Flower Drum Songs: The Story of Two Musicals


August 21,2012

In 1958, Rodgers and Hammerstein had a hit with Flower Drum Song. Nearly fifty years later, a musical with the same title and the same score but with a very different book was a flop. The story of that transition is told in fascinating detail by David H. Lewis in his book Flower Drum Songs.

Lewis tracks more than just the story of two different productions. This is a good thing, because there’s much more to the story than that, and he does a fine job of creating a fascinating half-century long tale of changes in reputations, expectations and approaches.

He begins with the story of the creation of the novel on which the musical was based and sketches its plot and themes as a prelude to his assessment of their treatment in the various versions to come. C. Y. Lee’s novel contained all the characters and major stories that became fodder for the creators of the musical versions, but the way they were combined in musical settings was quite different than in Mr. Lee’s novel.

Lewis then tells the story of the development of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical, which at the end of the 1950s was something of a last chance at success for the team that had so dominated Broadway between 1943 when their Oklahoma! burst on the scene through 1951 when they had their fourth mega-hit, The King and I, with Carousel and the Pulitzer Prize winning South Pacific in between. The intervening eight years, however, had seen two disappointments (Me and Juliet and Pipe Dream) leaving their reputation as a team in tatters as possible has-beens.

Lewis does a fine job of tracking the work of Oscar Hammerstein II and his colleague Joseph Fields in crafting the book for the musical comedy, explaining the evolution of the approach from the darker, arguably more poignant tales in Lee’s novel to the lighter, more romantic and funnier presentation that they felt would be likely to achieve Broadway success.

While Flower Drum Song wasn’t a hit of the magnitude of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s earlier big four, it was received with big box office demand and high critical praise. It seemed as if a solid hit was in hand. In his book Opening Night on Broadway, Steven Suskin’s list of the major reviews showed 2 raves, 4 favorables, 1 mixed and no pans. The musical score found particular success with such songs as “A Hundred Million Miracles,” “I Enjoy Being A Girl,” “Sunday” and “Grant Avenue.”

What is more, and what gets short shrift from Mr. Lewis in the book, the original broadway cast album became a chart leader. While not a blockbuster, it did well enough to make Billboard’s list of the 200 best selling LPs of the twenty years 1956-1975. (It was #187.)

Where Lewis gets it right, however, is in the assessment of the film made of the piece. He’s altogether dismissive of what he calls an “inferior” movie version (he titles the chapter on the movie “Hollywood Suey.”) He gives the movie a good deal of the blame for the way the musical’s reputation as a good and successful product changed to one of an embarrassing string of insensitive racial jokes, stereotypes and slurs as America underwent the “consciousness raising” of the civil rights and ethnic studies movements that took hold in the twenty years following the original Broadway opening.

While Lewis’ discussion of the post Broadway tour and subsequent productions tends to concentrate a bit too much on events in his own home state of California, he puts his finger on the impacts of changing tastes, tolerances and expectations. This sets up the second half of the story: the development of the 2002 revival that flopped on Broadway.

David Henry Hwang, the author of M. Butterfly who was (and is) the most prominent Chinese-American dramatist, approached the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization with a proposal to discard Oscar Hammerstein II and Joseph Fields’ original book but to use the original score to develop an entirely new Flower Drum Song that would not be objectionable to twenty-first century audiences. They bought it, granting the right to rework the script but not allowing any changes to Hammerstein’s lyrics.

Hwang went back to the novel and built a different show on different story threads. As this was his first musical, he worked with director and choreographer Robert Longbottom who had helmed both Side Show and the second iteration of The Scarlet Pimpernel.

Lewis draws from interviews he conducted with nearly thirty people, most of whom were in or directly involved with one or the other production. He describes vividly the rehearsal process, the evolution of the final version of the story and the two very different shows that received very different receptions – the pre-Broadway tryout which was a sell out hit in Los Angeles, and the final Broadway version which closed after only 169 performances, losing its entire $7 million investment.

Lewis writes with a refreshing level of frankness, never pulling his punches. The movie gets the harshest treatment. He calls it “a bizarre pastiche of limping mediocrity.” Of the screenplay by Joe Fields he says “We are left to gawk at how stupidly insensitive Joe Fields could be without the counter-intelligence of an Oscar Hammerstein around.” And he says the actors who played the male leads, James Shigeta and Benson Fong, “come off like a community theatre duo in a town bereft of Asian-faced talent.”

As a result of his strong and colorful language, this opinionated book turns out to be a good read.

Flower Drum Songs

by David H. Lewis

225 pages including notes, sources and index

27 black and white photos

McFarland & Company
ISBN 978-0-7864-2246-3
List Price Paperback – $39.95
Publishers order line 800-253-2187