Cast Size: Medium (5-21) • Large (14+). Vocal Demands: Easy • Moderate. Dance Requirements: Extensive • Some Dancing Required. Good For: Elementary School • High School • College/University • Amateur/Community • Professional Theatre • Religious Organization.
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“To create something new,” says a character in David Henry Hwang's script for FLOWER DRUM SONG, “we must first love what is old.” For Mr. Hwang, this is the guiding philosophy for what is arguably—and controversially—the most radical reinterpretation yet of a Broadway musical.
FLOWER DRUM SONG has always held a unique place among the R&H musicals. Coming late in their career—after two consecutive, and rare, Broadway flops (ME AND JULIET and PIPE DREAM) and one hugely successful television musical (CINDERELLA)—it once held its own against mega-popular hits like OKLAHOMA! and THE KING AND I. However, as fashions changed, so did its fortunes. “Oscar Hammerstein referred to it as their 'lucky hit,'” R&H President Ted Chapin told the Los Angeles Times. “Unlike the rest of the canon, it didn't live on with the same kind of force as some of their other musicals.”
The original production, though, was a hit indeed, running for 600 performances, making stars of its leads Miyoshi Umeki and Pat Suzuki (landing them on the cover of Time —Suzuki was the first American-born Asian to enjoy such an honor), launching a London production, a U.S. National tour and becoming one of R&H’s strongest titles in the summer stock (and Vegas) circuits of the early ’60s. A 1961 movie version, starring Umeki, Nancy Kwan, James Shigeta and Jack Soo, was also a huge hit with profound implications for Asian Americans.
“FLOWER DRUM SONG represented a real breakthrough for our parents,” Hwang told Performing Arts. “It portrayed a Chinese American family that was 100% American, and characters who didn't all speak in accents, who were sympathetic and had romantic relationships—which, by the way, we still don't see much in movies today.” In a 1996 appraisal for lnside Asian America, journalist Yuan-Kwan Chan observed: “It was the first—and so far, the last—film by a major U.S. studio in which Asians or Pacific Islanders play all the major roles Revolutionary for its time, it continues to be so in ours. ” In Los Angeles Magazine, Nancy Kwan recalled, “This was the first big movie about Asian Americans. They spent money on sets, costumes, dance numbers, and they made money. That all said something important.”
Nevertheless, by the time Hwang was a student at Stanford University in the late '70s, attitudes towards FLOWER DRUM SONG—including his own—had changed. “We were deep into issues of identity politics,” he recalled in an interview with the Daily Breeze. “We were so politically correct, I think I felt a need to demonize FLOWER DRUM SONG on principle.” In Performing Arts, he elaborated: “In retrospect, I think the protest was probably necessary. Asian Americans were beginning to write about themselves. We felt a need to repudiate the way non-Asians had written about us. Which meant repudiating FLOWER DRUM SONG.
“But even back then people would, in private, admit that they liked the show. How could they not? For us boomers, it was our first opportunity as kids to see Asian Americans singing and dancing in a Broadway play and Hollywood musical...As a kid I had liked it. As a young man I rejected it. Now I'm trying to reconcile that and find some middle ground.”
That reconciliation began in Siam—specifically, the Siam depicted in the 1996 Tony-winning Broadway revival of THE KING AND I. “I really enjoyed it,” Hwang told the started thinking of other Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals that I'd like to see again, and that led to FLOWER DRUM SONG.” He added, “I knew there was a lot to like and a lot not to like.” Revisiting FLOWER DRUM SONG, he thought, would provide him with “a wonderful opportunity to collaborate with two of the greatest artists of this century,” as he told Playbill. “It would be fun to create a new musical using the wonderful score that had been written for the original.”
In 1996, Hwang met with Ted Chapin, Mary Rodgers and the late James Hammerstein to make his case. (Jamie had been a stage manager on the original Broadway show and subsequently directed several productions of FLOWER DRUM SONG.) At that meeting, Hwang recalled, “I told them I wanted to remain true to the show's original sensibility and themes, its sense of cockeyed optimism, while giving it more of the dramatic weight the great Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals have. I wanted to write the book that Oscar Hammerstein would have written if he'd been Asian-American. Instead of being a tourist's-eye view of Chinatown, I wanted to write it from the point of view of the inside looking out.”
