As the first act curtain came down on Flower Drum Song, I thought, "How lucky I am to have low blood pressure." If I didn't, I would have never survived what David Henry Hwang did with his new book for the 1958 Rodgers and Hammerstein hit. It's a scandal! It's a outrage! I was sputtering like Donald Duck when he's infuriated.
We all have them: Musicals that make us roll our eyes, smack our foreheads, and exclaim, "What the hell were they thinking?!" I'm not talking about a merely bad musical like Jimmy, Molly, or Sherry! -- I'm talking about the ones that make our faces look like those in the audience of the movie version of The Producers, right after the title tune of Springtime for Hitler has been unleashed. These are the shows that have us wincing and jumping up in our seats as the lines coming from the stage strike us like electric cattle prods in the ribs.
As I left the Virginia to get some fresh air during intermission -- I needed it to replace the smoke that was snorting through my nose -- I wondered what was the last show to make me this apoplectic. Though I wasn't there for Rachael Lily Rosenbloom and Don't You Forget It or Via Galactica, I sure was in attendance for Rockabye Hamlet, the straight play version of which I much prefer. That outrageous rock musical had me in apoplexy even before Ophelia strangled herself with her microphone cord.
But the last show to induce this much anger in me was Bring Back Birdie. I was there at the first preview as the punk rockers sat on toilets and sang "We Are Filth," but even that didn't make me apoplectic. What did occurred deep in the second act: Albert's mother, Mae, who not only in this show but in the substantially more successful Bye Bye Birdie says all along that she doesn't like Spanish people, suddenly confessed: "Yes, Rose -- I'm Spanish." "Are you kidding me!?" I screamed. (When you're apoplectic, you often scream even though you're supposed to be quiet while watching a show.)
When I saw Holly Golightly (before it was renamed Breakfast at Tiffany's), I didn't go apoplectic when Mary Tyler Moore sang to Richard Chamberlain a childhood chant that Holly used to use to tease her brother Freddy -- even though it ended "Freddy, Freddy wets the bed." But I did go apoplectic at the end of the first act when Moore got a telegram, opened it, and reprised the chant -- this time ending it with "Freddy, Freddy, Freddy's dead." Good Lord!
Some bad shows are funny. What can you do but laugh when you hear "Teeny Weeny Genie" from Arabian Nights, "Kalua Bay" from A Family Affair, or anything from Ankles Aweigh or Whoop-Up? But in Peg, Miss Peggy Lee's musical autobiography, she included a song that told of how she was abused as a child, called "One Beating a Day." It was a samba. Apoplexy time! And in Senator Joe there were backdrops of mottled red surrounding the stage as a character named Fatty Acids danced in the senator's stomach. (There was much more that that churning in my own stomach.)
When I caught Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen in Philadelphia, it was a shambles but it didn't make me fighting mad. The same was true of A Song for Cyrano, which Jose Ferrer did 22 long years after he'd won an Oscar for Cyrano de Bergerac. Time had taken its toll, so after Ferrer started a swordfight and pranced his way off stage, out came an identically-clad actor to enact the duel that Ferrer could no longer do. Pathetic, but not apoplexy-inducing.
Some musicals embarrass you with their titles alone: Musicalizing a masterpiece like The Odyssey and calling it Home Sweet Homer is a good example of this. Then there was Oh, Brother, which cast member Judy Kaye used to call "the stupidest show on Broadway." Want proof? A good amount of the plot concerned camel urine. But even that wasn't as bad as the opening number of Let My People Come, which began "I love to screw with you" and continued with "Screw! Screw! Everybody loves to screw! Screw you if you don't like to do it, too."
At the new Flower Drum Song a heart attack was a real possibility for me. Not immediately, though I did have a few questions about how "A Hundred Million Miracles" was used. (It was once a charming song in which Oscar Hammerstein expressed his firm belief that there were many little wonders in our daily life; Hwang has turned it into a Communist anthem. Many of the Hammerstein sentiments are still in place but seem wrong in this stringent new context.)
I still wasn't apoplectic when we were taken to a Chinese Opera House in San Francisco run by Wang, an old-world traditionalist. His son Ta sees that his father's operas aren't drawing customers, so he convinces dad to give him one "nightclub night" per week. Why should we want Ta to succeed when he's offering the tackiest of acts at a place that's been renamed "Club Chop Suey?" But succeed he does, which makes no sense to me. Why would a club that offers such third-rate entertainment suddenly become the in-place? (Even the mayor is coming, we're told.)
The wonderful thing about the original book that Hammerstein and Joseph Fields wrote for the show is its suggestion that old-world Chinese values and new-world American values work best when the two merge -- when people keep a decent respect along with an eye to the present and future. In the new version, the message is that the only way to succeed in America is to dumb everything down so that the money keeps rolling in from every side. Some may say that's true, but it's not what I want to believe or see.
Wang gives in awfully quickly to the success of the nightclub, suddenly turning from its biggest critic to its staunchest supporter -- and headliner. I'd heard in advance that his sudden change of heart made many theatergoers apoplectic, but I didn't have as much of a problem with it because Hwang does take pains to explain that Wang has missed performing to packed houses and wants to have crowds applauding him again. On the other hand, that may be too American a value for the old Chinese gentleman. But on the other hand, the old-timer who suddenly "gets with it" is an awfully tired convention.
I'm okay with what Hwang does with Mei-Li, for the flower on her drum is no longer a shrinking violet. Here is a much stronger woman who's out to get her man, Ta, and won't easily be defeated. But one reason that the 1958 Mei-Li was so shy was her feeling insecure with English; in contrast, the new Mei-Li has a terrific command of the language. Is that believable?
After walking to the subway with my girlfriend during intermission (she was literally not going to sit still for the second act of Flower Drum Song), I returned with a raging fire in my heart to see a production number of "Chop Suey," in which chorines came out dressed in enormous, white cardboard, Chinese take-out containers that suddenly became translucent when their breasts were illuminated from within. I recalled what Rodgers and Hammerstein vice-president Bert Fink had told me the week before -- that "David [Henry Hwang] hasn't thrown out the baby with the bathwater." I thought, "Oh, really?"
But wait. Suddenly, in Act II, Hwang has Ta express second thoughts about the entertainment he's presenting; "It's some weird Oriental minstrel show," the lad admits as he rues the monster he's created. This plot twist of Hwang's is right in step with the original intentions of the C.Y. Lee novel and the Hammerstein and Fields book. Moments later, Hwang comes up with some very valid points about how people who are too much alike have trouble falling in love, and about how the young must be idealistic. He has also discovered ways to improve the set-ups for "Don't Marry Me" and "Love, Look Away." By the time it became clear that Hwang had found a way to make the flower drum a nice symbol of love, my apoplexy had disappeared as quickly as it had arrived. I think I'll live to see another day -- and I suspect that Flower Drum Song will, too.
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at email@example.com]