Flower Drum Song occupies a unique position in the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon. The 1958 musical wasn’t one of the duo’s timeless hits (Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, The Sound of Music). Nor was it one of their three commercial misses (Allegro, Me and Juliet, Pipe Dream). Instead, when considering the R&H oeuvre, it resides somewhere in between. It played 600 performances, and yielded a successful London production, a couple of bona fide classic songs, a big-screen adaptation, and one heavily-revised Broadway revival. Now, Craft Recordings has celebrated the best of Flower Drum Song – its grand, tuneful score – with a new vinyl reissue of its Original Broadway Cast Recording. (As with the 1959 Broadway cast album of The Sound of Music, the Columbia Records album of Flower Drum Song has reverted to R&H, hence its reissue on Craft.) For now, at least, the LP is exclusive to Barnes and Noble retailers and online store.
Based on the novel The Flower Drum Song by Chinese immigrant C.Y. Lee, the musical by composer Richard Rodgers, lyricist-librettist Oscar Hammerstein II, and Hammerstein’s co-librettist Joseph Fields explored themes of cultural assimilation and the generation gap facing a Chinese-American family in San Francisco’s Chinatown. R&H assembled a top-drawer creative team including director Gene Kelly (making his Broadway directorial debut), choreographer Carol Haney, dance arranger Luther Henderson, and orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett.
Hopes were high for Flower Drum Song. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s last two Broadway musicals were, by most metrics, disappointments: 1953’s Me and Juliet (358 performances) and 1955’s Pipe Dream (245 performances). As the show’s producers, R&H aimed to cast it with actors of Chinese descent, but ultimately found that a sadly insurmountable task. (It was reported that a casting advertisement in a local New York Chinese-language newspaper yielded a solitary response.) As a result, actors of varying backgrounds were cast including Keye Luke, a longtime Hollywood presence of true Chinese heritage; Japanese rising star Miyoshi Umeki (Sayonara); Japanese-Americans Jack Soo and Pat Suzuki; Hawaiian-born American Ed Kenney; African-American Juanita Hall (South Pacific); and perhaps most unfortunately, the talented Caucasian American Larry Blyden. (Blyden replaced another white actor, future F Troop star Larry Storch, in the role of Sammy Fong.)
The book and musical chronicled the story of Mei Li (Umeki), a “mail-order bride.” She arrives in San Francisco to marry Sammy Fong, whom she hasn’t met. But nightclub owner Fong has other ideas: he’d rather wed Linda Low (Suzuki), who stars in his club’s floorshow. Keye Luke portrayed Wan Chi Yang, patriarch of a family with its own struggles: his son Wang Ta (Kenney) is torn between traditional Chinese ways and the values he’s learning in America, his other son Wang San is wholly Americanized, and his sister-in-law Madame Liang (Hall) is eager to assimilate herself.
While the authors intended to tell the story as authentically as they knew how, those last four words proved to be a sticking point. With each successive decade, the show began to be viewed as more and more problematic. Concerns arose about its lighthearted tone, its (certainly unintentional) stereotyping, and its attitudes about gender roles and relationships. A 2002 Broadway revival sought to address these issues. It retained almost all of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s enchanting score (albeit in rearranged and/or reimagined interpretations) but featured a new book by Chinese-American playwright David Henry Hwang. Most critics responded positively to the new production’s all-Asian cast and Hwang’s desire to make the show palatable and acceptable to a new generation, but otherwise found it lacking. Some felt the original was still the stronger work of art, and only a new lens – rather than a wholly new book – was necessary to stage it in the proper light.
Whatever the case, the engaging, melodic, and memorable score remains, and the cast album produced by Columbia’s innovative Goddard Lieberson has received a deluxe presentation on Craft’s 2-LP, 45-RPM vinyl set. The often-ravishing sweep of Rodgers’ melodies thrills from the first notes of the Overture under the baton of Salvatore Dell’ Isola. Scoring for an orchestra of 30, including thirteen strings and eight brass, Robert Russell Bennett added Eastern elements to his typically lush orchestrations, especially in the percussion instruments such as temple blocks. He also cleverly utilized the traditional likes of woodwinds, banjo, and harp to suggest the milieu.
