Nerd Loves Girl, Nerd Walks Through Wall, Nerd Gets Girl

Only the French would create a musical about a man who can walk through brick walls. You can’t imagine Oscar Hammerstein saying to Richard Rodgers, “Are we sure about the King of Siam ? Let’s do a show about a dope who can walk through walls instead.” But the French think otherwise-or they wouldn’t be French.

Michel Legrand’s Amour , a hit in Paris five years ago, has just opened at the Music Box on Broadway, which is the first bizarre thing about it. As a rule of thumb, French musicals are unexportable. It isn’t necessarily because they’re bad. It’s because they’re French. Amour is inspired by a Marcel Aymé 1950’s short story, “Le Passe-Muraille . ” There’s an arresting life-size sculpture in Montmartre that honors Aymé, showing a man who’s either stuck halfway in a wall or on his way through it. Either way, it doesn’t seem a likely candidate for a Broadway musical.

The French have a peculiar relationship with musicals: They like only their own. All the rest are unforgivably foreign , even if they’re about the French. Although Les Misérables was written by two Frenchmen whose names no one can ever pronounce, the legendary show originated in London and was therefore booed off the stage in Paris. The culturally fetishistic French see U.S. musicals as imperialist aggressors threatening their sacred culture. It’s no reason to take it out of Amour , of course, but the barriers aren’t easy to walk through.

Amour ‘s surreal tradition is alien to us, like crossing Magritte with showbiz. The unintimidated British call this “French wankery,” but they’ve been anti-French since the Battle of Agincourt and anti-intellectual since the beginning of time. The crucial difference between the generic French musical and the American is that the one appeals to the mind and the other to the heart.

The unique hybrid known as the Great American Musical is rooted in European operetta and the Yiddish theaters of Second Avenue. I can’t think of a successful U.S. musical without a little heart-burning schmaltz. Stephen Sondheim is the exception, although he’s more sentimental than his cerebral admirers make him out to be. But Mr. Sondheim is a specialist in bittersweet disenchantment, and none of his musicals have ever had a long commercial run, including his fairy tale Into the Woods . The first law is, you gotta have schmaltz.

Schmaltz is un-French, except in the popular Piaf culture of the streets. My official French adviser informs me that French culture is all about Masters and Maids. The Masters: a taste for Racine; literary musicals like Amour ; a perverse appreciation for the entire oeuvre of Jerry Lewis. The Maids: low culture; street singers; the irresistible romance of cheap music. Authentic Broadway, on the other hand, is all about Maids-at least to the snobbish, superior French, with their taste for surreal tales about people who can walk through brick walls.

Which brings me to the fatal flaw in Mr. Legrand’s Amour (inspired by Offenbach): It forgot the Maids. It forgot to give us the schmaltz! Nerd loves girl, nerd walks through walls, nerd gets girl. What could be simpler? Amour cries out for amour (and a hit song). Or as the flouncy Countess de Lage of The Women famously put it: ” L’amour! L’amour! Toujours l’amour !” Mr. Legrand is known for his lush film scores ( The Umbrellas of Cherbourg , Yentl ), but he somehow hasn’t delivered much romance in a little fable that’s meant to be all about romance.

Left with a precious French cartoon about the droopy adventures of such types as the Lovable Whore, the Corrupt Prosecutor and the Bullying Boss that some might find “charming,” we have to make do with a fair amount of walking through gray rubbery walls. They give us a belated cancan to liven things up. But it can’t-can’t. Malcom Gets is Dusoleil, the none-too-sunny wallman looking for love, and Melissa Errico is wasted, alas, as the unhappily married Isabelle in search of her special someone. The English adaptation is by Jeremy Sams, who’s much too smart for this. The direction is by James Lapine, who isn’t.

Rodgers and Hwang Make Breakthrough

It all reminds me of my days as a cub reporter in London, when I interviewed an eccentric man known as “The Birdman of the Thames,” who tried to fly through the air by jumping off Westminster Bridge. Not for the Birdman the help of false wings and the like. Not for him the easy way. He jumped off the bridge and flapped his arms. I interviewed him shortly after he emerged from the Thames, defeated but unbowed, and asked if he had any advice for our readers. “I certainly do,” the Birdman replied. And this is what he said: “If you’ve never put your head through a brick wall before, it’s best not to try.”

There’s no arguing that . No saner advice has ever been offered. But try telling that to David Henry Hwang. In his radical rewrite of the awful, cutie-coolie libretto of Flower Drum Song , Mr. Hwang ( M. Butterfly ) has quixotically put his head through the proverbial wall, and sometimes he’s got stuck there and sometimes he’s come amazingly through.

The original 1958 musical comedy, set in San Francisco’s Chinatown, is inarguably lesser Rodgers and Hammerstein. It was a fluke hit in its time that doesn’t stand much comparison to their superior East-meets-West musicals, South Pacific and The King and I . The score is Mr. Hwang’s wall. The one thing he can’t do is rewrite the sacred and sometimes hokey score to his own profounder purposes. He’s lumbered, for example, with the unavoidable sugar high of Mei-Li’s “A Hundred Million Miracles.” It would be a miracle if it went away, and sacrilege to cut. It’s Flower Drum Song ‘s anthem to hope, its echoing “Climb Every Mountain.”

But what the dramatist and his director-choreographer,Robert Longbottom, have done is work brilliantly around the score to create a new Broadway show of high and low seriousness, which was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s intention in the first place. Mr. Hwang has wittily-and schizophrenically-claimed that he tried to write the book Oscar Hammerstein would have written if he’d been Asian-American. He has! I don’t know where that leaves him personally. But by setting the show in a traditional Chinese theater found in San Francisco’s Chinatown, like a relic of a crumbling cultural past, he’s brought intelligence and muscle to the original fortune-cookie book.

The East-West clash is now authentically between the father’s Old World of Chinese opera and the assimilated son’s New World of the Western nightclub. Mr. Hwang might have resisted the clichéd character named Harvard, who’s a swishy costume designer at the club. But which Broadway show resists camp nowadays? Not Hairspray , not The Producers or, God love us all, Mamma Mia! Nor, for all his serious intent, is Mr. Hwang above honest corn-“Two wongs don’t make a white”-or the pleasure of showbiz kitsch. One of the evening’s outstanding production numbers is the nightclub novelty song entitled “Chop Suey,” if you please, which Mr. Longbottom stages to giant dancing food cartons and chopsticks. Tasteless? That’s just what a second-rate 50’s nightclub run by Americanized Chinese would produce! (And probably did.) “Sad and funny, sour and honeydewy,” as the Rodgers and Hammerstein song goes-ey: “Chop suey!”

The set designer of all this winning chop suey is that master of backstage musicals, Robin Wagner (of The Producers, Dreamgirls , A Chorus Line ), and the costumes by Gregg Barnes are the wittiest since William Ivey Long’s for The Producers . Lea Salonga (of Miss Saigon ) sings beautifully as goody-goody Mei-Li, and if Ms. Salonga could relax a little more, she’ll be in a perfect romantic partnership with Jose Llana as the assimilated Ta. The assured, hip Mr. Llana is a star in the making. The cast as a whole is first-rate, and let it be celebrated that it’s entirely Asian-American. It seems to me that such a long-overdue American-Asian presence on Broadway is the new Flower Drum Song ‘s biggest rewrite and triumph. It’s the point when a wall disappeared before our eyes.