Coming to Region 2 DVD for the first time on 25 August courtesy of Arrow Films, Flower Drum Song is a good reminder that even second-tier Rodgers and Hammerstein is a cut above the average musical.
Opening in 1958, a year after the first edition of the novel by C Y Lee on which it was based, it became the first Broadway show to feature a predominantly Asian cast. It is also unusual in that its main subject matter is the cultural issues faced by Asian-Americans who are caught between two different societies with quite different traditions; it is interesting to observe how Broadway moved from dealing with the assimilation of Jews into American society to a different racial group.
Some felt (and will still feel) that the script by Hammerstein and Joseph A Fields is patronising towards the Chinese with its slightly mocking depiction of traditions ('Get me a dozen thousand-year eggs – and make sure they're fresh!' says one character), a perhaps valid sensitivity that provoked a rewrite of the libretto in 2001-2 for a Los Angeles and Broadway production, though the latter was widely criticised. Flower Drum Song is a product of its time, but the charm of the story, the light touch of the comic scenes and at least the attempt to deal with a serious issue should be valued rather than dismissed.
Set in San Francisco's Chinatown, the musical tells the story of Mei Li, a Hong Kong picture bride who comes to America to meet her husband-to-be, Sammy Fong, who is an Americanised Chinese night-club owner. Since he is already involved with Linda Low, the star act of his club, Sammy sends Mei Li and her father (both of whom have immigrated illegally) to stay with Master Wang in the hope of her marrying the latter's son, Wang Ta, instead. Wang Ta, meanwhile, has been out on a date with Linda, who uses him to try to force Sammy to settle down. After overcoming various dilemmas and obstacles, the two couples eventually make it to matrimony by the final curtain.
The 1961 film version on offer here has a strong opening forty minutes and some engaging moments elsewhere, but at 125 minutes it's about twenty minutes too long for the material. Just when everything could be settled and finished, Mei Li discovers that Wang Ta has spent the night at the house of his friend Helen, but rather than explain that he was drunk and Helen took him home rather than leave him on the street, Wang Ta says nothing and the film takes an unnecessary extra turn around the block. Helen is also an odd creation: having barely appeared in the first half of the film, suddenly she gets a song to herself ('Love, Look Away' – dubbed by Marilyn Horne of all people) and is effectively psycho-analysed in the ballet that joins onto the number. The piece is perhaps too heavily populated with characters, several of whom are not sufficiently developed to justify the screen time they get at certain points. Master Wang's younger son Wang San, for instance, plays an active role in the early scenes and dominates the number 'The Other Generation', but almost completely disappears after 'You Be the Rock'.
Still, there's much to be enjoyed, including one of Rodgers and Hammerstein's best scores. 'I Enjoy Being a Girl', 'You are Beautiful', 'Sunday' and 'Don't Marry Me' are all great songs, while others such as 'I am Going to Like it Here', 'A Hundred Million Miracles' and 'Grant Avenue' are more than serviceable. On the whole the cast is very strong, led by Nancy Kwan's feisty Linda Low and Miyoshi Umeki's utterly charming Mei Li. Juanita Hall and Benson Fong almost steal the show as the older generation brother- and sister-in-law Madame Liang and Master Wang respectively, and Jack Soo and James Shigeta are well chosen as the male leads, if hardly memorable; Wang San is played with verve by Patrick Adiarte, better known for portraying Prince Chulalongkorn in the film of The King and I. The vocal standards are extremely mixed, with the dubbing of Kwan by the non-Asian singer B J Baker a peculiar decision even if the performance is strong, and the choreography (by Fred Astaire's long-time collaborator Hermes Pan, not at his best here) ranges from the stagey ('The Other Generation') to the downright silly and grotesque ('Sunday, Sweet Sunday' – a bridge too far for me). Yet Henry Koster's direction on the whole ensures that the action keeps moving, and anyone with a taste for film musicals of the era will find this an entertaining movie.
The print and soundtrack used on Arrow Films' DVD release is more than acceptable but not quite up to the standard of Universal's Region 1 release. More importantly, there are no special features here, compared to the wealth of extras on the American version. Nevertheless, the DVD is available at mid-price and is well worth acquiring.
Reviews of other recent musical theatre recordings and events include:
A Swell Party: Cole Porter at Cadogan Hall
The Wizard of Oz at the Royal Festival Hall
Street Scene with The Opera Group
Arabian Nights on Sepia Records
The Music Man at the Chichester Festival
Candide at ENO
Betwixt! The Musical at the King's Head
My Fair Lady Original Broadway Cast on Naxos
Gypsy on Broadway with Patti Lupone
Funny Girl at the Chichester Festival
Kismet at ENO
On the Town at ENO