The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Coming next: Rock of Ages

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Flower Drum Song

November 9, 1961   Universal   131 minutes

Love knows no reason. Take the french horn, for example--why, of all instruments, should it bore so deeply into my soul? There's some judicious use of french horn in the opening of Universal's Flower Drum Song, and I've been running that soundtrack in my mind for over fifty years. This is a difficult movie to defend; so absurdly opulent, artificial, often silly and mired in outdated attitudes about race and gender. It's Hlwd's one & only all-Asian musical; given wings by no less than Rodgers & Hammerstein; and a valentine to a San Francisco built on stages in North Hollywood. Its very strangeness is often its greatest appeal. And to those for whom it resonates, it brings forth a love beyond explanation. You can count me among them.

To this nine year old in 1962, the movie was pure enchantment; visceral and exotic, yet in themes strangely familiar: old world parents, assimilation and generational conflicts. It was originally a novel by C.Y. Lee, published in 1957--an early crossover hit by a Chinese-American author, that became--for better or worse--the premier tale of Chinatown life. Bway playwright Joseph Fields was the first to recognize its potential and won the rights for film treatment. Instead he went to R&H, who were still smarting from the failure of Pipe Dream, and quickly saw the potential to rebound in another direction. Hammerstein, whose health was declining--and who failed miserably in adapting Steinbeck--gratefully accepted co-authorship with Fields. It would be his final libretto. Rodgers, who had come thru some shaky years of depression and illness himself, was enthused and energized about his music for FDS--which is plainly in evidence, if you ask me. It is sadly too often that composer's latter works are disparaged and unappreciated--taken for granted, as it were--as if consistent quality has a shelf life. All too often Rodgers' work after King & I is summarily dismissed; a slippery slope of diminishing returns. I beg to differ. For one thing, The Sound of Music would never have been the phenomenon that it is without his incalculable mastery: who does the title refer to, after all? Even his music post-R&H, has much of his usual radiance. But for me--I'm just going to have to confess it--Flower Drum Song has always been my favorite Rodgers score. In marrying a jaunty Rodgers & Hart nightclub quality with a dreamy faux-Eastern Orientalism, the result is a melodic sensibility at the top of its game. "You Are Beautiful" and "Love Look Away" are two ballads equal to "I Have Dreamed" or "Where or When," full of Rodgers' famous "wrong" notes, and falling on the ear with a tinge of Asiatica. "You Are Beautiful" in particular, lends itself well to symphonic renderings; it paints a musical portrait of San Francisco as becoming as Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" is for New York. A lushly arranged rendition is heard in the film's title credits (over Dong Kingman's watercolor landscapes) that is so exquisite I have never tired of it. Another trio of "charm" songs are equally among my very favorite in all Rodgers' catalog: "Sunday" is one of those "lazy" softshoe earworms --like "Just in Time" or "Tea for Two"--deceptively simple melodies that show the hallmark of great songwriting. In its playfulness, its musicality, it is unmistakeably Rodgers in peak and effortless form--a song begging for new interpreters, a duet for the musical hall. "Grant Avenue," is the signature San Francisco song to me, not that anthem of Jeanette MacDonald's or Tony Bennett's sentimental heartache.

     Western street with Eastern manners
     Tall pagodas and golden banners
     Throw their shadows thru a lantern glow

It's a bouncy rhythm song I find irresistible. And one that's frequently recalled on walks thru SF. Then there is "I Enjoy Being a Girl," which for obvious reasons is subject to derision. But divorced from its resible lyric (predicated on the idea that mid-century women like playing dress-up with as much relish as today's drag-queens) this is a tune neither cliched nor pedestrian but so contagiously jaunty as to cheer the heart. The distinctive meter of "A Hundred Million Miracles" shows Rodgers in a truly creative mood--and while the tune serves as example of the title practice (a street beggar's chant), I prefer its instrumental reprise as the wedding parade--a mystical yet joyous fanfare as glorious as "The March of the Siamese Children." These half dozen songs--which are repeatedly and effectively used in the film's underscoring--are enuf to distinguish any musical, but there is still more: "Don't Marry Me," a humorous vaudeville turn; "I Am Going to Like it Here," a Mandarin poem in a style known as pantoum; and "At the Celestial Bar"--a spot-on pastiche of the tourist nightclub floorshow. Not all top drawer, sure, but a musical that falls on the ear with pleasing tunefulness and variety. The score's one dud, "Like a God," was amusingly deconstructed in the film as a piece of would-be beat poetry--a fitting use for the single ommission from the Bway score.