The rights holders (including Ralph Fields, the son of co-librettist Joseph Fields) liked what they heard from Hwang and decided to say yes. “We went into it understanding that if we were going to go ahead with this experiment,” Chapin told the Los Angeles Times, “we had to be open to it.”
After an early draft that was, in Chapin's words, “totally unproduceable,” Hwang hit his stride with a script he developed in tandem with director Robert Longbottom and music director David Chase. A new musical began to emerge—one that stayed true to the basic settings and principal characters of FLOWER DRUM SONG while rearranging those characters and their situations into an almost entirely new plot, an amalgam of Hammerstein, Fields, the original novelist C.Y. Lee, and Hwang himself. Its theme, one that runs through much of Hwang's work, is assimilation. “The issue of assimilation hasn't dated,” Chapin told American Theatre. “In fact it's very universal. What's dated is the idea that the height of being American is getting a Thunderbird and a TV set, which is partly what the original show conveyed. Today when you come to America, it's important to hold on to some of what you brought with you, and David wanted to look into that.”
Vital to this re-telling was the score, kept almost intact. (Two songs were cut and one, “My Best Love,” was restored. One other number, “The Next Time It Happens” from PIPE DREAM, was interpolated.) “I like our demonic reputation of not wanting to change anything,” Chapin told Performing Arts. “It's a good reputation to have because then, when someone like David comes along with a proposal, we can really surprise people. We've allowed more wholesale revisions than we might with any other show," he added, "because this show may be more caught in its time than Rodgers and Hammerstein's other works.”
“I didn't sit down thinking, 'I need to fix the old FLOWER DRUM SONG,'” Hwang told American Theatre. “I thought, here's an opportunity to tell a story about assimilation and immigration, but do it in collaboration with Rodgers and Hammerstein, who created this wonderful score around those themes. It meant working with great music that already existed, and trying to make that music flower around a story that would thematically bear out some of their own initial ideas.”
With a sensational, fully Asian/Asian-American cast starring Tony winner Lea Salonga, FLOWER DRUM SONG opened at the Virginia Theatre on October 17. The original 1958 production was the first Broadway musical to deal with the Asian-American experience; the 2002 production is only the second. The sense of history, therefore, was palpable—not only on opening night, but from the earliest previews; and not only from the audience (which, from the start, included a steadily growing contingent of Asian-American theatregoers) but from the performers themselves.
Alvin Ing, who played the character of Chin in the new version, had played the role of Wang Ta in the original production's national tour and went on to play that role in more productions than any other actor. Jodi Long, Madame Liang in this production, spent part of her childhood backstage at the St. James Theatre during the original run where her father, Larry Leung, was in the cast.
The original company of FLOWER DRUM SONG stayed together as a family over the years, and was famous for its periodic reunions. An especially meaningful reunion occurred in early October, when over a dozen members of the Broadway, National Tour and film casts attended a preview performance of the new FLOWER DRUM SONG. Among them were Cely Carrillo (a Mei-Li in the original Broadway run), Susan Kikuchi (a child performer in the original Broadway cast, whose mother, Yuriko, appeared in original casts of FLOWER DRUM SONG and THE KING AND I), and Luther Henderson, Jr., creator of the original dance arrangements. Arabella Hong, who introduced “Love, Look Away” in 1958, and Pat Suzuki, the inimitable original Linda Low, are both ardent fans of this version and each came to see it several times during previews, and again on opening night.
Audience response from the start was enthusiastic. Critical reaction, however, was divided, with the nay-sayers falling into two contradictory camps: those who felt that any reworking of the original version was a desecration, and those who wondered why Hwang had made the effort. R&H President Ted Chapin defends the production simply: “We take risks,” he says. “That's what Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein did when they were around, and that's what their heirs continue to do. It's about having confidence in the durability of the works themselves, and being open to new ideas.”
Still, for most critics, the risks paid off. "This little-performed 1958 musical," said David Cote in Time Out, "shines in this jubilant, top-to-bottom revision. David Henry Hwang's wised-up book adds more humor and political savvy [and] fits perfectly into Robert Longbottom's seductive and opulent revival." NY-1 critic Roma Torre reported, "FLOWER DRUM SONG has been brought back to life, thanks to David Henry Hwang's funny, hip, politically correct sensibility, and Robert Longbottom's impressive direction and choreography." John Heilpern of the Observer felt that Hwang and Longbottom "worked brilliantly...to create a new Broadway show of high and low seriousness, which was Rodgers and Hammerstein's intention in the first place." In USA Today, Elysa Gardner observed, "Hwang and Longbottom have retained the show's irresistible sweetness and added more of the unabashed grandeur that distinguishes Rodgers and Hammerstein's best-loved material. And David Chase's new adaptations of Rodgers' music, much of which is presented in new contexts, are rapturous."
