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Flower Drum Song—The Stage Play

Time magazine cover for December 22, 1958, with Miyoshi Umeki and Pat Suzuki from the original cast of Flower Drum Song

After a recent viewing of the movie version of Flower Drum Song revived my interest in the musical, I ordered second-hand copies of the libretto and vocal scores, as I was very curious to see how the original stage play differed from the film version, never having seen a production of it.

I was not surprised to find that they are constructed very differently. To use a crime story metaphor, the stage play, especially the first act, is designed something like a whodunit, with key information (i.e., that Sammy Fong and Linda Low have been lovers for five years) withheld from the audience until the climax. The movie is more like a Columbo episode where the audience is clued in from the start. I prefer the construction of the play, because the songs (with one exception which I'll get to) work better in their original contexts, but I can see why screenwriter Joseph Fields took the approach that he did; it was all part of “opening up” the action to show scenes that couldn't be done as easily on the stage. Also, unlike other Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, which might be more accurately characterized as “musical plays”, Flower Drum Song is a true “musical comedy” with some very thinly motivated dance sequences, some of which would not have transferred to film very well (not that the ones that the film-makers came up with were necessarily any better). Fields ended up using most of Hammerstein’s original dialog, chopping and mincing and ricing and dicing it to fit slightly different contexts.

(Yes, I know that the libretto was credited to both Oscar Hammerstein, 2nd and Joseph Fields, but since the movie is credited only to Joseph Fields as based on C. Y. Lee’s novel and makes no mention of the original stage play, I'm not going give the dead Fields any credit for the play just as he gave none to the dead Hammerstein. Apparently Richard Rodgers didn’t take enough interest in the film to insist on a credit for the play.)

I'm not going to give a full synopsis of the play; I'm going to assume that anyone who reads this is familiar either with the movie version or with the Original Broadway Cast album, which included a bare bones synopsis. That synopsis was all that I knew of the play, and there were a lot of gaping holes in my knowledge of the plot and how some of the songs fit into it, and the movie didn't help because its reworking of the material placed many of the songs in very different contexts.

The setting is San Francisco’s Chinatown in the mid-1950’s in the household of Master Wang Chi-Yang, who came to America from China and has not even tried to adapt to his adopted country’s customs. He has two sons, Wang Ta, 21 years old, who is partly Americanized but still feels the pull of his Chinese heritage, and a teenaged son, Wang San, who is thoroughly Americanized. Master Wang’s wife is dead, but his sister-in-law, Madam Liang, whose husband is also dead, helps him with the household. Unlike Master Wang, Madam Liang has been taking an American citizenship course and is about to graduate.

The play opens in Master Wang’s house with Madam Liang speaking on the phone ordering delicacies like octopus, sea horse, and dried snake meat from the Ping Wah Super Market. (Yes, Fields used this dialog in a different scene in the movie.)

Wang Ta, Master Wang’s 21-year-old son, tells his aunt about Linda Low, whom he met on a blind date. She drives a Thunderbird, which seems to impress Ta but not his teenaged brother. Ta has been memorizing a Chinese poem which he hopes will impress Linda. Madam Liang remembers it, and they sing it together, “You Are Beautiful”.

Master Wang enters screaming that he has been robbed. In the film the robber was the only non-Asian character; since the robbery occurs off-stage in the play, there are truly no Caucasians in the play.

Sammy Fong, the owner of the Celestial Bar nightclub and the most thoroughly Americanized character in the play, arrives and offers his picture bride to Master Wang for Wang Ta. He introduces Mei Li and her father Dr. Li and leaves.

Dr. Li reveals that they came into the country illegally; if they had waited for the quotas, it would have taken them another five years, and then Mei Li, who is 19, would have been too old to be married.

“A Hundred Million Miracles”

“A Hundred Million Miracles”

Mei Li sings her flower drum song, “A Hundred Million Miracles”. Master Wang is most impressed by Mei Li. 

Scene 2 finds Linda Low and Wang Ta on a hill overlooking San Francisco Bay, presumably with her Thunderbird just off stage. She tells him about her jealous brother, and she also informs him that “the main thing is for a woman to be successful in her gender.” She says she's getting chilly, and when he goes off stage to get her sweater from her Thunderbird, she lets loose with her anthem: “I Enjoy Being a Girl”.

When the song ends, she begins an encore with new lyrics that aren't on the Original Cast Recording. When she concludes the verse, she exits and a thinly motivated dance number ensues. The dance ends and Linda returns to sing a new refrain.