Of course I'm aware that Flower Drum Song is considered the third, and weakest, panel of R&H's Pacific Rim tryptich, which is only to be expected when compared to that team's landmarks. For one thing it's their only pure musical comedy: closer in spirit and style to Pal Joey or Guys & Dolls than to their usual form--one that revolutionized an entire genre, and popularized it as well--of which West Side Story & Music Man were then recent examples. So was it such a crime for R&H to now produce something less than epic? Apparently many critics felt so. (Sondheim suffered similiar flak on Merrily We Roll Along, and later, Bounce.) Once Greatness is expected it's virtually demanded; so what chance does modest entertainment--even by topline talent--have? "The world of woozy song," quipped Kenneth Tynan, no doubt pleased with himself; referencing the sudden Asian influx on Bway that season: The World of Suzie Wong, Rashomon, Kataki, A Majority of One. Whatever the faults of the production  "woozy" song was not one of them. FDS isn't anywhere near a rockin' or a rollin' (tho it does have the first r&r parody in a Bway musical--"You be the rock, I'll be the roll"--an 8 bar ditty abruptly cut off midway) but the score swings more than any other R&H (tho you might not get that from Robert Russell Bennett's original orchestrations.) It's the waltz-king's one show without a waltz. Alfred Newman & Ken Darby who previously arranged and supervised R&H's film scores for South Pacific and The King & I, here took startling leaps in goosing up the charts. "Fan Tan Fanny," "Grant Avenue" and "The Other Generation" were considerably jazzed up; and I suspect the Dream Ballet was as well (for no recording from the stage score was ever made). Newman, whose previous 40 Oscar nominations start back in the '30s, must be commended here (earning nom #41) for the lush arrangements; the cartoon playfulness of "Sunday," the symphonic sweep of the Main Title; the grandeur of the wedding procession.

Perhaps because the nightclub numbers were so reminiscent of Pal Joey, R&H thought to hire the original Joey, Gene Kelly to direct the show; but tho he was now an esteemed Hlwd veteran, by all accounts his stage sense was disappointing. Following her mentor (Fosse)  into the wings, Carol Haney made her debut as choreographer. Neither were retained for the celluloid transition--tho it would have been Kelly's more natural arena. Whatever the staging inadequacies, by 1958 audiences were hungry for a new R&H show--especially after two flops in a row--and FDS met that demand with the public, if not the critics (the Tony award going to Redhead that season--a charming but much slighter show; and all but forgotten within a decade.) FDS was a crowd-pleaser, running a year and half on Bway (at SRO for 44 weeks) and equally long on tour--closing just 3 weeks before the film's release.

The hitherto lack of demand for Asian performers made casting a real challenge. (It was still an issue thirty years later on Miss Saigon) Ultimately the Bway company was a patchwork of various Asian persuasions, few of whom, ironically, were Chinese. Both leading women (Pat Suzuki & Miyoshi Umeki) were Japanese; the men, Hawaiian (Ed Kenney) and (gulp) Caucasian--Larry Blyden with slanty-eye makeup. Umeki was the only one of this quartet to come to Hlwd--in part because her role was uniquely hers; and she was already an Oscar winner for a similar supplicant role in Joshua Logan's epic film, Sayonara. But James Shigeta and Jack Soo (nee Suzuki) were also Japanese; perhaps lending a subtle Nipponish accent on the proceedings that Western audiences wouldn't notice; rather like having the French play Italians--or is it? As Uncle Fester likes to say, "Who's to know?" Shigeta exerts some real charisma, with a striking resemblence to Gregory Peck. Jack Soo was another holdover from Bway, tho originally he only played the nightclub emcee--and was himself plucked from an SF niterie, Forbidden City. Once he replaced Blyden it was clear to everyone that Soo was Sammy Fong and the role was thereafter securely his, on tour and in Hlwd. In a total break from the Asian male mold, he was more in line with the Rat Pack (he'd for sure have been one of Ocean's 11, had it been made after FDS.) A sort of Far Eastern Joey Bishop, his timeless cool led to some boundary-breaking roles for Asian men. He was sensational as a poker-playing con-artist valet to Tony Franciosa on a season long sitcom in 1964 called Valentine's Day; but met his greatest fame with his final role as a wisecracking detective on the Barney Miller sitcom of the '70s. Soo's Sammy Fong was in line with the male ethos of the Mad Men era, and served as another example, at least to me, of adulthood to aspire to.