Vocal Range of Characters:
Playbill interview with Andrew Gans
Written By: David Henry Hwang
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- FLOWER DRUM SONG (HWANG) - Orchestration Package (20 Books/19 Players)
- 1 – Piano Conductor Scores
- 1 – REED I (see note below)
- 1 – REED II (Flute, Clarinet & Alto Sax)
- 1 – REED III (Oboe, English Horn, Flute, Clarinet & Tenor Sax)
- 1 – REED IV (Bass Clarinet, Bassoon & Baritone Sax)
- 1 – HORN
- 1 – TRUMPET I (Doubling Flugelhorn)
- 1 – TRUMPET II (Doubling Flugelhorn)
- 1 – TROMBONE (Doubling Bass Trombone)
- 1 – GUITAR (Acoustic, Archtop, Electric, Banjo, Ukulele, Mandolin and Pipa)
- 1 – KEYBOARD (see Keyboard Book for breakdown)
- 1 – HARP
- 1 – DRUMS
- 2 – PERCUSSION (see "Materials Notes", under "Production Information")
- 1 – VIOLIN I (Doubling Violin)
- 1 – VIOLIN II
- 1 – VIOLA (Doubling Violin)
- 1 – CELLO (Doubling Ehru)
- 1 – BASS
- Rehearsal Set (22 Books)
- 20 – Libretto/Vocal Books
- 1 – Logo CD
- 2 – Piano Conductor Scores
- Digital Logo
- Libretto/Vocal Books 10 p
- 10 – Libretto/Vocal Books
- FLOWER DRUM (HWANG) - PRE-PRODUCTION PACKAGE
- 1 – Libretto/Vocal Books
- 1 – Piano Conductor Scores
A large singing-dancing chorus consisting of Citizens of the People's Republic of China, Communist Party Members, Mei-Li's Father, Soldiers, Refugees, Chinese Opera Company Members, Immigrants, Showgirls, Chorus Boys, A Ghost Couple, Stage Manager, Photographers, Reporters, Factory Workers, Emigrants, Warrior Dancers, Maiden Dancer, Wedding Guests and Citizens of San Francisco Chinatown.
Wu Mei-Li - a new immigrant from China, in her twenties
Wang Chi-Yang - a Chinese opera actor and immigrant to San Francisco, in his fifties
Wang Ta - his Chinese American son, in his twenties
Chin - an old family friend of the Wangs, a Chinese man in his sixties
Linda Low - a Chinese American showgirl, in her twenties
Harvard - a Chinese American, in his twenties
Madame Rita Liang - a Chinese American talent agent, in her forties
Chao Hai-Lung - a new immigrant from China, in his twenties
Mr. Chong - the Chinese American owner of the On Leock Fortune Cookie Factory
Mr. Lee - a Chinese American restaurant owner
Citizens of the People's Republic of China, Communist Party Members, Mei-Li's Father, Soldiers, Refugees, Chinese Opera Company Members, Immigrants, Showgirls, Chorus Boys, A Ghost Couple, Stage Manager, Photographers, Reporters, Factory Workers, Emigrants, Warrior Dancers, Maiden Dancer, Wedding Guests and Citizens of San Francisco Chinatown.
Casting Note:This version of FLOWER DRUM SONG is set in China, and San Franciscos Chinatown, 1960. All of the characters are Chinese or Chinese-American. It is this authors hope that these roles be cast with actors of Asian ancestry whenever possible. Barring that, the author discourages the use of make-up or prosthetics to alter an actors ethnicity, or requests at the least that the use of such devices be kept to a minimum. --David Henry Hwang
FLOWER DRUM SONG takes place in various locales in San Francisco's Chinatown circa 1960.
The Golden Pearl Theatre in San Francisco Chinatown
Linda's Dressing Room
Onstage at the Theatre
Club Shop Suey
The On Leock Fortune Cookie Factory
The Golden Dragon Restaurant
The San Francisco Docks