Dormant R&H tuner gets long-awaited rewrite

The theater’s smaller and the budget’s been cut in half, but after more than five years in development, the highly anticipated new version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Flower Drum Song” is taking the stage.

The show, which opens at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles on Oct. 14, represents the first time anyone has been allowed, in effect, to rewrite a Rodgers and Hammerstein show.

The man chosen for that groundbreaking task is playwright David Henry Hwang (“M. Butterfly”), who says he aimed “to write the book that Oscar Hammerstein would have written if he’d been Asian-American.”

Speaking of the project, Ted Chapin, prexy of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, says: “Of all the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, ‘Flower Drum Song’ is the one that was popular in its day and maintained its success through the ’60s, and then it fell out of fashion. For many years, there have been very, very few productions of it.”

The 1961 Universal film was also successful and was the first studio film to cast all of its leads with Asian-American actors, many of whom went on to have successful careers.

The project is aiming to inject new commercial life into an old show, but also to inject something else — authenticity, a concept Hwang readily admits is “dodgy” and “ever-evolving.”

“The original was certainly authentically felt,” says Hwang, who is very careful to praise the intentions and much of the work that Rodgers, Hammerstein and co-librettist Joseph Fields did in adapting C.Y. Lee’s novel about San Francisco’s Chinatown to the stage. “But it doesn’t ring true to me about Chinese culture and the generational conflicts that express themselves in this particular community.”

The question became: How could Hwang eliminate the patronizing, overly cute tone of the original and still keep the musical comedy show tunes like “I Enjoy Being a Girl” and, most especially, “Chop Suey,” a virtual anthem of assimilation?

After an initial draft that made Chapin and Mary Rodgers “scratch our heads,” Hwang came up with a new storyline that captured the themes of the original — culture clash, assimilation, generational conflict — and, according to Chapin, “worked in musical theater terms.”

In this “Flower Drum Song,” Master Wang runs a “Peking-style” Opera theater, and he allows son Wang Ta to start a Westernized nightclub in the space on dark nights, which proves extremely successful.

The transformation becomes a metaphor for assimilation and also reflects on the original musical’s role in the history of Asian-American performance.

The songs that still work as “book numbers” remain so, while others become show pieces. Two songs from the original, “Sunday” and “The Other Generation,” have been cut, while another that was cut from the original, “My Best Love,” has been reinstated. The arranged-marriage angle has been axed, and the lead female character has been strengthened.

Hwang also managed to find a different tone for the piece. “The tension between the old and the new is better realized,” says Gordon Davidson, artistic director of L.A.’s Center Theater Group, which runs the Taper, “and therefore more affecting and more universal.

“On the one hand the story is fun and entertaining; on the other hand it’s painful, because David’s not afraid to recognize that in the young man’s desire to be an American, creating something as quintessentially American as a nightclub, there’s some loss of value.”

Davidson initially planned to present this “Flower Drum Song” on the large Ahmanson Theater’s proscenium stage, in what would in effect have been a planned pre-Broadway run. Producer Ben Mordecai partnered in raising money for what was to be a $7 million production. But just when it seemed like the money was there, they ran out of time and the production was canceled.

In a prime example of producer perseverance and artistic adaptability, Davidson called Hwang and director Robert Longbottom and proposed doing the show at the Taper. “There’s only so much money,” he told them, “and there’s only so much space. There’s no backstage, no flies, no pit. But there’s a challenge.” After discussing it with designer Robin Wagner, they accepted the challenge.

Since it’s part of the Taper’s season, it’s impossible to define out the show’s budget separately, but Davidson says they’re spending less than half what the initial production would have cost. Mordecai has helped to raise about $1 million in “enhancement money” for the production, and there’s a lengthy list of folks producing this in association with the Taper.

“We’re doing it here,” says Davidson, “to prove that there’s a value in reviving this show, and running the risk that this run may be it.” But New York remains a possibility. Says Mordecai, “I wouldn’t be involved if I didn’t think it had a future life.”

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