The film's Linda Low was Hlwd's latest va-va-voom girl, Asian-style: Miss Nancy Kwan--Hlwd's Suzie Wong; and a Eurasian beauty whose looks read on screen as decidedly Euro with some Asian flavoring--what Hlwd excused for mass appeal. She's surely camera friendly and has about as great a pair of gams as any pin-up. FDS ushered in her peak year of fame; but Hlwd had only fleeting offers for her talent. One interesting tidbit, little noted, was that Ray Stark planned to star her in a big-screen version of Rodgers' No Strings (possibly opposite Sinatra) denaturing the unspoken and casually accepted miscegnation of the original show (starring Diahann Carroll) perhaps in concession to commercial prospects below the Mason-Dixon line. In any case the film was never made.
Bway's sole Chinese principal, Keye Luke, who played the Wang family patriarch was replaced on screen with Benson Fong--the film's sole Chinese principal. Both had played sons of Charlie Chan in studio serials of the '30s & '40s--tho Fong was a dozen years younger, which may account for the lack of gravitas in his performance. As his youngest son, Patrick Adiarte (Filipino) who played Prince Chulalongkorn in The King & I movie, was another holdover from Bway. He'd grown into an accomplished dancer in the three years since the show had opened, and was given featured solos in two numbers, especially "The Other Generation." The final principal--and another Bway repeater--was Juanita Hall, the original & film Bloody Mary; who wasn't Asian at all, but was so defined by her two R&H roles, that most never knew her true identity as an African-American. As Madame Liang she was as sane and grounded as Bloody Mary was looney--and a sheer delight. The rare collection of (mostly) Asian talent in the Bway show (including young dancer Baayork Lee--who would later create the role of Connie in A Chorus Line, and oversee Michael Bennett's direction in countless productions) united the group as an uncommonly tight "family"--whose reunions would continue regularly for decades.

By R&H standards Flower Drum Song was a modest success; and that combined with the energy necessary to mount their final show, while dealing with Hammerstein's decline and death in the summer of 1960, left little room to navigate the musical thru the shoals of Hlwd. So it was left to Joseph Fields, who originated the project to begin with, to oversee the transfer. For the first & only time an R&H property wound up at a studio other than Fox. Oddly, it was Universal--an outfit of minor experience with musicals. Considered low-rent for decades, the studio was moving into high-profile, star-driven product (in merger with talent agency MCA), and an R&H show was a prestigious coup. Universal assigned Ross Hunter as the film's producer--bestowing his imprimatur of lavish Technicolor glamour, defined by the likes of Imitation of Life and Pillow Talk, onto a Chinatown musical. He would make two more tuners; both screen originals: the successful Thoroughly Modern Millie, and the dismal Lost Horizon, which ushered in his quick retirement in 1973, after only twenty-one years in the film business. Director Henry Koster was, by contrast, a veteran (having started in silents in Berlin) known for such fare as The Robe, The Bishop's Wife and Harvey, but he was no stranger to musicals--starting with this first Hlwd movie: Three Smart Girls. He made a number of films with Deanna Durbin and Betty Grable but never an adaptation from Bway. Koster is one of those logistical work-horses the studios loved--the sort who manage large-scale projects with efficiency but little personal imprint.

