Sandra Allen and cast in Flower Drum Song(Photo: Craig Schwartz)
Sandra Allen and cast in Flower Drum Song
(Photo: Craig Schwartz)
In the opening scene of the newly revised Flower Drum Song, an elderly man storms a crowd of Maoists and pulls down a banner of the Chinese leader's face. The man is taken away, much to his daughter's horror. The daughter then joins a group of Chinese immigrants on the voyage to America. It's a bold beginning to a bold exercise, led by Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang, to re-imagine the 1958 Rodgers & Hammerstein musical.

Hwang has written a completely new book that integrates most of the original songs, including "I Enjoy Being a Girl," "Grant Avenue," and "Like a God," plus "The Next Time it Happens," a tune from the R&H flop Pipe Dream. In mid-October, the revamped Flower Drum Song opened to glowing reviews in a production at L.A.'s Mark Taper Forum--directed and choreographed by Robert Longbottom and featuring an all-Asian-American cast headed by former Miss Saigon Lea Salonga. Back home in New York, Hwang spoke with TheaterMania about his process, issues surrounding his revisions, and the show's chances of a Broadway transfer.

*****************

THEATERMANIA: When I saw the show, I was impressed by how the songs seemed built around your book and not the other way around. Can you talk about your approach to writing the script?

DAVID HENRY HWANG: It was kind of a complicated puzzle. I'm happy you feel that way, because that is the effect we were trying to go for--as if we wrote this musical with Rodgers & Hammerstein and they created the songs in order to go with our story. In practical terms, it meant first figuring out what the essence of each song is, what is it that the song is trying to say. Then I'd try to find emotional moments in my story that would be consistent with what each of the songs was built to do.

TM: Did you write any new lyrics?

DHH: No. There are no new lyrics in the show.

TM: I could have sworn that some of the lyrics were different from what I remember of the original.

DHH: There are some lyrics that may be different from what you remember because they may come from different drafts of the songs. We took some lyrics that were written for the movie that weren't originally in the stage play, and vice versa. And, in a couple of cases, we went back to earlier drafts of the lyrics that we had dug up in the Library of Congress. But they're all Oscar Hammerstein's words.

TM: Okay, that makes sense. But, "Chop Suey," which I know you totally re-contextualized, still seemed like it had different lyrics.

DHH: For that song, we only used a very small portion of the original lyrics, so that's why it may feel different. If you were to go back and look at it, you would see that they are all lyrics from the song but we only used the chorus and two or three phrases from [the remainder of the song] over and over again. We didn't add new lyrics, but we did cut lyrics.

TM: How did you go about convincing the composers' estates to allow you to revise the show so thoroughly?

DHH: I have no idea why they agreed to let us do this! [laughter] It seems to have paid off for everyone. I'm very relieved and, obviously, happy about that, but I'm not sure what their decision-making process was. I wasn't really privy to it. I think they were aware that this is a Rodgers & Hammerstein piece that has a great score but was never going to be done in any major way because the book was very much stuck in its time, so they thought it was worth taking this risk. But I'm really just speculating.

TM: How much of a factor do you think it was that you're not only a Tony-winning playwright but an Asian-American?

DHH: I think it probably was a big factor. Ted Chapin, the president of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, has been quoted as saying that they probably wouldn't have agreed to do this if Neil Simon had brought it to them.

TM: Have you gotten a lot of resistance to your revisions?

DHH: Before we opened, I was aware of a great amount of resistance from musical theater purists who felt that we were going to ruin this classic in order to be politically correct. There was an angry letter in the San Francisco Chronicle and an angry letter in the L.A. Times. Since we've opened, I don't hear much criticism from the musical theater people because they seem to like it. So far, I haven't read a bad review. There may be a bad review out there, but I haven't seen it. It seems that people are responding to the show very positively, and that perhaps would quell a certain amount of criticism from those who consider themselves purists.

