She could belt out a song with the best of them. She had, and still has when you talk to her, sass and candor and a quirky sense of humor. Her mind is a probing force full of racing philosophical ideas. She is very real. So real, that today in Manhattan, she walks the grim streets littered with the socially lost, passing out informational leaflets directing them to self-help centers.
I know a little about the real Pat Suzuki, for I was lucky enough (long after concluding I would never be lucky enough) to land an interview with her. This happened while I was writing Flower Drum Songs: The Story of Two Musicals. During our telephone conversation, I felt as if we had been friends for years.
Suzuki helped deliver Rodgers & Hammerstein’s breeziest, most contemporary hit to Broadway, when Flower Drum Song, in which she co-stared with another Japanese song gem, Miyoshi Uemeki, opened in 1958 at the St. James Theatre.
Then, as many as five shows on he Great White Way boasted at lest partly Asian faces in the casts. Then, the Orient and its exotic looks, banners and manners seemed to be at last making a big mark on the American theatre audience in New York.
So long ago. The spell didn’t last. After Flower Drum Song, there were no other flower drum songs. A few of the original cast members (like dancer Patrick Adiarte and comedian Jack Soo) got jobs in television. None made it big beyond FDS.
Pat Suzuki languished over the years. So did Miysohi Uemeki. In one of her e-mails to me, Pat believed that Miyoshi’s retreat from the spotlights was a life-saving exit to avoid the depressing ugliness of a cruel business that could turn on you in a cold second.
Both of the ladies were stellar vocalists, each with a distinctive style, and each put out albums in the years immediately following their moments in the Broadway sun. On Pat’s LP, her gutsy rendition of "Lady is a Tramp" is as amusing a take of the song as I have ever heard. For her turn, Miyoshi’s song catalog is on the wistful side; she excelled with numbers like "The Man I Love."
What happened, Asia America? Here is my best and saddest guess, which I fear Asians do not like hearing. It’s all about the culture — an outwardly gentle show of self-respect and restraint that fosters dignity over exhibitionism, emotional containment over free and rampant self expression. A culture of honor and tradition that does not push itself in your face. The parents by and large do not want their young bearing either attire or desire in front of an audience. I have to think they dread the idea of a child of theirs being humiliated before a national audience on American Idol.
Away from the vulgar void that is Televison, notice the emerging number of top-flight Asian concert musicians both filling out the ranks of our leading orchestras and appearing as featured solo artists. Need I explain why?
In her day, had Pat faced Simon Cowell, she would have brought him out of his sarcastic deep freeze She was authentic. She was an original, and if some of us referred to her as the Asian Merman, it was only as a flattering point of reference. For Pat Suzuki delivered a gusty, at times free-wheeling realism to the stage in Flower Drum Song that dramatized the up and coming younger generations breaking free of the old world restraints.
They have still yet to break free. Maybe, considering the "culture" into which they would be liberating themselves, holding back is still the better choice.