Since Lee's novel centers on Wang Chi-Yang, a stern, traditionalist patriarch, Hammerstein saw the play as a Chinese Life With Father; one losing his hold over changing times and evolving progeny. But the libretto's central story veered toward the customary two-pair courtship; one romantic, one comic--but here intriguing in that the couples interchange. With a range of characters, young and old, modern-American and old-country Chinese, the play was cramped by limited scenes and locations. But in his screenplay, Fields was allowed to roam free. And does he: beginning with the illegal voyage of Mei-Li and her father, their public passage to Sammy Fong's nightclub, and the establishment of Sammy and Linda's relationship all shown before we get to the libretto's first scene; intro of the Wang household. Most of this flows better in the movie, tho--curiously--Linda comes off a good deal less likeable. In the play we learn first of her desire for marraige and security while on a date with Wang Ta; "Oh, it's nice to have outside accomplishments like singing, cooking or first aid (!). But the main thing is for a woman to be successful in her gender." (This leads into "I Enjoy Being a Girl" sung at a vista point, and illustrated by a dance with lovers of various ages.) Only later do we learn of her relationship with Sammy. The movie leads with it--making her less sympathetic, more mercenary in her pursuit of Ta. They've barely dated and she's pushing Ta to propose (and after manipulating Sammy to buy her a Thunderbird); whereas on stage it is Ta who willingly, impulsively offers her his hand. This revision weakens Ta as well, making him a dupe of Linda's schemes. The play presents a stronger conflict in making him assertive and directed in his plans, only to have them unravel once he learns of Linda's true nature. Then there's the seamstress, Helen Chao, who suffers unrequited love while comforting Ta thru his crisis (in the novel she's driven to suicide; R&H mercifully give her a ballad instead.) As played by Reiko Sato (yet another Japanese!) she's the most real of the movie's women, neither so demure as Mei-Li nor Hlwd brassy as Linda. With so many romantic machinations, Wang Chi-Yang is left mostly on the sidelines; a weak figurehead, given to impotent rages and fake coughing spells. Even his sister-in-law, Madam Liang, who remains part of his household despite his wife's demise, is a more imposing and colorful character--graduating from citizenship class, and offering pithy comments on Wang's obstinate cluelessness: "At your age, privacy in your bedroom is the last thing you should worry about." Or when he wonders what Ta could be doing staying out all night, "If this was a quiz show I could win a trip to Europe." There is plenty meat here for plot and people; even Ethan Mordden praises the book as both funny and wise; suggesting it surpasses the score.

Tho Fields' screenplay changes little of the story, the numbers are liberally rearranged. "You Are Beautiful" was an odd choice for the top of the show on stage--it works better late in the story when Ta sings to express his love for Mei-Li, and not his Un-met Soulmate. "A Hundred Million Miracles" is a far more natural beginning. "The Other Generation" is smartly relocated from the second act to serve a thematic definition early in the show. Best of all is positioning "Don't Marry Me," as the eleven o'clock number it deserves to be. Filmed on a lovely, sloping streetscape after a tour of Sammy's nocturnal debauchery, it's one of the movie's highlights. Not everything makes sense, however. "Grant Avenue," much as I love the song, serves as part of a Chinese New Year's parade, with a cadre of dancers (dressed in some of the worst costumes since Howard Keel's cowboy duds in Annie Get Your Gun--costumer Irene Sharaff's single misstep here) led by Linda in some rather hideous choreography by Hermes Pan. "Chop Suey" is a rather aimless list song (amiable, if easily derided), which serves as platform for another Pan sequence; a sampler of dances: quadrille, waltz, charleston, jazz--a hoedown even, making for head-spinning absurdity. . . and yet, somehow delightful. 
That fabulous music-hall duet, "Sunday," is given lavish treatment as a comic ballet on a stylized set (a cartoon penthouse), concluding in a hallway chase that merrily recalls Jerome Robbins' Mack Sennett Ballet in High Button Shoes. Of course the show had its patented R&H Dream Ballet; which on stage depicted Ta's torment between his affections for Mei-Li and Linda Low, ending in the arms of Helen Chao--whom he beds in drunken rebound. This transgression is white-washed in the movie; he merely passes out in Helen's flat--at which point she pleads, "Love, Look Away," (dubbed by no less than Marilyn Horne) then walks into the fog on her rooftop--at which point the ballet begins. But whose point of view is this? Certainly not Ta's--a sole female dancer flirts with various males--nor could this represent Helen. It's a puzzlement. It's also another extravagant sequence, full of sound & fury, and lots of purple silk curtains. And yet the music is irresistible.

