For 30 years, people have been pissed about Miss Saigon. The show’s current national tour only has a few days left in its short run at the Paramount Theater, bringing with it all the stunning design and vocal talent you’d expect from a high-caliber tour. But there’s a mountain of context to scale here, so let’s back up.
Since landing on the London stage in 1989, Miss Saigon, a musical adaptation of opera Madame Butterfly set during the final days of the Vietnam War, has been a controversial property. Musical theater traditionalists decried the rise of the bloated mega-musical, reliant on over-the-top spectacles like real-life helicopters and crashing chandeliers. Actors of Asian descent protested (rightly) the casting of white actor Johnathan Pryce as the Engineer, a Eurasian pimp character. In response, Actors Equity denied British actor Pryce union dispensation to star in the show’s 1991 Broadway transfer; producer Cameron Mackintosh cancelled the whole production and Equity relented. Pryce won that year’s Tony for Best Actor in a Musical.
I grew up on the musical behemoths of the 1980s and ‘90s and can still sing the entire Miss Saigon cast album start to finish. Thus, I’m nostalgically primed to forgive a lot, which I cynically wonder if producers banked on when revamping Miss Saigon in 2014—that a built-in fan base would stand by a long-beloved show unlikely to get off the ground were it to premiere today, thanks to its blatant race and gender problems.
We open in 1975, in a neon-lit Saigon bar, run by the Engineer, where local girls entertain American GIs—everyone but Chris, our brooding hero, who has had enough of these meaningless nights. Until he sees Kim, a desperate, virginal 17-year-old orphan from a small village, who just started working here today: boom, it’s love. They spend a magical night together (paid for by Chris’s friend John); soon after, they hold an ersatz wedding ceremony in the bar. But when Chris must suddenly evacuate Saigon, he can’t get to Kim in time to take her with him. Nine months later, Kim gives birth to their son, and spends the next three years scraping by; Chris, after a yearlong depression, gets remarried to an American woman named Ellen (a truly thankless role, beautifully sung by Ellie Fishman). John, having found a post-war conscience, devotes his life to helping children fathered and abandoned by American soldiers in Vietnam. Through her son, he finds Kim working in a Bangkok bar, John and Ellen go to meet her. Kim, bereft to learn Chris is married to someone else and desperate for her son to go to America, kills herself.
As Kim and Chris, Emily Bautista and Anthony Festa hit their booming ’80s-musical high notes with ease, though the whole cast was pretty liberal with back phrasing, an annoying tendency to be intentionally ahead of or behind the beat, usually to give a sung line more of a spoken rhythm.
Kim’s suffering is so expected we barely register it; her only real solo song is about how she’d die for her son, her ultimate narrative and moral purpose. She wildly explains to John that she only works in the Bangkok bar because she’s desperate, as though all the other women employed there are on an intentional career track. Kim earns her value through virtue, pain and devoted motherhood, while Chris is a default hero: he’s conflicted, and that’s enough. He feels bad, so he must be a good guy. Kim, a teenage orphan who got pregnant by an American who leaves her, kills herself at 20—and she doesn’t even get the last bow. For a reason that has always escaped me, that goes to the Engineer.
Theater presenters are in a bind: well-known shows sell, and selling tickets is important. The truth is, I don’t want to let Miss Saigon go. Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schoenberg (who also wrote Les Mis) know their way around a harmony; the rising, twining love duets still make my skin shiver. But that’s not good enough. Kim is barely more than a misogynistic cypher and the rest of the women walking sex jokes (in the Bangkok bar scene I thought, “at least they haven’t made the ping-pong ball joke,” then pop! there it was). The white characters are sympathetic and nuanced; the Asian characters servile, corrupt, or mindless, nationalistic automatons.
People around the country are asking why we still do this show, from New York Times opinion writer Viet Thanh Nguyen to Lily Janiak, brilliant theater critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, who titled her review, “Please, no more Miss Saigon – we need to reject it”. Playwright Kimber Lee’s Untitled F*ck M*ss S**gon Play, being developed around the country, plays with the insidious trope of an Asian woman stuck in an endlessly recycled story of simplistic suffering. We’re theatergoers and ticket buyers; let’s do what we can to break that cycle.