This was the only film version of a Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II musical not released by 20th Century-Fox. (The 70mm Todd-AO version of Oklahoma! (1955) had been released by RKO, but the 35mm CinemaScope version was released by 20th Century-Fox.) Flower Drum Song (1961) was produced and released by Universal-International.
During the brief scene where Sammy Fong and Mei Lei sit in a beatnik coffee shop, on stage someone reads the poem "Like a God". This was originally a song in the stage production sung by Wang Ta to Mei Lei, but was cut out of the screenplay.
The original Broadway production of "Flower Drum Song" opened at the Saint James Theater on December 1, 1958, ran for 600 performances and was nominated for the 1959 Tony Award (New York City) for the Best Musical. Miyoshi Umeki and Juanita Hall reprise their stage roles in the movie. Jack Soo was in the original stage production in a different role.
Anna May Wong was producer Ross Hunter's original choice for Madame Liang, and Wong wanted to do the film. Her sudden death at the age of 56, just before filming was scheduled to begin, resulted in the part being given to Juanita Hall, who had created the role on Broadway.
Lyric of song "Chop Suey" was changed from stage play's "Harry Truman, Truman Capote and Dewey" to "Bobby Darin, Sandra Dee and Dewey." Change was possibly made because by time film was made Truman administration was a decade in the past, but, just as likely, because producer Ross Hunter had Sandra Dee and Bobby Darin under contract and they were "hotter", more recognizable names. (Dated reference to 1944 presidential candidate Thomas Dewey presumably stuck because there simply weren't many other unused words that rhymed with "Suey".)
The original Broadway cast album of "Flower Drum Song", issued in early 1959, was the first Broadway cast album of a Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II show to be issued in stereo. (The stereo versions of the film soundtracks of "Oklahoma!", "Carousel", "The King and I", and "South Pacific", were all issued in 1958.)
While preparing "Oklahoma""" a full year in advance of production, art director Joseph Wright studied weather records for the location and discovered that they showed that the area was subject to horrible spring floods. Over the objections of budget-conscious producers, he insisted that $15,000 be spent on constructing a dam. The floods ultimately came as predicted and saved over $250,000 worth of sets.
Many who are familiar with the screen version of Flower Drum Song (1961) are mystified as to why the stage version is not more frequently revived. In fact, Joseph Fields, who co-wrote the libretto of the Broadway production with Oscar Hammerstein II, made significant changes to the show's plot and structure for the film version, to the point where only a fraction of the original dialogue was retained. The film version is far less patronizing to the Asian-American community than its stage predecessor, as it makes an honest, heartfelt attempt to explore generational culture clash in San Francisco's Chinatown of the early 1960s.
In adapting the stage show to the screen, writer Joseph Fields improved the flow of the storyline by juxtaposing the placement of several musical numbers in the storyline. "You Are Beautiful," which opened the show on stage as a duet between Wang Ta and Madam Liang, was moved to a more climactic moment in the film's second half wherein Wang Ta realizes he loves Mei Li. "The Other Generation" and its reprise, both originally in the show's second act, were melded into one number and placed earlier in the film. Finally, "Don't Marry Me," also originally in Act I, was transitioned to serve as the eleven o'clock number on screen. This juggling of musical numbers' running order was also used to similar effect by screenwriter Ernest Lehman in the screen versions of West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965).
Happily, several members of the original cast were recruited for the film version, including Miyoshi Umeki as Mei Li, Juanita Hall as Madam Liang and Patrick Adiarte as Wang San. Meanwhile, Jack Soo was elevated from his stage role of Frankie Wing to portray the leading role of Sammy Fong on screen. Soo had understudied the role on Broadway, where it was played by Caucasian Larry Blyden, who himself was an eleventh-hour replacement for Larry Storch.
Nancy Kwan had extensive dance training as a young girl, which lent a particularly authentic edge to Linda Low's floor show numbers at the Celestial Gardens, particularly her sizzling striptease that caps the first act of the film. Pat Suzuki, who originated the role on Broadway, freely admitted that she had no capability as a dancer, and that the striptease was played for laughs in the stage version.
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
The character of Helen (Reiko Sato) is not given a resolution to her storyline in the film. In the original novel she commits suicide, but Rodgers and Hammerstein felt the ending was too depressing for such a strong character.