A good part of the movie's appeal is the elaborate art direction by Alexander Golitzen --a legend in his field, given free reign on any Ross Hunter production. (He was also a member of our Russian Orthodox church in Encino--in my youth Hlwd was both so close, yet so far.)  FDS is a set designer's dream--an orgy of Chinoserie; zen-elegant interiors, characterful street facades. An intimate, 3/4 scale Chinatown with cable cars and a parade of mint-condition mid-century autos that would be the envy of all of Havana. Interiors, such as Wang's bedroom with its intricate carved cherrywood bed; Helen Chao's authentically cramped rooms; her rooftop, with fog seeping in--so dreamily evocative of the city's unique atmosphere.; the low-ceiled office in Sammy's nightclub; 
storefronts free of age or decay, modestly dressed, neon-lit and accented with bamboo--unlike any real Chinatown where every inch of space is festooned in signage and merchandise, to say nothing of litter and garbage. The film is a visual feast, thanks to Golitzen, who won his 7th Oscar nomination; along with four other nods for Cosutmes, Cinematography, Sound and Scoring--all of them lost to West Side Story.

The Asian-American playwright, David Henry Hwang has been an outspoken critic of  "Orientalism" (objectifying Asians as exotics), as explored in his play, M. Butterly. Tho it served as a seminal cultural experience for him as a child, he grew to have issues with FDS as he (and the world) matured. Yet his affection for the show led him to pursue a course correction of his own. As the title had over the decades faded from circulation (mostly for its dated sexual politics, which didn't easily melt into historical amusement), the R&H Org agreed to a wholesale rewrite around the original score. Hwang invented much that was clever (how fabulous to give new and double-edged meaning to "A Hundred Million Miracles" as a Maoist slogan) but, curiously, his "fix" was to turn a show about family and generations into one about show business. Wang becomes a custodian of traditional Chinese opera--who later morphs into a night club emcee; Madame Liang is a theatrical agent; Linda is seeking a career not a ring; and Sammy Fong and Helen Chao are dismissed. Perhaps Hwang's most radical revision was anointing Mei-Li with a feminist spine that's highly unlikely for a FOB (fresh off the boat) refugee. Did he find Umeki's humble subservience racist? Hard as I've looked, I don't understand the objections of cultural revisionists who find offense in the show. Old-fashioned, sure, but that in itself is harmless; there's no Charlie Chan tacky-talk, or condescending caricaturization. If anything the screenplay goes too far in Americanizing the population of Chinatown; it's a bit much that barely one among dozens in Portsmouth Square can either speak or read Cantonese--while every facade in sight is awash in the logographic alphabet. And isn't Chinatown (like any immigrant enclave), by definition, a ghetto? You'd never know it here. The house of Wang is a spectacular sanctuary among the hullaballoo of city life, with its manicured garden the size of an extra lot--a most unlikely piece of real estate, even for one with means. And there's no explanation for Wang's affluence; he's rich yet idle. Nearly all the locals are prosperous here, even nightclub impressario, Sammy Fong. It's the immigrants who are poor, meek, and charmingly delicate in their ways--all cellos and violins. Sammy Fong & Linda Low are the brass--so acclimated, as to be nearly peripherally Chinese--they're virtually Nathan & Adelaide just transplanted to Grant Avenue. Truly worse than any racial slights, are the sexist ones. Linda's philosophy of gender-fulfillment thru marriage may have been the party-line in the 1950s, but lands as pure camp these days. "I Enjoy Being a Girl" could have had some depth to it, but the movie's tri-mirrored fashion show (in that absurdly all-white bedroom) is little more than a G-rated Playboy shoot. Hwang's version cleverly turned the song into a lesson Linda gives Mei-Li on the ways of American assimilation.