The score reflected the musical’s conflicts of culture; while some songs were intended to showcase Asian sensibilities, others were pure, brash American musical comedy. This allowed for Rodgers to indulge in the pop-jazz rhythms of his earlier works with Lorenz Hart in addition to the lushly romantic songs he specialized in with Hammerstein. But in both settings, the composer and lyricist treated their characters with respect and sincerity. Luther Henderson’s fresh dance arrangements added a then-current pop-jazz feel to such numbers as the big-voiced Pat Suzuki’s party showstopper “Grant Avenue.”
Hammerstein’s deep understanding of human emotions always served him well as a writer and lyricist, particularly as he was able to translate that depth into deceptively simple, accessible, and universal words. He employed the Malayan pantoum, a style of poetry, for Mei Li’s “I Am Going to Like It Here.” In this form, the second and fourth lines in a stanza are repeated in the first and third lines of the following quatrain, lending the song a subtle feel of cyclical movement. Umeki delivered the hypnotic ballad with heartfelt sincerity. Linda Low’s declaration that “I Enjoy Being a Girl” – zestfully performed by Suzuki – has long been viewed by some a relic of a pre-feminist culture; in the 2002 revival, Hwang imbued it with a dose of irony and made it a nightclub hit. But there’s also agency and empowerment in Low’s beliefs as embodied here by Suzuki.
Arabella Hong as Helen Chao got the musical’s most touching moment with “Love, Look Away,” a beautiful expression of heartbreak that was covered by pop artists including Columbia’s Johnny Mathis and Tony Bennett. Juanita Hall, the original Bloody Mary in South Pacific on stage and screen, shared a lighter duet with Keye Luke, the droll “The Other Generation,” which was excised from the 2002 revival. Larry Blyden offers comic relief on the plea “Don’t Marry Me” as well as the pretty “Sunday” with Suzuki, an oft-overlooked melody that is quintessentially wonderful Rodgers. “A Hundred Million Miracles,” sung by Umeki, Luke, and Hall with Conrad Yama and Rose Quong, is perhaps Hammerstein’s defining lyric on the show. Throughout his career as in this song, he found and expressed beauty in nature, humanity, and music itself. The open-hearted sentiment that might have felt false coming from another wordsmith – “A hundred million miracles are happening every day” – was not only right for Hammerstein and the characters in Flower Drum Song, but somehow perfect.
Flower Drum Song was remixed for its 1993 CD debut on Sony Broadway, with that remix retained for a 1999 reissue on Columbia Broadway Masterworks. Both reissues were resequenced, too. The original LP placed the Entr’acte at the top of Side Two when, in the show, it occurred after the “Grant Avenue” reprise and before “The Other Generation.” Craft Recordings’ new reissue preserves the original album sequence as well as the original mix. It has been pressed on two black LPs at 45 RPM, allowing for the best vinyl sound possible with clear separation and a well-defined sense of spatiality. It’s been quietly and tastefully mastered by Ryan Smith at Sterling Sound from the three-track master tapes, and is housed in a gatefold sleeve, with the front and back replicating the 1958 artwork. The interior of the gatefold presents a delightful selection of black-and-white production photos as well as one of director Gene Kelly dancing with Pat Suzuki in rehearsal.
With almost twenty years having passed since Flower Drum Song‘s last Broadway stand, perhaps it’s time to once again revisit the musical and celebrate its possibilities for inclusion. Though attitudes and tastes have evolved in the 60+ years since it was first produced (and indeed, in the time since its revival) its certain truisms about cultures, generations, and family ties remain worthy of exploration. Craft Recordings’ new reissue is available now on vinyl in stores and online from Barnes and Noble and also digitally, in high-resolution stereo (192/24), from online stores including HDTracks. In either format, it’s a worthwhile (re)discovery.