The Panel That Wasn't -- A "Teach In" About Asian Sterotypes in Response to "Miss Saigon"
“This is not how I thought today was going to go,” said Timothy Yu at the “teach-in” he helped organize on the sidewalk outside Overture Center on March 27. With the poster for the blockbuster musical Miss Saigon in the background, Yu, a UW-Madison professor of English and Asian American Studies, looked slightly chagrined as he surveyed the crowd that was gathering to hear concerns about Asian representation in the touring show, which is scheduled for eight performances, April 2-7 in Overture Hall. “As of yesterday morning I thought this was going to be a sleepy little panel,” he said, originally predicting that 15 or 20 people would be in attendance. Instead, after officials at Overture Center abruptly cancelled the joint panel discussion just hours before it was scheduled, the group of interested onlookers swelled, taking over the corner of State and North Dayton Streets.
Along with UW- Madison professors Leslie Bow and Lori Kido-Lopez, Yu had been working with Dr. Ed Holmes, Overture’s senior vice president for equity and innovation, on a free panel discussion prior to the performance, titled “Perspectives on Miss Saigon: History and Community,” to discuss issues surrounding the popular musical, which have been raised since its debut on London’s West End in 1989. The official reason Overture gave for cancelling the discussion was listed in a press release as “a misunderstanding with the people that we were collaborating with for this dialogue. It appears that we were not all on the same page as to our goals, objectives and the purpose for tonight’s event.” Overture’s release said the event had been “postponed,” but no replacement date has been proposed.
In a phone conversation with Isthmus, Yu says he began meeting with Overture staff in February, and agreed to help coordinate the panel discussion. His objective was to ensure that the Asian American perspective was represented in a conversation with the larger community about the show. In the essay he posted on the Asian American Studies page of the UW-Madison website, Yu detailed the fraught history of the show, from using “yellow-face” — hiring Caucasian actors to play Asian characters and using makeup techniques to change their skin color and eye shape — and perpetuating stereotypes that portray Asian women as hyper-sexualized whores or “lotus blossoms.” Critics have also said the musical trivializes the Vietnam War and reinforces the Imperialistic “white savior” mythology.
Yu says Overture staff invited him to write the essay, giving him a 48-hour deadline, which they planned to insert into Miss Saigon programs. Overture CEO Sandra Gajic disputes that version of events, contending that her staff told Yu they would “see what we can do to make sure his voice was also represented,” but a program insert was never an option. “We can’t put anything in our program books,” she explains, referring to agreements with the touring company Broadway Across America.
For her part, Bow was also a bit baffled by the day’s turn of events. “I’m a pretty mild-mannered person,” she began, when it was her turn to speak at the teach-in. “If you had told me a week ago that I would be out here in public, on a soapbox speaking, instead of being in a nice comfortable theater with seating and heat, I would have been really surprised.”
Bow explained that when she was originally asked to be the moderator for the panel, she had very little knowledge of Miss Saigon or the controversy around it. “I prepared my questions over spring break, just like I would prepare for a class. I’m an educator. This is what I do,” she said. “I wasn’t rabble-rousing. I was trying to get to the heart of why people find these images offensive, asking questions about racial diversity, awareness, differences and how people feel about specific representations that affect them. And the stakes are high because there aren’t that many representations available.”
Bow also expressed her surprise that, via email, she had been effectively fired from her role as moderator of the panel days before the event.
When asked about the sudden cancellation of the panel, Gajic states that communication between the concerned community members coordinating the panel and Overture Center representatives had broken down in the week before the scheduled event. There were disagreements on who would be on the panel, the format of the discussion and the questions that would be posed. For instance, instead of inviting Lori Kido-Lopez, a scholar in representations of minority groups in mainstream media, Overture asked Four Seasons producing artistic director Sarah Marty to be on the panel, to represent the perspective of a local theater producer. Marty’s company produced a staged concert version of Miss Saigon in 2007.
After reviewing the questions that panel moderator Leslie Bow had compiled, Gajic believed that the tone was “adversarial” and that she felt some questions amounted to “a personal attack” on her. She was also unhappy that questions had been tailored to each individual panelist’s expertise, rather than being open for any panelist to respond to.
“Blaming Overture and me personally for having Miss Saigon in our season put us in an unfair position,” she explains. When asked if she thought the controversy would affect the venue’s box office, Gajic was unfazed. “We’ve already reached 105 percent of our ticket sales goal for the show,” she says, and indicated that the ticket office had been busily fielding calls that day from people who were looking forward to seeing the show. “Vietnamese, Asians — many of them love the show,” she says.
Gajic says she was not aware of any other public outcry around this newly retooled version of Miss Saigon, which has been on tour since 2017. The updated musical is billed as grittier and more realistic, focusing on the Vietnamese perspective on the end of the war. Also, the Asian characters are all played by Asian actors, in contrast to the original production. The lyrics have also been updated in places, using Vietnamese phrases instead of the gibberish used in the original version. Some Asian and Asian American audience members insist the musical cannot escape from its problematic source material, the Puccini opera Madama Butterfly, and that these changes do nothing to address larger story issues.
Gajic acknowledges that she’s aware of the protests of the previous iteration of the show in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 2013. Eventually those demonstrations led to the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts pledging it would never host Miss Saigon again.
In response to a question about programming, Gajic says that Overture Center was not required to host Miss Saigon as part of their partnership with Broadway Across America. “We had a choice,” she says, emphatically. She adds that Overture reached out to the panelists repeatedly, offering them space in Promenade Hall for the teach-in, and also offering free tickets to the performance, since many had no personal experience with the show.
Yu admits that he is among those who have never seen Miss Saigon, although he has studied academic criticism of the piece. “There’s extensive literature available on it,” he says, “perhaps because it’s been the only big Broadway show in the last 30 years that showcases Asians, outside of The King and I.”
Gajic says she hopes the panel discussion will still take place, with all of the previously engaged panelists, after the show’s run, perhaps later in April. And she pledged to be on hand to answer questions during the teach-in, along with Overture board members, Holmes and Lex Poppens, vice president of marketing & sales. However, during the event outside Overture’s front entrance, Overture officials appeared to be milling around in the lobby, rather than interacting with the speakers or members of the audience.
Echoing the message of many speakers during the teach-in, Yu stated, “When there’s only one kind of narrative available, that’s a problem. But the thing is, now there are lots of other options. There are plenty of Asian and Asian American writers who are telling their own stories. Why are those not available on stages in Madison?”