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Let the Debate Begin

Dramatist David Henry Hwang radically revises--and comes to terms with--'Flower Drum Song.'

September 16, 2001|MICHAEL PHILLIPS | Times Staff Writer

Back when "Chinatown" was making L.A. look heinous in a glamorous sort of way, and "Billy, Don't Be a Hero" oozed from every radio, a San Gabriel High School junior named David Henry Hwang was tearing it up on the debate team.

Hwang's debating skills got him recruited as a senior by Harvard School (now Harvard-Westlake), the Coldwater Canyon preparatory institution known for SAT scores that do a parent proud. He graduated in 1975.

And he has honed his debating skills ever since.

For more than 25 years, the Chinese American playwright and screenwriter best known for "M. Butterfly" has been arguing with himself, in his head and on paper. He has debated matters of culture, race, class and sex, investigating one character's point of view, then another.

Many of those characters do what Hwang has done his entire life: attempt to "define my place in America," as he once wrote.

Now America's premier Asian American dramatist is redefining himself as Mr. Musical.

Two wildly disparate shows provide the evidence. One is "Aida," Disney's theatrical redux of the Verdi opera about a slave girl and her conqueror. It features music by Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice. Starting from a book by Linda Woolverton ("Beauty and the Beast"), under the direction of Robert Jess Roth, the show later acquired a new director, Robert Falls ("Death of a Salesman"), who brought on Hwang as co-writer.

The results hit Broadway in 1999; the national tour opens Nov. 11 at the Ahmanson Theatre.

That's across the Music Center plaza from Hwang's newest project. He is the librettist behind the revival--make that radical revision--of "Flower Drum Song," the 1958 Rodgers & Hammerstein bauble. Directed by Robert Longbottom and starring Lea "Miss Saigon" Salonga, it opens Oct. 14 at the Mark Taper Forum.

Hwang's "Flower Drum Song" rewrite will likely send musical comedy purists into a C-major fit. In Hwang's story, San Francisco's Chinatown circa 1960 is glimpsed through the prism of a Chinese opera theater struggling with its off-night success as a Westernized nightclub, run by the tradition-bound owner's James Dean-styled son. The show's song list remains largely the same--"A Hundred Million Miracles," "I Enjoy Being a Girl," even "Chop Suey." The new libretto removes the original's quaint arranged marriage complications, however, in favor of a brash backstage musical romance.

Hwang undertaking "Flower Drum Song," based on the 1957 C.Y. Lee novel, marks a cultural debate in itself. From one angle, it's a case of a major Chinese American writer taking a familiar title away from the white devils of Broadway. From another, Hwang's wisecracks mess with questions of assimilation, stereotype and racism in ways that leave the arguably patronizing original in the dust.

Indeed, Hwang describes his relationship to the material as complicated, as it is with many Asian Americans who grew up starved for pop-culture images of themselves.

The 1961 film version of "Flower Drum Song," Hwang says while assessing his sandwich at Otto's restaurant beneath the Taper, "always loomed large in my life. As a boomer Asian American, you didn't often see people that looked like you on TV. And the idea that the younger generation, at least, was portrayed as American [in the movie] was unusual. So growing up, the musical represented one of the few positive portrayals of people that looked like me."

"And then, at another point in my life, it became something to be demonized."

At Stanford University in the late '70s, pursuing a bachelor of arts in English, Hwang began exploring his cultural heritage in earnest. The heritage was downplayed in his home. He'd grown up one of three children born to a banker, Henry Hwang, native of Shanghai, and a pianist, Dorothy, Chinese but raised in the Philippines.

The family's tacit motto: Assimilate. Their life was comfortably upper middle class, as well as born-again Protestant fundamentalist. (Hwang's mother's family was converted by missionaries, a subject he addressed in the recent play "Golden Child.")

Son David left for Stanford with plenty of things to question.

"It was all kind of isolationist-nationalist," Hwang says of Stanford's Chinese American power movement. "Here we were starting to claim our own voice as Chinese Americans. And 'Flower Drum Song' was a remnant of the way we were portrayed by white artists.... So the history of the show is bound up with my own personal history.

"And now, with this revival, it's like there's been this big car in the driveway my whole life, and someone finally gave me the keys."

"M. Butterfly" launched its creator into the theatrical stratosphere. Hwang wrote it, in a few weeks' time, after reading a newspaper story about a French diplomat in love with a Chinese opera star. A rich, audaciously comic collision of Eastern and Western influences, the play garnered the 1988 Tony Award. The author, now 44, remains the sole Asian American Tony-winning playwright.

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