang Ta. But the standouts are Yuka Takara (as Mei-Li) and Emily Hsu (as sexpot Linda Low). Both were ensemble performers on Broadway and give strong leading performances on tour. Watch also for Alvin Ing as wise old Chin. He was in the original tour of Flower Drum Song 43 years ago.