Pages 35 and 36 of the Flower Drum Song libretto with the encore lyrics to “I Enjoy Being a Girl” and the description of the dance number. Click to enlarge

As I said, this is the truest musical comedy that Rodgers and Hammerstein ever wrote. The film-makers were probably correct to have Linda sing this song to mirror versions of herself; that was a better solution for the movie than the dance number that Hammerstein and Gene Kelly concocted. Oh, and if I ever get my dream revival of this show, I think it would be best to cut Linda's encore lyrics, though the dance number might still be nice to keep. I've included an image of pages 35 and 36 so the reader may judge for her or himself.

Anyway when the song ends, Ta comes back with her sweater and they discuss his conflict between his Chinese and his American sides. Impulsively he asks her to marry him. She says she will need to get the consent of her brother, who has been watching out for her.

Scene 3 takes us back to Master Wang’s house where a banker is counting Wang’s money in anticipation of opening a new bank account, and a tailor is fitting him for a new Western suit. Helen Chao arrives, and the scene plays out pretty much like it does in the movie.

Mei Li meets Wang Ta for the first time, and she decides “I Am Going To Like It Here”.

Scene 4 is in Wang’s bedroom where Mei Li receives a Western dress from Master Wang. The hole that Wang burned in his Western suit is revealed, setting up a key scene later on. Ta comes in carrying a corsage he intends for Linda, but he is trapped into giving it to Mei Li, who is told that here in America we “say it with flowers.”

Left alone with Ta, Mei Li pins a flower on his lapel. “I think I say it with flowers, too.” After they discuss the differences between Chinese and American customs in choosing a wife, she tells Ta a joke she learned from his brother San. Then she asks him how he would ask a girl to marry him. After a a brief hesitation he sings “Like a God”. At its conclusion, he exits, but continues to sing off stage, as Mei Li mouths the words. When she realizes he has stopped singing, she gazes at the door. She is happy, she is walking on air. She sings a refrain of “A Hundred Million Miracles”.

Scene 5 is set in the garden of the Wang house where the commencement exercises for Madam Liang’s American citizenship class are concluding. Play and film are pretty much the same here with the dialog about the American-invented Chinese dish leading into the song “Chop Suey”. The play does not feature the extended production number that the film does (my dream revival will), but it does have some lyrics that didn't make it onto the cast recording.

Weather chilly all through Philly,
Hot and clammy in Miami,
Mississippi River swollen—
Mrs. Astor’s fur is stolen,

No!

Thinks a juvenile delinquent
Knows exactly where her mink went!
Doctor Norman Vincent Peale
Tells you how to feel—

Big deal!

Chop Suey!
Chop Suey!
Rough and tough and brittle and soft and gooey—
Peking duck and Mulligan stew,
Plymouth Rock and Little Rock, too.
Milk and beer and Seven-Up and Drambuie—
Chop Suey
Chop Suey
Chop Suey
Chop Suey
CHOP SUEY!
In rehearsal are Pat Suzuki as Linda Low and Larry Storch who was originally cast as Sammy Fong before the part was given to Larry Blyden

In rehearsal are Pat Suzuki as Linda Low and Larry Storch who was originally cast as Sammy Fong before the part was given to Larry Blyden

Linda arrives with Frankie dressed as a naval officer whom she introduces as her brother. Frankie says he gives his consent to Linda marrying Ta, which takes everyone by surprise.

Into the general confusion, Sammy Fong arrives and is taken aback to hear that Ta is in love with someone other than Mei Li. He explains to Mei Li why he is not good husband material in “Don’t Marry Me”.

Now Linda and Frankie re-enter and see Sammy. From their dialog it’s clear that the three of them know each other well and Frankie is not Linda’s brother.

I had always assumed that “Grant Avenue” was a diegetic number that was performed in Sammy Fong’s Celestial Bar, so I was surprised to learn it is a well-motivated book song. Here’s how it is integrated into the show.

When Sammy Fong exits, a character identified only as “Girl” asks Linda, “Are you going to move to Nob Hill?”

Linda replies, “No, I’m not moving from where I am—marriage or no marriage. I’ve got to be where the action is.”

“Where is that?” the Girl asks.

Linda (singing): “Grant Avenue, San Francisco, California, U.S.A—”

After Linda sings a couple refrains, an ensemble dance follows. Right there in Master Wang’s garden. Where nobody knows her. As I said, this is a musical comedy.

Linda's dressing room at the Celestial Bar is the setting for Scene 6 of Act I. Sammy reveals his plan, which is to invite Master Wang and his family to see Linda perform, to Helen and insists she not give it away. Linda arrives and after Sammy gets her to agree to do one more performance, he leaves.

There is a short dialog between Linda and Helen where Helen reveals that she knows Ta better than Linda does. When Linda leaves, Helen sings one of the best songs in the show, “Love, Look Away”.

Wanting you so, I try too much.
After you go, I cry too much.
Arabella Hong as Helen Chao and Ed Kenny as Wang Ta

Arabella Hong as Helen Chao and Ed Kenny as Wang Ta

Has anyone captured the despair of unrequited love more succinctly than Oscar Hammerstein did in those lines?

