Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Joy Over Broadway for South Pacific Revival .. Can the REAL Flower Drum Song be Next?

Originally posted April 4.

Any Rodgers and Hammerstein fan will be floating on clouds over the near unanimous raves just accorded the first New York revival of South Pacific. I am floating, I must tell you, and I can’t wait to see it in May. Here’s one I’ll pay through the nose to see.

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammer- stein II were once so popular, so critically acclaimed, that a TV tribute to their work in the early 1950s was broadcast nationally on all three major networks. Yes, all three. The country sang their songs. Hollywood made gold turning their stage musicals into film hits. Their made-for-television Cinderella starring Julie Andrews was seen by 107 million Americans — nearly twice the number who viewed Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan Show. R & H were the Gods of Broadway.

Then came the ‘60s, and then came Stephen Sondheim and a new breed of realists who produced to their credit some searing and showstopping musicals. Shows like Cabaret and Company, Sweeney Todd and Jesus Christ Superstar made Oklahoma and Carousel seem old hat, overly sentimental and hopelessly dated. Cockeyed optimism turned to hip pessimism..

The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, desperate in recent years to prove to the world that, really, Dick and Oscar had a darker side, too, fell like a midway sucker for the pitches of egotistic directors seeking to turn those sunny musicals into brooding operettas full of angst and doom. The critics tended to welcome these tortured revisions, just, I suppose, to be able to hear the magnificent scores.

This sad detour in musical theatre history reached its nadir with the so-called “revival” of Flower Drum Song, which was flat out a total obliteration of the original script under the weight of playwright Henry David Hwang’s self-indulgent rewrite, which not only ignored the stage musical but the novel upon which it was faithfully based. (I explored this troubling saga in my book Flower Drum Songs: The Story of Two Musicals.) Hwang’s artistic sabotage was generally panned by the critics and flopped out on Broadway. Let me state: Like South Pacific until this past glorious week at the Lincoln Center, the real Flower Drum Song has NEVER, repeat NEVER been revived on Broadway. And I now have reason to believe its chances have suddenly skyrocketed.

You don’t repaint the Mona Lisa. Don’t re-edit Wilder’s film classic Sunset Boulevard. And who would dare change a note of any Beetles song? Neither do you mess around with the classics turned out by two giants of musical theatre. The triumphant return to New York of South Pacific (already, the limited run has been extended through next year) will do more than anything to bring my point home to the powers who run the R&H office on the Avenue of the Americas.

They are Mary Rodgers and Ted Chapin, and I’ll bet you anything they are suddenly rethinking their attitude towards the one remaining R&H hit yet to be given a second chance on the Great White Way. They said South Pacific was too old hat and quaint to be brought back. Said the same thing of Flower Drum Song.

What, Broadway, are they saying now?

[photos, from top down: At the opening night party, Kelli O'Hara and Paulo Szot; Loretta Ables Sayre, Matthew Morrison and Li Junli (photos by Walter McBride/Retna); Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, 1951; Director Gene Kelly, Pat Suzuki and Richard Rodgers at opening night curtain calls for Flower Drum Song, December 1, 1958]

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