Reclaiming the material for an authentic Chinese perspective is a valid idea, but cutting yesterday's cloth to today's fashion is putting expedience over honesty. If FDS dated so quickly it was for so completely reflecting the late '50s (but not the youth culture of the period as in Grease) and, in particular, as it was being assimilated by the Chinese community. A snapshot in time that Hwang (and presumbably others) took issue with--in great part because of the general dearth of mainstream Asian-American entertainments. But if Hwang took offense to pere Wang's line "Personally I never approved of the old custom of drowning daughters" (which is not without truth), did he do his race proud with a line for a sweat-shop boss instructing his FOB's not to spit in the food they're packaging? Still his revision ended with an emotional wallop, as beautifully staged by Robert Longbotton (and even more beautifully arranged by Don Sebesky--who brought such vibrant new life to Rodgers' score with his percussive orchestrations.) Each member of the all Asian cast gave a call-out to their birthplaces thru-out the globe; the disapora every bit as real for the performers as for the characters in the show. But for all its rep, I've never seen a production of Flower Drum Song that wasn't entertaining. In '64, our local Musical Tent (those cement-domed "theater-in-the-round"s that were popping up during those years, to serve bare-bones Bway shows to suburbanites) ran it for two weeks with Pat Suzuki and Jack Soo, no less. And to this day I remember Pat dumping that bucket of ice on Jack that ends the first act. What chop suey is to real Chinese food, Flower Drum Song is to integrated musical theater--a broad mix of contrasting elements, comic, serious, poetic, inauthentic. And nearly all the Chinese folk I've ever known (and Filipinos as well) just love it. This is their story after all, their show--and an R&H one at that--and if you play it, they will come. They came in droves for Hwang's rewrite in 2001 (at least in Los Angeles, if not Bway--why they didn't play San Francisco as well, was just fiscally irresponsible--I'm convinced it could have run indefinitely with the Asian population in the Bay Area) Exciting as it was to see the property revived, refreshed, and reconceived, it failed to put to rest the original musical. C.Y. Lee, reflecting a general Asian consensus, said he loved both. Who am I to disagree?

The motion picture opened at Radio City on November 9, 1961, and not in California until Christmas. For all its pretensions, Universal eschewed the Roadshow route; riding the film out much quicker than West Side Story; perhaps to avoid the comparison. It did well nonetheless, earning $5 million in rentals to land among the top-ten earners of 1962. Sometime in April, once the movie crossed over the hill and into the "nabes," we went, having safely enjoyed R&H's other hits--and as I had then just "woken up" and was ravenously soaking the world in, everything registered in Technicolor and Hlwd glamour. With the movie still so resonant in my consciousness (and the soundtrack a fixture on my turntable), I was introduced to the real San Francisco only weeks later, when the 'rents drove up in our new VW Beetle for the sole urban vacation we would ever take (much to my chagrin.) Unfamiliar with any climate outside the LA basin, the unique city air--crisp, moist, blue--made a lasting, visceral impression. It was an acid trip to a developing mind. Images, mixed with those from FDS, haunted me for years; indistinguisable from dreams--and was there a difference? I'd found my Oz. But I'd already set my sights on Bway (or bust!) and SF was merely a theme park. Another 7 years would pass before I saw the city again; when we moved north to Cupertino and it became within reach as an occasional destination--and without parental accompaniment! But by then SF was surging as ground zero for the counterculture--and I was yet a Bway baby. It took five years in Manhattan before I was willing to concede the "Bway" I had lived and dreamed of, was now gone forever, and what became of it was mostly irrelevant. I hadn't any idea where to turn until I read a notice in the Times that Saint Subber (who'd "retired" a year earlier) was now going to SF to set up shop as a local producer. I suppose I thought of it a stepping stone, which in turn would lead me back to NY, but the idea of SF--well, that had some real heft to it. I lived out my final six months in NY (in some of the most intense personal experiences of my life--as if we were the cast of Rent that winter of '78.) Then suddenly, all was torn asunder and I was in San Francsico! with Richard Rodgers' music running nonstop thru my mind's ear. Even as I expanded my musical boundaries and opened up to rock, jazz and world music--as never before, or since--my love for FDS never waned. Fittingly, my first apartment was in Chinatown--Powell St. (not Grant)--right on the main cable car line, two blocks down from the Fairmont My father recoiled from such low-rent digs, having triumphed over adversity to situate himself in suburban valhalla--only to see his child embrace the "slums." Aswim in Chinoseire, I walked the 'hood obsessively for months, absorbing the smells and Far Eastern flavors caught in the fog-swept crystal blue sunlight or neon-tipped evenings; vibrant, seedy, magnificent and full of hidden stories--one of which I knew well: Flower Drum Song. I was lucky to have this exciting new playground to console me, as the job I had staked everything in life to assume, ended before it began--as my mentor, Saint Subber, capriciously decided to focus his attention on his Telegraph Hill flat and retire for good.

