One of America's leading playwrights is a Chinese-American who recently enjoyed critical acclaim for his revival of a Broadway classic. David Henry Hwang's adaptation of Flower Drum Song, the 1957 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical about Chinese immigrants in San Francisco, is the only musical in theater history to feature an all-Asian cast.
Despite its brilliant score and a successful film adaptation, Flower Drum Song did not age well over the years the book was considered dated and stereotypical of some of its characters. But the playwright was intrigued with the possibility of re-working a show that had always held special significance for Asian-Americans. Thus, with encouragement from the Rodgers and Hammerstein estate, David Henry Hwang saved Flower Drum Song from fading into obscurity. The show has garnered three Tony Award nominations.
When playwright David Henry Hwang approached the Rodgers and Hammerstein organization about re-writing one of its musicals, he admits it took a certain amount of "chutzpa." The songwriting team, whose musicals became the definition of the art form, were adamant that nothing about their shows ever be fundamentally changed. But the Rodgers and Hammerstein estate acknowledged that the practically forgotten Flower Drum Song still had commercial potential and were impressed with Mr. Hwang's desire to reinterpret the story with an Asian-American voice.
The Chinese-American playwright, who came to prominence in 1988 with his Tony award-winning play, M Butterfly says Flower Drum Song holds "a prominent place among most Asian-Americans," although not without some ambivalence.
"There are a lot of great things about it," he says. "Certainly as a kid when I saw it I was amazed at the fact that these Asian characters were being treated sympathetically, that they were not being used as villains or as caricatures, that you had an actual love story between an Asian man and an Asian woman, you had the younger characters speaking without accents and seeming like Americans, all of which was quite revolutionary. By the time I got to college in the late '70s, and Asians as well as other minorities in this country were beginning to write more about ourselves, then we began to notice there were some things in the musical that seemed old fashioned or stereotypical or caricatured."
Flower Drum Song tells the story of a group of Chinese immigrants living in San Francisco's Chinatown in the 1950s. While the original book's lead character Mei-Li is a mail order bride who has smuggled herself across an ocean to meet her intended husband, a nightclub owner, playwright David Hwang has written Mei-li as a fearless young refugee fleeing China's Cultural Revolution.
Included in the score are some classic Rodgers and Hammerstein songs: A Hundred Million Miracles, You are Beautiful and, I Enjoy Being a Girl which was once derided for sounding like an anthem for subservient women and now a tribute to independent women, where its lead-in talks about the "end of foot-binding and no more stuffing daughters down a well."
Playwright David Henry Hwang says the original Rodgers and Hammerstein musical was quite daring for its time and says he didn't try to "fix" Flower Drum Song as much as "try to write the book that Oscar Hammerstein would have written if he were Asian-American. But some critics of the show say it still reinforces negative stereotypes of Asian people.
One nightclub dance features a chorus of Asian women dressed up as take-out Chinese food cartons. Even a character in the fictional Club Chop Suey worries that they may go too far and risk becoming a kind of "oriental minstrel show." Playwright David Hwang says he has tried to put some of the old stereotypes of the 1950s "out front and play with them" before a 21st century audience from a historical perspective.
"Because we've set a lot of the numbers in an nightclub, a nightclub around the late '50s, early '60s, this was the kind of humor that Asian comedians would use then," he explains. "And I think we're able to kind of put a frame around it now, and say, 'that was part of the performing heritage of Asian Americans.' I also felt that I wanted the show to have the kind of value that would appeal and have emotional resonance to an audience in 2001-2002. That even a mainstream audience right now has much more familiarity with things like cultural differences with China, with Asia and with the complexity of what it means to assimilate and become an American."
"The things you gain and the things you lose, all that is a much more kind of 21st century sensibility than the way Rodgers and Hammerstein treated the subject of assimilation and Americanization in 1958," he adds.
The new Flower Drum Song is only the second time in 45 years that there has been a major musical about the Asian-American experience. Playwright David Hwang says the show has been a special experience for all of its cast members, who can personally identify in some way with the story being told. And he credits his own background as influential of his treatment of the play.
"I think my upbringing both as the son of immigrants and as a Chinese-American myself was completely the reason that I wanted to do this," he says. " And it was an opportunity for me to write about this process of becoming an American seen through the eyes of Asians in relation to my own history and my own experience, but to do it in collaboration, as it were, with the two greatest theater artists of the twentieth century."
The revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song concluded its Broadway run in March after 194 performances. A national tour of the production will open in Dallas, Texas in September and a separate international tour will begin in New Zealand in early 2004.