Miss Saigon in 2019 is not the Miss Saigon I remember from 1997.
With music by Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. and Alain Boublil, Miss Saigon is inspired by the opera Madame Butterfly and revered as a theater classic since it made its London debut in 1989. It later premiered on Broadway in 1991 to wild success, with Lea Salonga winning a Tony and Olivier Award and putting her on the map as one of the most talented stage actresses. It was a big score for Asian representation as Salonga, of Filipino descent, went on to become the singing voices of Jasmine in 1992’s Aladdin and the titular heroine in Mulan.
In 1989 and 1991, Miss Saigon was seen through a different scope, being one of the few musicals, films and TV series providing representation for Asians and Asian Americans. In 2019, when there’s a craving for authentic representation and inclusion, those optics are vastly different. I remember watching a touring production for the first time in 1997 and being impressed and mesmerized because of the epicness of it all. Being more impressed with the fact that I was “going to the theater,” I wasn’t mature enough to unpack its cultural impact. That said, the dated musical is highly problematic in the way it frames its narrative — no matter which angle you look at it.
With that in mind, is it time that we revisit problematic musicals and existing IP from the past and reevaluate their optics when it comes to poor representation of people of color, women and other marginalized communities? Many films and TV series have been rebooted and revived through a more empathetic and inclusive lens. We have seen One Day at a Time rebooted with a Cuban immigrant family as well as a female Doctor Who and a Latino-led Magnum P.I. On the film side, we have seen an all-female Ghostbusters and Ocean’s 8, and the Star Wars universe has become a story led by a female with black and Latino co-leads. As the decades have passed, musicals have stayed true to their source material, but perhaps it is time to retool the problematic ones — like Miss Saigon.
Currently playing at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles, Miss Saigon is set during during the Vietnam War in the 1970s and follows a young Vietnamese woman named Kim. As an orphan of war, she is forced to work in a bar brothel run by a self-serving con-man/pimp known as “The Engineer.” While put in this unfortunate position, she hangs on to hope as she falls in love with Chris, an American G.I. When Saigon falls, they are separated. After three years, she desperately attempts to find her way back to him as she has mothered his child. It’s an epically tragic musical with riveting, soul-stirring music — but that is not enough to make up for its tone-deaf narrative swaddled in white guilt.
From the beginning, Miss Saigon had its problems. When Jonathan Pryce first played The Engineer, they altered his eyes and skin color to make him look more Asian. Luckily, producers of the musical decided to stray away from this practice of yellowface after Pryce won the Tony and departed the show, and Miss Saigon became the one and only beacon for working Asian American stage actors. But now that we are living in a time where musicals like Hamilton have changed the game when it comes to inclusive storytelling and providing more opportunities for people of color, Miss Saigon remains an archaic, cringe-worthy musical that ages as well as its history of yellowface.
Yes, Miss Saigon is a product of its time, but that does not make it all right to keep telling a story that perpetuates stereotypes and serves as a reminder that Asians and Asian Americans once were relegated to roles of “Me love you long time” prostitutes, abusively domineering desexualized male figures (mainly the character of Thuy — played in the current Los Angeles production by Jinwoo Jung — a man betrothed to Kim) and shady, clownish men used as comic relief (The Engineer played here by Red Concepcion). As soon as the show opens, we see these stereotypes play out and celebrated in a number called “The Heat Is On,” where we see scantily clad sex workers beg the attention of American military men. It’s clear that the direction here was: “Be as over the top and lewd as possible to echo the era.” There is no female empowerment or ownership of their bodies whatsoever as men fling these women over their shoulders as if they are objects. There are several instances of women are spread eagle and men burying their faces in crotches. It’s ’70s-brand toxic masculinity at its best, and another layer of disgust is added when in one part of the scene ends in violence after a woman begs a G.I. to take her to America.
What is even equally if not more offensive is the introduction of the main romance between Chris (Anthony Festa) and Kim (Emily Bautista). Chris is clearly not into any of this scene and seems like he’s the good guy of the bunch with a moral compass — until he sees Kim.
In the sea of women strutting their stuff and singing about their sexual talent, Kim comes forward and endearingly belts out her intro. The original lyrics are: “I’m 17 and I’m new here today/The village I come from seems so far away/All of the girls know much more what to say/But I know I have a heart like the sea…a million dreams are in me.” Various productions have changed the lyrics and have even taken out the fact that Kim is 17 — but I have never forgotten.
