Given that August 29th is “National Chop Suey Day,” whom do we thank for inventing this succulent dish that has graced many a Column A and Column B?
Should it be Qing Dynasty premier Li Hongzhang’s chef, who whipped it up during their visit to America in the late 1800s? A 19th century Chinese chef in San Francisco? A few of his compatriots who were working on the transcontinental railroad?
We’ll never really know, for all their names are lost to history. What’s more, many anthropologists and epicures nominate one of the above and not the others.
But we do know one thing for sure: Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote a song called “Chop Suey” for their 1958 musical hit Flower Drum Song that was set in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
Lyricist Hammerstein wanted to make the point that just as chop suey is a mixture of this, that and the other thing – from chicken to celery, from beef to bean sprouts – so too is the United States, which is made up of all different races, colors and creeds.
Thus, “Living here is very much like chop suey,” as Juanita Hall sang in her second R&H musical. (South Pacific, of course, was the first; she played Bloody Mary, the girl the Seabees “love.”)
“Chop Suey,” which Hall’s character Madam Liang performs at a graduation party for her nephew Wang Ta, is pretty much a list song of then-topical celebrities, situations and items.
“Hula hoops and nuclear war” are the first mentioned. The former has faded from memory; the latter has not.
“Doctor Salk and Zsa Zsa Gabor; Harry Truman, Truman Capote and Dewey” respectively refer to the virologist who discovered the first polio vaccine; the top-billed star of Queen of Outer Space (who didn’t play the queen); the thirty-third president of the United States; the celebrated author who saw three of his works become unsuccessful musicals; and the Republican presidential candidate who did not, despite what the Chicago Daily Tribune proclaimed on Nov. 3, 1948, defeat Harry Truman.
(In the 1961 film version, both Trumans were replaced by a then-married couple: Bobby Darin, who’d had a big hit with a song from The Threepenny Opera, and actress Sandra Dee, who’d eventually be immortalized in Grease.)
“Tonight on TV’s Late, Late Show, you can look at Clara Bow” sang Hall – only to have the younger party guests respond with a puzzled “Who?!” If they didn’t know Bow then – a mere quarter-century after her final feature – today’s audiences would say “Who?!” much more loudly. Such is fleeting fame for “The ‘It’ Girl” who had made fifty-eight (mostly silent) movies.
Hall continued with “Ballpoint pens and filter tips; Lipsticks and potato chips.” The pens are still best-sellers, but interest in cigarettes has continually waned since The Surgeon General made his 1964 proclamation that the items cause lung cancer.
Although lipstick had been around for – seriously – nearly 5,000 years, it was then very much in the public consciousness because new colors were replacing standard-issue red.
Potato chips were then America’s favorite snack food – and still are.
Hammerstein ever-so-rarely wrote a false rhyme, but here he did when penning “Hear that lovely ‘La Paloma’ lullaby by Perry Como.” Listen to the excellent original cast album and you’ll hear Hall skillfully finesse the slant rhyme; she excels in making it sound halfway between “Como” and “Coma.”
And who was Perry Como? There was a time when such a question would have been out of the question, for everyone knew Como either from his TV show that ran from the late ‘40s to the late ‘60s or from the 194 songs he’d recorded by the time Flower Drum Song was ready to open.
Como was a big champ of Broadway music, and by the time Hammerstein mentioned him, he’d already recorded songs from Allegro, Call Me Madam, Damn Yankees, Me and Juliet, Pipe Dream and Say, Darling. Years after Flower Drum Song, he would croon songs from Do Re Mi, Fiddler on the Roof, I Do! I Do!, Oliver! and even Sweeney Todd.
To be both frank and fair, all those had cast albums on RCA Victor, the label for which Como recorded from 1943 until – yes! – 1987, so the company probably strongly suggested that he get songs out there that would help cast album sales.
But lest we think that charity solely resided at home, Como also did songs from original cast albums from other labels: All American, Annie Get Your Gun, Barnum, Camelot, Carousel, Guys and Dolls, The King and I, A Little Night Music (guess which song), Li’l Abner, Miss Liberty, The Most Happy Fella, The Sound of Music, South Pacific and West Side Story.
What’s more, after RCA Victor lost to Columbia what were thought to be super-lucrative rights to Irving Berlin’s 1962 musical Mr. President, Como was recruited to headline a studio cast album of the score in which he played the fictional chief executive.
By the way, Como never recorded anything from Flower Drum Song – or “La Paloma,” which has been recorded more than a thousand times by other artists (which may explain why Como didn’t want to jump on the bandwagon).
Near song’s end, Hammerstein positioned “Dreaming in my Maidenform bra, dreamed I danced the Cha-Cha-Cha.” The latter has waned as a dance sensation, but the former is still with us after ninety-five years. (That’s more than we can say for The Bonjour Tristesse Brassiere Company.)
And while we’re on the subject of Flower Drum Song, may I tell a personal story?
In 1961, I was just becoming aware of this wonderful thing called The Broadway Musical. So the moment Flower Drum Song came to the RKO Keith Memorial Theatre in downtown Boston, I rushed there and sat in the very first row.
A few minutes after the film began, I heard two men settle directly behind me in their second-row seats. And for the next two-plus hours, I noticed that every time I laughed at a line, these two guys laughed too and equally as hard; when I merely chuckled, they merely chuckled, too. Almost always, we started and stopped laughing to the precise second. We were all on the same page with this one, true soul-mates in humor.
The second the film ended, I spun around in my seat to say, “Wasn’t that great?!”
And I was surprised to see that the two guys were African-American.
Understand that I came from a lily-white suburb where there were simply no black people at all.
I’d never met one.
I’d never spoken to one.
And while the nuns at the Catholic schools I’d attended had always taught us that “Everyone is the same,” this is where I learned it was true.
Wouldn’t Oscar Hammerstein have been utterly pleased to see that his musical had “carefully taught” me this lesson?
And wouldn’t he have also loved the irony that a Caucasian-American and African-Americans were responding to a story about Asian-Americans?
That’s a very different type of chop suey, but no less valid.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.