Broke and aimless, I retreated to my previous labor: bookstore clerk; and recalibrated my ambition from Bway playwright to Hlwd screenwriter. And even here, the tendrils of FDS extended. After a friend from NY came thru town, working the national tour of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, and I was joyfully embraced by the company in their leisure moments; I concocted a story of my own set in 1960 when the national company of FDS came thru SF (and set house records at the Curran) as the basis for my first screenplay attempt. I'd soon outgrow Chinatown and eventually expand thru-out the City, but FDS would remain as the spiritual heart of my journey; the acorn which grew into the oak of my 25+ years tenure in the city that was first and forever defined for me by R&H. I can't honestly claim that FDS is a great, or even good movie musical--viewed freshly today it would, at minimum, seem utterly bizarre, if not intolerable. But imprinted on this brain at the age of nine (and on the basis of Rodgers' peerless musicality--which I will defend to death as nowhere in decline) I'm helpless to the charms of this most guilty pleasure. I've seen it 16 times now--some times it feels hopelessly old-fashioned, on others it rides a cloud of sheer comfort (it's especially right viewed late Friday night); somehow it never fails to fascinate. It may be the black sheep of R&H successes but it's my golden fleece.

Next Up: State Fair

Report Card:    Flower Drum Song
Overall Film:    B
Bway Fidelity:  A-   mostly rearranging
Songs from Bway: 12
Songs Cut from Bway:  1:  "Like a God"
New Songs:  None
Standout Numbers:  “Sunday” "Chop Suey"
      “Don't Marry Me"
Camp Hall of Fame: "I Enjoy Being a Girl"
Casting:    Optimal and uniquely Asian
Standout Cast:  Miyoshi Umeki, Nancy Kwan,    Jack Soo, Juanita Hall, James Shigeta
Sorethumb Cast:  Benson Fong
Cast from Bway:  Miyoshi Umeki, Jack Soo,
               Juanita Hall, Patrick Adiarte
Direction:  Unnoticeable
Choreography:  Jazz Pan (Hermes)
Ballet:  C+  (whose dream is it?)
Scenic Design:  Shanghai via Sunset Blvd.
Costumes:  Silks, satins & pagoda hats
Standout Sets: Wang house & garden;
               Grant Avenue, Portsmouth Square
Titles: Dong Kingman watercolors
Oscar Noms:  5--no wins
Weird Hall of Fame: "Chop Suey" dance


1 comment:

Jim Van Buskirk said...

Val, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your astute exploration of the Chop Suey that is FDS, in its various incarnations. My introduction to Celluloid San Francisco opens the memory of the FDS soundtrack being the first LP I ever purchased, followed by a visit (from Buena Park) to Grant Avenue in 1962 as the filming location (or so I thought) of the movie. I was devastated to later recognize that it was mostly sound stages and rear-screen projection. At a screening at the Asian American Film Festival, James Shigeta and Nancy Kwan ruefully reminisced about the role of FDS for Asian representation in Hollywood films. Now that I think about it, FDS may well be the reason I moved to SF in 1972. Many thanks for reigniting the memories.