The final scene of Act I plays out in Sammy Fong’s Celestial Bar, as a singer belts out “Fan Tan Fanny”. Did you know that Fan-Tan is a gambling game that was once popular among Chinese Americans?

As the song ends, Master Wang, his son Ta, Madam Liang, Dr. Li, and Mei Li enter and are shown to their seats by Sammy.

Frankie enters and is revealed to be the master of ceremonies as he begins his patter but is thrown off when he recognizes Master Wang and his party. He starts his song, “Gliding Through My Memormee”, and tries to stay as far from Wang’s table as he can. The end of his song segues into a reprise of “Grant Avenue” by Linda, which turns into a strip tease number before she realizes who is sitting at the front table.

Wang and his party are horrified and humiliated, and all but Ta leave. Helen sees her chance and lends a sympathetic hand to Ta and leads him away.

Sammy lifts his champagne glass to Linda in a mock toast, which is more than she can take. She picks up an ice bucket and dumps it on his head. “His hair, his face, and his evening coat are very wet indeed, probably cold, too.”

Page 95 of the Flower Drum Song libretto which includes the description of Ta’s dream ballet. Click to enlarge

Act II Scene 1 takes us to Helen Chao’s room shortly after the events of the previous scene. She is giving him Tiger Bone wine. When he has had enough, she puts him to bed and his dream is illustrated by a ballet where Linda and Mei Li become involved with him, only to be frustrated by other dancers. Eventually Helen appears and he carries her off.

The following morning Mei Li arrives with Master Wang’s coat with the burn hole. While Helen is distracted, Mei Li sees the flower that she gave Ta in his coat lapel and takes it. After Mei Li leaves, Helen tries a little too much with Ta, until he leaves, and she sings a reprise of “Love, Look Away”. And that is the last we see or hear of poor Helen Chao.

Scene 2 is in Master Wang’s living room where Madam Liang and Wang lament “The Other Generation”.

Ta enters and begs forgiveness. He is ready to let his father choose his wife for him.

But it is too late. After what she saw at Helen’s place, Mei Li wants nothing to do with Ta. Lamenting the turn of events, Ta sings a reprise of “You Are Beautiful”.

Dr. Li and his daughter leave Master Wang’s house.

Scene 3 takes place in Sammy’s penthouse apartment where a fan tan game is winding up, and although Sammy is winning, he’s unhappy because he’s carrying a torch for Linda. Sammy’s mother arrives, shortly followed by Linda, who has her own key. Sammy claims it’s business and says he’ll meet his mother later

Page 123 of the Flower Drum Song libretto with the reprise of “Don’t Marry Me”

Left to themselves, Sammy proposes, and they imagine what married life will be like in one of my favorite tunes (I can say that about almost every song in this wonderful score) from the show, “Sunday”. After they each sing a refrain, a fairly elaborate dance number ensues, although it is a gentle dance, nothing like the nightmarish production number in the movie.

Scene 4 takes place the the Meeting Hall of the Three Family Association. Dr. Li has pressed his case to honor the original contract, thus forcing Sammy to agree to marry Mei Li. He sings a suitably altered reprise of “Don’t Marry Me” to Mei Li, with one of the key words jettisoned.

Linda arrives and is furious when she hears what happened. Sammy asks her to give him a chance to explain.

“Explain what?” she asks. “Half an hour ago you had to marry me, you couldn't live without me...”

“And nothing’s changed,” he replies.

“Nothing’s changed! You’re going to marry her!”

“That’s the only thing that’s changed,” Sammy fires back.

As the grownups run off in different directions, the kids are left to deliver their lament about “The Other Generation”, thankfully without the irrelevant dance that was added in the movie.

Jack Soo played Frankie in the original production of  Flower Drum Song and later went on to play Sammy Fong, a role he reprised in the movie.

Jack Soo played Frankie in the original production of  Flower Drum Song and later went on to play Sammy Fong, a role he reprised in the movie.

The final scenes play out just like in the movie. Ta and Mei Li realize that they both want to be together and decide to try figure out how to bring that about. Then Mei Li watches a television show where a woman claims to be a wetback. After “The Wedding Procession” Mei Li reveals she has entered the country illegally so the contract is void, leaving the two couples free to pair off as they want. A short reprise of “A Hundred Million Miracles” brings it to a close.

A couple weeks ago when I published my first post about Flower Drum Song, someone on Facebook commented that the song “Don’t Marry Me” works better in its later placement in the movie than in its first act position in the play. I agree. The stakes are much higher, and Sammy is more desperate; the song definitely works better there. I think that’s about the only improvement that Fields brought about in his reworking of the material.