Flower Drum Song was the eighth musical by the team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. It was based on the 1957 novel, The Flower Drum Song, by Chinese-American author C. Y. Lee. The piece opened in 1958 on Broadway and was afterwards presented in the West End and on tour. It was subsequently made into a 1961 musical film.
After their extraordinary early successes, beginning with Oklahoma! in 1943, Rodgers and Hammerstein had written two musicals in the 1950s that did not do well and sought a new hit to revive their fortunes. Lee’s novel focuses on a father, Wang Chi-yang, a wealthy refugee from China, who clings to traditional values in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Rodgers and Hammerstein shifted the focus of the musical to his son, Wang Ta, who is torn between his Chinese roots and assimilation into American culture. The team hired Gene Kelly to make his debut as a stage director with the musical and scoured the country for a suitable Asian – or at least, plausibly Asian-looking – cast. The musical, much more light-hearted than Lee’s novel, was profitable on Broadway and was followed by a national tour.
After the release of the 1961 film version, the musical was rarely produced, as it presented casting issues and fears that Asian-Americans would take offense at how they are portrayed. When it was put on the stage, lines and songs that might be offensive were often cut. The piece did not return to Broadway until 2002, when a version with a plot by playwright David Henry Hwang (but retaining most of the original songs) was presented after a successful Los Angeles run. Hwang’s story retains the Chinatown setting and the inter-generational and immigrant themes, and emphasizes the romantic relationships. It received mostly poor reviews in New York and closed after six months but had a short tour and has since been produced regionally.
C.Y. Lee fled war-torn China in the 1940s and came to the United States, where he attended Yale University’s playwriting program, graduating in 1947 with an M.F.A. degree. By the 1950s, he was barely making a living writing short stories and working as a Chinese teacher, translator and journalist for San Francisco Chinatown newspapers. He had hoped to break into playwriting, but instead wrote a novel about Chinatown, The Flower Drum Song (originally titled Grant Avenue). Lee initially had no success selling his novel, but his agent submitted it to the publishing house of Farrar, Straus and Cudahy. The firm sent the manuscript to an elderly reader for evaluation. The reader was found dead in bed, the manuscript beside him with the words “Read this” scrawled on it. The publishing house did so, and bought Lee’s novel, which became a bestseller in 1957.
Lee’s novel centers on Wang Chi-yang, a 63-year-old man who fled China to avoid the communists. The wealthy refugee lives in a house in Chinatown with his two sons. His sister-in-law, Madam Tang, who takes citizenship classes, is a regular visitor and urges Wang to adopt Western ways. While his sons and sister-in-law are integrating into American culture, Wang stubbornly resists assimilation and speaks only two words of English, “Yes” and “No”. Wang also has a severe cough, which he does not wish to have cured, feeling that it gives him authority in his household. Wang’s elder son, Wang Ta, woos Linda Tung, but on learning that she has many men in her life, drops her; he later learns she is a nightclub dancer. Linda’s friend, seamstress Helen Chao, who has been unable to find a man despite the shortage of eligible women in Chinatown, gets Ta drunk and seduces him. On awakening in her bed, he agrees to an affair, but eventually abandons her, and she commits suicide.
Impatient at Ta’s inability to find a wife, Wang arranges for a picture bride for his son. However, before the picture bride arrives, Ta meets a young woman, May Li, who with her father has recently come to San Francisco. The two support themselves by singing depressing flower drum songs on the street. Ta invites the two into the Wang household, with his father’s approval, and he and May Li fall in love. He vows to marry her after she is falsely accused by the household servants of stealing a clock, though his father forbids it. Wang struggles to understand the conflicts that have torn his household apart; his hostility toward assimilation is isolating him from his family. In the end, taking his son’s advice, Wang decides not to go to the herbalist to seek a remedy for his cough, but walks to a Chinese-run Western clinic, symbolizing that he is beginning to accept American culture.
Genesis of the musical
Rodgers and Hammerstein, despite extraordinary early successes, such as Oklahoma!, Carousel and South Pacific, had suffered back-to-back Broadway flops in the mid-1950s with Me and Juliet and Pipe Dream. While Oklahoma! had broken new ground in 1943, any new project in the late 1950s would have to compete with modern musicals and techniques, like the brutal realism in West Side Story, and with other Broadway musical hits such as The Music Man, My Fair Lady and The Pajama Game. Rodgers and Hammerstein had made it their rule to begin work on their next musical as soon as the last opened on Broadway, but by the start of 1957, six months after Pipe Dream closed, the pair had no new stage musical in prospect. They had, however, been working since 1956 on the popular television version of Cinderella, which was broadcast on CBS on March 31, 1957. Rodgers was still recovering from an operation for cancer in a tooth socket, and he was drinking heavily and suffering from depression. In June 1957, Rodgers checked himself into Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic, and he remained there for twelve weeks. According to his daughters, Mary and Linda, this did not put a stop to his drinking.
Hammerstein, meanwhile, was in Los Angeles at the filming of South Pacific. While at the commissary, he met longtime friend, Joe Fields, who mentioned that he was negotiating for the rights to The Flower Drum Song. Intrigued by the title, Hammerstein asked for a copy of the novel, and decided that it had potential as a musical – the lyricist described it as “sort of a Chinese Life with Father”. Hammerstein consulted with Rodgers, and they agreed to make it their next work, to be written and produced in association with Fields. Hammerstein began work in mid-1958. In July, however, he fell ill and was hospitalized for a month. This forced him to hurry his writing, as the production team had hoped to have the show in rehearsal by the start of September; this was postponed by two weeks. In interviews, however, Hammerstein pointed out that he had, when necessary, written songs for previous shows while in rehearsals for them.
The musical retained Lee’s “central theme – a theme coursing through much 20th-century American literature: the conflict between Old World immigrants and their New World offspring”. Hammerstein and Fields shifted the focus of the story, however, from the elder Wang, who is central to Lee’s novel, to his son Ta. They also removed the darker elements of Lee’s work, including Helen Chao’s suicide after her desperate fling with Ta, added the festive nightclub subplot and emphasized the romantic elements of the story. According to David Lewis in his book about the musical, “Mr. Hammerstein and his colleagues were evidently in no mood to write a musical drama or even to invest their comedic approach with dramatic counterpoint of the sort that Jud Fry had given Oklahoma! … [They] took the safest commercial route by following the eldest son’s search for love – the most popular theme at the time with Broadway audiences.” Lewis notes that Chao’s role, though diminished in the musical, nevertheless gives it some of its darkest moments, and she serves much the same purpose as Jud Fry: to be, in Hammerstein’s words, “the bass fiddle that gives body to the orchestration of the story”. Though the new story was less artistically adventurous than the earlier Rodgers and Hammerstein hits, it was innovative, even daring in its treatment of Asian-Americans, “an ethnic group that had long been harshly caricatured and marginalized in our mainstream pop culture.”