Sexism, Race and the Mess of ‘Miss Saigon’ on Broadway
The Daily Beast
March 24, 2017
Is it impossible to find the entertainment in Miss Saigon, the epic musical that follows the tragedy of a virginal Vietnamese woman who falls for an American G.I. just as Saigon is falling in 1975, and the sacrifice she makes to ensure their son has the life she desires for him?
As evidenced by the laughter and weepy sniffles around me a few nights ago: no. Many in the audience clapped loudly, stood, and cheered this revival (transferred from London and produced by Cameron Mackintosh).
But watching this grandly designed and mounted Broadway show—first produced in London in 1989—especially in light of the fraught and charged debate around immigration and refugees, with its full retinue of racial stereotypes unchanged, is a bizarre confluence of opposites; like sunbathing on a bright sunny beach which is freezing cold, or drinking a banana milkshake and it tasting of garden weeds.
This uncomfortable experience isn’t because of the racial controversies that dogged it in its infancy, as elegantly sketched in a recent New York Times article.
There are no longer white actors playing Asian roles (however brilliantly in the case of Jonathan Pryce), and playing them with “yellowface” at that.
Jon Jon Briones, who plays the villainous pimp, the Engineer in this production, is Filipino; and Eva Noblezada, who plays tragic prostitute heroine Kim, has a Filipino father and Mexican-American mother. This new version has changed the wedding lyrics, featured in a scene between Kim and G.I. Chris (Alistair Brammer), to real Vietnamese words.
But this is a bright, Broadway spectacular where the grit and hard facts of history are impossible to ignore, or square with Miss Saigon’s song-and-dance, flashy sets and flashing lights.
Just how can you make the sexual, romantic, emotional and financial exploitation and abuse of a vulnerable Vietnamese woman into a barnstorming theatrical night out? This reporter could not see it; others around him, very visibly and audibly, could.
Briones and Noblezada are the evening’s astonishing powerhouses; they are as committed to the characters—and brilliantly so—as any director (Laurence Connor) could wish. They soar, perhaps award-winningly, above the bizarre material they have to perform. The fault does not lie with them, or the wonderful orchestra and musicians.
The problems are the characters the leads play, and the story they must enact, spanning 1975 in Saigon, and three years later in Bangkok, where the characters ill-fatedly converge again, their life circumstances much changed.
As Pun Bandhu, an actor active with Asian American Performers Action Coalition, told The New York Times: the Asian characters in Miss Saigon “are victims of a war, but they are also characterized as opportunists, villainous, and, at the center of the story, Kim is written to be very weak.”
To be fair, Lea Salonga, who won a Tony for playing Kim, told the Times that the musical showed the reality of being an Asian prostitute, and that is all to the good: “I don’t know of too many shows that allow the audience to see that reality. It’s very eye-opening, and can be quite jarring.”
However, it is the relentless victimhood of Kim in Miss Saigon that is disturbing. Her story doesn’t have an arc. Throughout we watch her entire lack of agency, the total persecution and exploitation visited upon her and abject circumstances, culminating in her suicide—and with no respite from that. Happiness is never a possibility for her. Any kind of empowerment is never a possibility for her. She is trodden on over and over again.
Kim’s solo songs, ‘I’d Give My Life To You,’ ‘Sun and Moon,’ (a reprise in act two), and ‘Little God of My Heart’ are ones of sacrifice and the impossibility of dreams or love being fulfilled. She is often lying down, looking up, and cowering. The one moment where she takes action against a villain gets a resounding cheer—and she is only then protecting her son. Apart from that, she endures blow after blow, staying true to her love for Chris, which is way bigger and more impressive than he deserves.
OK, you might say, Miss Saigon, adapted from an original French text by Alain Boublil and with lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. and Boublil, is a tragedy. Madam Butterfly is not only its closest operatic approximation, but, according to Claude-Michel Schönberg, Miss Saigon’s composer, its direct inspiration. But Miss Saigon adds vexed contemporary war and politics into the mix. The prettification of Madam Butterfly is hard to emulate.
The Engineer, whom we first meet as running a bar in Saigon pimping out Vietnamese women for G.I.s, yanks Kim by the hair, spits verbal abuse at her, threatens her and menaces her. It was impossible for this reporter to laugh along with the Engineer’s cunning—expressed as side-eye to the audience—or his exasperation with Kim’s purity because he was an abusive exploiter.