TM: What struck me about those critiques is that no one mentions how much Hammerstein and Joseph Fields' script differed from C.Y. Lee's novel in the first place.

DHH: That's true. And the other thing that I found interesting is that they don't mention other cases in which white people rewrote white people's musicals--Anything Goes being revised by John Weidman and Timothy Crouse, or Crazy for You being a rewrite of Girl Crazy. But, somehow, the idea of a person of color doing it and having some sort of political agenda all of a sudden made it a big, PC, artistic freedom issue.

TM: In the end, you based your script much more on the book of the musical than the novel.

DHH: I would say that's true, plot-wise, because the nightclub functions as such a central part of our new book and that was a Hammerstein/Fields invention. However, I would argue in terms of tone and content, that we're more similar to the C.Y. Lee novel. The attitude of the show towards assimilation and Americanization is more conflicted than it is in the Hammerstein book, and that's closer to the tone of the novel, which is more bittersweet.

TM: According toThe New York Times, you were inspired to do this re-write by the 1996 Broadway revival of The King and I.

DHH: That's true, actually. I'm sort of embarrassed to admit it. I enjoyed seeing a new take on The King and I. Having only been used to the Yul Brynner approach, to see a younger sexy guy--and I'm sure Yul Brynner was young and sexy when he first played it--but to see Lou Diamond Phillips doing the role and a lot more sexual chemistry between him and Anna made me think of new ways of looking at these older properties. Even though that production of The King and I didn't involve a rewrite of the actual text, there was something of a reconceptualization in that relationship and a desire to have more authenticity in terms of the design of the show. That made me think, "What could you do to Flower Drum Song?" Obviously, I thought in much more radical terms.

Lea Salonga and Jose Llanain Flower Drum Song(Photo: Craig Schwartz)
Lea Salonga and Jose Llana
in Flower Drum Song
(Photo: Craig Schwartz)
TM: In the L.A. Times you're quoted as saying that, at some point, you could see Flower Drum Song being done with color-blind casting.

DHH: I kind of meant in the really far future. That quote is a little weird when taken out of context. Yes, in the long run, I feel that there are a lot of cases in which color-blind casting would be desirable all over the place. And I think, as a society, that might be what we're ultimately going for. In the short term, I don't see a situation where James Earl Jones could be cast as George Washington. And that's not because he's not qualified to play it--it's obviously because of reasons of race. So long as that remains the case, I think that when roles come along for minorities, they should be cast as minorities.

TM: You were a vocal critic of Miss Saigon, particularly around the casting of white actor Jonathan Pryce as the Eurasian Engineer. Now, of course, Flower Drum Song has the potential to utilize a lot of Asian-American actors who cut their teeth on that mega musical.

DHH: Including many who are currently in the cast--like Lea!

TM: Have your feelings altered at all in regards to the Miss Saigon production?

DHH: Oh, gosh. I mean, here's what I'll say about Miss Saigon. It's still not my favorite musical in the world. But Cameron Mackintosh said during the controversy that, after Pryce, he would cast the role with Asians, and he was true to his word. As a result of that, a lot of the benefit in Miss Saigon is that you now have a fairly large contingent of Asian-American performers who have appeared on a Broadway stage and feel comfortable projecting in that large a house, many of whom we've drawn upon for our production. And if we are fortunate enough to have a future life, a lot of our cast will continue to be drawn from those ranks.

TM: Speaking of the future of Flower Drum Song, what are the chances of a Broadway transfer at this point?

DHH: I would say good to very good. There are a lot of discussions going on and a lot of people are interested. It's likely that we'll end up on Broadway as early as the fall of 2002.

TM: Are you satisfied with the show as it stands, or do you want to make changes?

DHH: I think, basically, the show works. I'm happy that audiences have embraced it so completely and that the reviews are good. But, sure, there are things I want to continue to make better. And I think that Bobby [Longbottom], the director, and David [Chase], the music director, have things they want to continue to work on. So it's not a finished product as far as we're concerned, but we're certainly very happy with where we are.