Chris spots her from across the room and is immediately taken by her golden-heart innocence and purity, and sings, “Good Jesus, John, who is she?” I must reiterate: She is 17 years old.
Things slow down in the song “The Movie in My Mind” and the women sing an internal dialogue that is supposed to validate their actions as to why they are doing this and the pain that goes along with the work they are forced to do.
“They are not nice, they’re mostly noise,” one of the nameless women sings. “They swear like men, they screw like boys/I know there’s nothing in their hearts/But everytime I take one in my arms, it starts…the movie in my mind.”
As the women sing about what they do to distract themselves from their loveless trysts with men, Kim comes forward and sings: “I will not cry, I will not think/I’ll do my dance, I’ll make them drink/When I make love it won’t be me/And if they hurt me I’ll just close my eyes, and see.”
Soon after this number, there is a transaction when The Engineer, after slapping Kim around, sells her off to a reluctant (but not really) Chris. She goes off to service him and, as kind-hearted and gentle as he is, he still sleeps with her and, in a Stockholm syndrome turn of events, they fall in love. Again, she is 17 years old.
After Chris sleeps with Kim, he sings “Why God Why?”, a song with the lyrics: “How can I feel good when nothing’s right,” and “Why God, why today/I’m all through here on my way/There’s nothing left here that I’ll miss/Why send me now a night like this.”
Apparently, the song makes everything OK and the two express their love for each other in “Sun and Moon,” and later on in “The Last Night of the World” — both are the musical’s most popular benchmark songs. And within the first six songs of Miss Saigon, a problematic picture is painted and a frustrating tone set that resonates throughout and makes it unbearable to watch.
First and foremost, the problem is not the actors in the musical; they are fantastic, and the talent is there. With pitch-perfect ease, they deliver stellar performances. Bautista soars as Kim, and Concepcion as The Engineer moves the story along with charisma. The staging is phenomenal — particularly the helicopter scene — and the orchestration is powerful. They all have a job and they do it well. It’s just unfortunate that it has to be veiled by such an oppressive story that has not aged well and will continue to make Asians and Asian Americans squirm.
The story is framed and told by white men with little or no consultation from the Vietnamese community. And each time it plays, it will get a standing ovation because — well — the performances are strong and eclipse the racist details and macro-aggressions in the narrative. Miss Saigon, however, is representation gone wrong and lacks empathy in a story that viewed through an Orientalist lens puts a questionable romance in the forefront during a period of strife in Vietnam. Perhaps it is time that we revisit this musical and tinker with it in order to make it not so problematic — if that’s even possible. If not, maybe it’s time to retire it and listen to “The Last Night of the World” out of context in order to detach it from the controversial stigma of the musical. It’s a great love song, once you strip it of all the horrible implications.
Miss Saigon is a story that needs to be told, but through a totally different lens. It’s a tragic part of American history that we must face, but when it is put in the context of the white savior narrative, that’s when problems arise. Chris, no matter what he does, is seen as the hero and the victim. At one point, his new wife Ellen (Stacie Bono) attempts to understand his PTSD and wants to be there for him, but he pushes her away. In a moment of frustration, she calls him out for having a child with Kim and being irresponsible — he ends up turning the tables, saying “feel sorry for me,” and she ends up apologizing. Something isn’t right there.
To add to the terrible portrayal of women, Kim is the most tortured character with absolutely no justice in the end. From the beginning, she has no agency over her actions and does nothing for herself. She is literally and figuratively beaten by every person she comes in contact with during the musical. Yes, she has a strong spirit, but that is constantly smothered as she is given no opportunity to show her strength. She is excessively desperate and everything she does is for someone else — mainly the thankless love Chris.
Miss Saigon came after Schönberg and Boublil’s musical adaptation of Les Miserables, which puts the spotlight on another revolution, but in France. In the musical, Jean Valjean is the protagonist and he, like Kim, is on a journey of survival — but that’s where the comparisons end. Jean Valjean has more control of his narrative and his strength and selfless actions drive him to the end, where his death has a sense of agreeable symmetry and justice. Kim, on the other hand, is tossed around in the context of tragedy porn and dies in vain. There is a difference between being selfless and being a broken soul who is constantly steamrolled. Kim, who is at the center of this Broadway classic, is shown as the latter. No matter how great and grand the music is, this is not something that can be overlooked. It may not be like Song of the South, but it comes close.
Miss Saigon does not track well in 2019 — specifically for the Asian community — and will continue to be problematic for years to come unless it rids itself of its Orientalism, toxic misogyny and white savior complex.