The Heat is On in Saigon
As patrons made their way to Overture Center for the opening night of Miss Saigon on April 2, several dozen people on the sidewalk handed out orange photocopies of an essay criticizing the production for its depiction of Vietnamese people. “What’s Wrong with Miss Saigon?” was written by UW-Madison Asian American Studies professor Timothy Yu, who provided it, originally expecting it would be included in the program book of the blockbuster musical.
In the auditorium, many audience members were reading the piece, as other patrons took their seats and awaited the opening number of the award-winning musical, created by the French team of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, the same creative pair that took the world by storm in 1980 with their musical adaptation of Les Miserables.
When the lights went down and the orchestra began to play, longtime fans of the show settled in for an evening of soaring music, epic tragedy, impressive stagecraft, and some good, old-fashioned Broadway production numbers. Newcomers to the Miss Saigon leaned forward in their seats, anticipating a theatrical experience that has made the show one of the longest-running musicals in history. And others held their breath, wondering if the story would really hold up in an era where cultural representation has become a hot-button issue.
The source material
According to Schönberg, the plot for the musical was originally inspired by a photograph he saw in a magazine showing a Vietnamese mother putting her child on a plane headed for the United States, where she hoped the American ex-GI father could provide him with a better life. It also leans heavily on the 1904 Puccini opera Madama Butterfly, about an American naval officer stationed in Japan, who marries a geisha named Cio Cio San out of convenience and then abandons her. When the officer returns years later with his American wife, Cio Cio San commits suicide after turning her son over to his American father to raise.
When Miss Saigon premiered in 1989 one of its big selling points was that it featured a helicopter that took off onstage, an incredibly dramatic moment during a scene that depicts the U.S. evacuation of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War. Coming on the heels of the Les Miserables phenomenon, it was also a signature over-the-top theater experience — an enormous show — visually, emotionally and musically — with a huge cast. And it was topical, because the U.S. had been grappling throughout the 1980s with how to reframe its experience in Vietnam and deal responsibly with its damaged veterans.
Much of that original excitement, masterful showmanship and deft storytelling remains intact in the current tour, which is also filled with virtuosic performances. Emily Bautista is radiant as the Vietnamese teenage orphan, Kim, who pines for her American GI love and gives up everything for her young son. With a voice that alternates between soft delicacy and powerfully soaring to the rafters, she is extraordinary. She sings of Kim’s tragic backstory with brutal honesty and sells her love-at-first-sight encounter with Chris (Anthony Festa) in a way that avoids melodrama.
Similarly, Festa accomplishes the challenging feat of making Chris a likable guy, if not a hero. His surprise that Kim has penetrated his bruising disillusionment with his soldier’s life in Vietnam feels like an unexpected light in the darkness. And Festa’s extraordinary singing voice channels a range of emotions — love, frustration, hope and despair — as his character moves through the end of the war and his transition to civilian life back in the U.S. Far from a plastic, GI Joe, his vulnerability outweighs his hardened exterior. Even when he makes choices the audience may disagree with, he is not the unfeeling villain from Puccini’s opera.
As Chris’s Marine buddy, John, who transforms from a hedonist devoid of scruples to the head of a charity that helps Vietnamese American orphans find homes, J. Daughtry also shines. His solo “Bui Doi” at the beginning of Act 2 is as moving as the simultaneous video projections that show the conditions of the forgotten children. His energy and emotion in the song, that begins with a solemn a cappella chorus, is refreshing
But it’s Red Concepción who steals the show, with his fantastic portrayal of the ultimate hustler, the Engineer. A self-interested schemer with style and resilience to spare, Concepción imbues the pimp with charisma. His beguiling singing voice often jumps up into falsetto when he’s trying to get out of a tight situation, and his character is not shy about flipping off officials — Vietnamese, Thai or American — who get in the way of his plans. Conjuring his version of the American dream in a song of the same title, he is mesmerizing in a spotlight on a bare stage. When his dream comes to life and he’s joined by a Vegas-style chorus and an ostentatious white convertible, chauffeuring an almost-naked woman in a white fur coat, he is rapturous.
And the helicopter? Well, it’s still in the show, and it’s still impressive, although the actual stage piece that is supposed to whisk away the last Americans from the embassy wasn’t working properly at curtain time on opening night. Instead, a video projection was used, to remarkable effect. The animation was innovative and affecting, reflecting stage magic that’s possible now, but wasn’t available when the musical premiered in 1989. Combined with numbers marking the Communist victory in Vietnam featuring crisp choreography, impressive acrobatics, a towering statue of Ho Chi Minh, and a Chinese dragon, the scale of the entire production is still huge.
When Cameron Mackintosh remounted Miss Saigon on Broadway in 2017, the musical’s look became darker and grittier, many of the songs had been rewritten, key characters were reshaped to be more three-dimensional and sympathetic, and efforts were made to address protests from the Asian and Asian American community that the show perpetuated harmful stereotypes. The gibberish lyrics for the song, “The Wedding Ceremony,” have been replaced with actual Vietnamese, and after the initial casting debacle with Jonathan Pryce playing the half-Vietnamese, half-French character the Engineer, there is no more “yellow-face.” Asian characters are played by Asian actors, although they are not all Vietnamese.
