Book Reviews

Flower Drum Songs: The Story of Two Musicals
by David H. Lewis

Book Review by Alan Gomberg

Flower Drum SongsI approached David H. Lewis's Flower Drum Songs: The Story of Two Musicals with some trepidation. As the title suggests, the subject is the 1958 Rodgers-Hammerstein-Joseph Fields musical Flower Drum Song and David Henry Hwang's radical rewrite of the show, which kept most of the score, the characters' names, and the basic setting, but created a new plot and completely new dialogue. Given my fondness for the original, I wondered whether I would be able to view the book impartially if Lewis favored the Hwang version. As it turned out, I had no need to worry on that count.

Lewis starts with his memories of seeing the national tour of Flower Drum Song in San Francisco in 1960. He goes on to cover a bit of the history of Rodgers and Hammerstein's collaboration; the experiences that led C. Y. Lee to write the novel from which the musical was freely adapted, along with a synopsis of the novel; the writing, rehearsal process, out-of-town rewriting, and Broadway reception of the original production; the successful national tour; the film version (which Lewis excoriates and to some degree blames for the later poor reputation of the show); some history of stage productions after the national tour; a discussion of musical revivals in recent years; and, of course, a great deal on Hwang's rewrite, its first production at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, and the move to Broadway a year later.

Given how much I agree with his general point of view, I wish Lewis had made a better case for it. On the positive side, the process by which each of the two versions was created emerges fairly clearly. In addition, Lewis often does a good job of pulling together information from many sources. His reports on the few relatively recent productions of the original version are valuable. Also valuable is the chapter in which Lewis discusses the effort that was made to cast as many Asian performers as possible in the original production, even though the effort didn't completely succeed.

Lewis interviewed a number of members of the original cast. Several voice disappointment that the show ended up as a light musical comedy rather than a somewhat more serious work in the tradition of the greatest Rodgers and Hammerstein shows. Lewis suggests that the team was desperate for a hit after the disappointing receptions given their two most recent musicals (Me and Juliet and Pipe Dream). The show went into rehearsal with neither the script nor the score complete, and none of the three writers was in the best of health. With a neophyte stage director in Gene Kelly, and most of the cast having no Broadway experience, the writers went for the easiest solutions, emphasizing comedy and light entertainment instead of exploring the serious issues raised by the novel.

In the chapter on the national tour, Lewis effectively establishes that it was successful with critics and audiences, and discusses (in rather general terms) ways in which the production changed from Broadway. Less happily, he spends a good deal of time airing the gripes of two cast members (Arthur Lober and Chao-Li Chi) about stage manager Teddy Hammerstein and (to a lesser degree) actress Juanita Hall, neither of whom is around to offer a defense.

Despite his somewhat negative feelings about the Hwang version, Lewis displays compassion for the travails suffered by the casts of the Taper and Broadway productions, as well as admiration for their talents. We hear from some of the actors why the show meant a great deal to them. Even though the Taper production was very successful, half the cast was not invited to be part of the Broadway production, which was not so successful. Several of the actors, including some who were in both productions, have extremely negative things to say about director Robert Longbottom, who doesn't come off well. (Longbottom declined Lewis's invitation to be interviewed.)

Also coming off badly is Ted Chapin, president of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization and one of the prime movers behind the Hwang rewrite. With the help of some quotations from newspaper interviews, Lewis suggests that both Chapin and Mary Rodgers have little interest in preserving the integrity of the works licensed by the organization. Chapin, in particular, seems to view the original Flower Drum Song book with disdain.

While Lewis clearly isn't happy with Mary Rodgers (in part for her having very publicly discussed her parents' emotional problems and her father's alcoholism), he seems to feel special ire for Chapin. In the book's notes, there is a list of people with whom Lewis either corresponded or had interviews (Mary Rodgers is on that list), and a list of those who refused Lewis's interview requests (including Hwang and C. Y. Lee). Chapin is on neither list, leading me to conclude that Lewis never contacted Chapin. If that's correct, then it was a mistake for Lewis not to have given him a chance to explain the organization's decisions.

Although Lewis has nothing good to say about Chapin, Hwang's desire to reclaim the show from relative obscurity and to add some seriousness to the script evokes sympathy from Lewis. He even seems to feel that, despite the flaws in Hwang's script, the Taper production worked fairly well, but that the changes made for Broadway "exaggerated a disjointed structure crying out for unity."

One major problem with the book is that Lewis seems never to have decided whether he is addressing a reader who doesn't know much about musicals or someone who is extremely well-versed in the whole Flower Drum Song saga, including some very arcane stuff. As a result, there are things here that are likely to mystify many readers, while others may be bored by some of the elementary information Lewis includes.

Then there are the factual errors. The most inexplicable one may be Lewis's statement that the only time Flower Drum Song has been performed outside the United States was when the national tour played Toronto. Lewis seems to have forgotten about the 1960 London production, which ran for 13 months and produced a cast recording. (Strangely, he later discusses the critical reception of the London production.) Other errors include identifying Jack Cole as the choreographer of the original production of The Pajama Game and attributing the authorship of Arthur Miller's play The Man Who Had All the Luck to Joseph Fields, who directed it.

Lewis makes some rather bizarre statements, such as blaming the editor of the Flower Drum Song film for its length, and he seems to believe that Broadway musicals traditionally get major revivals within a few years of the original production closing.

Although Lewis generally tries to strike an impartial and balanced tone, there are times when he waxes unpleasantly sarcastic, as when he refers to the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization as Happy Talk. And his tone turns downright ugly when he refers to "uppity students" protesting a production of the show in San Francisco in 1983.

In addition to a number of typos and misspellings of names and some rather sloppy phrasing, Lewis sometimes misuses words. For example, he writes dissidence when he means dissonance, and limpid when he means limp. We read that Adam Guettel, discussing his life with the press, revealed "tabloid details of a life of drugs [and] metrosex." And this is just about the last book in which I would have expected to find dissed used with no apparent irony.

Despite the flaws in Lewis's writing, people who love the original Flower Drum Song will almost certainly find this book worthwhile. And people who enjoy backstage stories of the creation of Broadway musicals may find this an interesting, if sometimes confusing, read. Simply as a result of the subject and Lewis's interviews with cast members of the original production, it should be included in any comprehensive Rodgers and Hammerstein bibliography. But if Lewis was hoping to reach a wider audience, he missed his chance. The book reads like a first draft in need of a good deal of editorial help.

As an example of the good stuff that Lewis does come up with, here's a quotation from a 1960 radio interview with Richard Rodgers, which the folks at "Happy Talk" might do well to take to heart: "When we can possibly get them [the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows] performed the way they were written, we do so because we've found from experience, some of it painful, that the best way to project these things and get a response from a live audience is to do them the way they were done originally, after we got finished correcting them ourselves."

Flower Drum SongsFlower Drum Songs: The Story of Two Musicals
By David H. Lewis
Paperback. 234 pages
McFarland and Company - 800-352-2817
Publishing date: February 2006
List Price: $32.00
ISBN: # 0786422467