The full banana milkshake tasting of weeds moment came with the Engineer’s rendition of ‘The American Dream,’ which is what he imagines his life in America to be—all huge cars and showgirls and flash suits and shiny riches. It’s the archetypal showstopper, and Briones performs it with grandiloquent brio, including a freshly inserted line about “making America great again” which got the biggest roar of the night.
But the character of the Engineer is of a rat, and his unatoned-for, unaddressed violence and exploitation of women, gives his rattishness an unbreakable outer layer. It felt right to me not to be charmed by him in the moments the production wants us to be.
Kim’s G.I. lover gives her a moment’s happiness, and then leaves. Chris never seems like a hero of any kind. He whines, wheedles, and is broken. Never do you sense theirs is a star-crossed love story. Never do you yearn for them to be together. Their first act love song, ‘Sun and Moon,’ is sung by two traumatized people finding glancing love in awful circumstances.
They are both, for different reasons, desperate for warmth and solace. Her G.I. not only never comes back for her, he loves, truly, someone else, an American woman he meets on getting home named Ellen (Katie Rose Clarke).
When the two women come face to face, Kim not only learns the scale of his personal betrayal, but the beautiful confrontation-aftermath song belongs to Ellen, ‘Maybe.’ Kim rushes out, crushed yet again. Ellen is worried Chris will leave her for Kim, but no: the nice white Americans will instead take Tam away from Kim for a new life in America, and that will be fine—because Kim is totally disposable. And what brown baby wouldn’t want “a better life” in the USA? There is no substantive debate, or heart-wringing, about doing this. Kim gives up her own life to accept it too.
The only respite from this relentless battery of indignity—for Kim and us—are the lovely cuddles she gets from her and Chris’ son, Tam (played by four young actors, and Jace Chen the night I saw it). Chen, who is silent throughout, was so adorable, every sighting of his little, sleepy body was greeted with a chorus of ‘awws,’, and especially cheered was the moment he wiped his mouth after having to kiss the Engineer on the cheek.
The show is not politically dumb. The theme of American responsibility to the Vietnamese, to the refugees who will do anything to reach America for a better life remains central to the show, and remains admirably unresolved and uncomfortable. That political bone, fully exposed under the Trump administration, is just as raw today as it was post-Vietnam.
Too bad that when Miss Saigon’s famous helicopter scene unfolds—the chopper landing at the American Embassy to take the last Americans out of Vietnam—the model jerks this way and that like a bad animatronic Jaws, lurching precariously and pretty undramatically.
Politics is also showcased at the beginning of act two; the song “Bui Doi” tells the story of the “dust of life”—what the songwriters (using an existing Vietnamese term meaning vagrant children) call the abandoned children of American G.I.s and Vietnamese women. The song is led by John (Nicholas Christopher), Chris’s fellow G.I. who we saw as a boorish asshole and who is now miraculously transformed, post-war, into a kind guy in a suit helping American troops find their war-borne children.
But in John’s eyes, and in the writers of Miss Saigon’s eyes there is nothing left for Kim at the end of the show. She is no good to be sexually exploited, and the white people have come to take her baby. She has been economically aced by them, their money and means will trump her love. She hasn’t the guile of the Engineer, and her goodness is of no use. Bang bang, goes her self-directed gun. Her tragedy and sacrifice allows everyone to get on with their lives.
If this is meant an elaborate feminist fable, a searing indictment of racism and exploitation, it was lost in the scenes of men fucking and buying women in the Saigon bar scenes. It is lost even in the crude drawing of Kim as a ‘good’ prostitute (like Julia Roberts’ character in Pretty Woman) compared to the more predatorily sexy prostitutes around her. It is certainly lost in the ugly decimation of her character over two-plus hours. It’s not what happens to her, but how it happens to her.
Miss Saigon has more to say than just recite Kim’s personal tragedy. It is a confused mélange of war guilt, romance, exploitation, Asian stereotypes, and good storytelling intentions. But times change, and our views of race, gender, and colonial entitlement change. And so, should it be performed again, is it out of the bounds of possibility for Miss Saigon to also be changed?
That will lay me open to accusations of “political correctness.” So be it. Kim, The Engineer, and Chris deserve way, way better—and most of all Kim.