Efforts have also been made to “re-center the narrative” to an extent, focusing more on the Vietnamese people who were suffering through a terrible national conflict, rather than exclusively highlighting the American experience of losing an ill-defined, unpopular and costly war, and experiencing the guilt and shame for the atrocities committed.
The production now begins with Kim in the spotlight, disoriented and frightened, arriving in Saigon from the countryside, after her village was attacked and her parents were killed. Explosions rock the landscape, and everyone in the crowded streets recoils at the sound of menacing helicopters overhead.
The depiction of the “bar girls” — prostitutes working in the Engineer’s club, catering to American GIs — has also changed. Instead of scantily clad women winking to johns and playing along with the ruse of competing in a beauty pageant to win the title of “Miss Saigon,” there’s nothing romanticized about these women or the brutality of their jobs.
All across the stage, Asian women in bikinis and lingerie assume suggestive positions and then simulate sex on staircases, draped over tables, in frenetic lap dances and kneeling in front of GIs. The women on one side of the bar grab their crotches as their hips gyrate, while on the other side of the stage, a soldier forcibly spreads a woman’s thighs and buries his face between her legs. If any of the “working girls” protest, they are physically reprimanded by the Engineer and threatened with a knife that he plays with menacingly throughout the show. This does a lot to de-glamorize the lives of prostitutes, but does little to complicate the stereotype of Asian women as sex workers whose purpose is to be available to Western men.
In Act 2, when the Engineer and Kim are working in the red-light district in Bangkok, the hyper- sexualization and exoticism is even more rampant. While this may have been done in the name of gritty realism, it reinforces the image of Asian women as uniquely talented sex toys who can launch projectiles and even blow smoke from their vaginas. They are not people; they are sideshow attractions.
Kim’s cousin, Thuy, who claims Kim as his wife/property since their parents promised the pair to each other when they were very young, was portrayed in the original version as an evil, child-killing bully who had “switched sides” and was now part of the Communist forces. His original character objective was simply to threaten and shame Kim for loving an American instead of him. The revised Thuy is still a bad guy, but he’s no longer one-dimensional. He demonstrates a love and dedication to Kim that is more parallel with his American rival. This helps, even if he is still ultimately willing to kill Chris and Kim’s child, Tam, in order to save his own reputation.
The character of Ellen, Chris’s American wife, is also softened significantly. After her initial meeting with Kim in her hotel room, instead of singing a ballad with a refrain of “it’s her or me, and it’s me he must choose,” the new Ellen sings a sad song of self-doubt, wondering if perhaps she’s the one who should step aside, now that Chis has been reunited with his first love and his son. Stacie Bono, the actor playing Ellen in this production, still carries an uncomfortable edge throughout the show, one that matches the harsh edge of her voice. In this case, her characterization works against efforts to make Ellen more likable.
The problem with Miss Saigon
Clearly, many people have made efforts to make the harmful tropes in this musical “less bad.” That effort proves that the producers were listening to the cultural conversation swirling around their story. They made changes, and they get points for responding to complaints. But ultimately, it’s not enough.
There is no question that Miss Saigon traffics in the same Orientalism that has dogged Asian representation in the West for more than a century. The “white savior” narrative is still alive and well. Kim puts all her love and faith into a white American who promises to save her from the chaos and danger of her own country. And Chris believes that’s his role too. At one point he rages, “Christ, I’m an American. How could I fail to do good?”
And the Vietnamese women in Miss Saigon are either whores or victims. Sure, Kim is tough, and she fights for her life and that of her child — but in the end, she pins all her hopes on being rescued.
The Engineer is a soulless opportunist with no moral compass who lusts after the chance to go to the U.S. so he can realize his dream of making ludicrous amounts of money. He sings, “Greasy Chinks make life so sleazy,” and “Why was I born of a race that thinks only of rice and hates entrepreneurs?” Meanwhile, he subjugates Vietnamese women to please Western libidos.
The biggest problem with reinforcing these stereotypes is that they have real, substantive effects on how Asians and Asian Americans are viewed within our culture, and even how they view themselves. The other major problem is that the reductive narrative of Miss Saigon and Madama Butterfly is by far the loudest one available. Even with the success of the movies The Joy Luck Club and Crazy Rich Asians, and the TV series Fresh off the Boat and Margaret Cho’s short-lived All-American Girl, there are simply not enough Asian stories, written by Asians, to counter these stereotypes in the minds of many Americans.
So where do we go from here?
The answer, I believe, is not to ban Miss Saigon or erase it from musical theater history. It is to insist that audiences have access to new and different stories, created by the people who are portrayed in them. We need that much more than rejiggered revivals of profoundly problematic musicals such as The King and I and Miss Saigon. No race or culture is a monolith. They shouldn’t be portrayed as such, no matter how great the music is, or how cool the special effects are.
In a feature in Time magazine, predicting that the success of the recent rom-com Crazy Rich Asians was going to change the way Hollywood viewed bankable projects, Taiwanese American actress Constance Wu said that she “hopes for a future with ‘narrative plenitude’ through a wide variety of creative projects, so that one story doesn’t have to represent all Asians, or all Asian Americans.”
Asian American academics communicated a similar message at their “teach-in” last week, after Overture abruptly cancelled a panel where critics hoped to discuss some of these issues. I think it’s time we all listen to these voices and view productions like Miss Saigon within this context.