The legacy and controversy of Miss Saigon
Ahead of the Scottish premiere of an acclaimed new production of the West End smash musical Miss Saigon, The Skinny travels to Dublin to meet two of the show's stars
The Vietnam War (or the American War if you're in Vietnam) may not initially seem like the ideal vehicle for a rousing musical number, but for Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, the creators of Les Misérables, it most certainly did. The resulting musical, Miss Saigon, premiered in 1989 and remains one of Broadway’s longest running shows; prior to the 2014 London revival it set a world record for opening day ticket sales, exceeding £4 million. Closely modelled on Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, the show takes the enduring tale of East meets West, boy meets girl, and transports it to the last few days of the war in Vietnam. Chris, an American GI, falls head over heels for a Vietnamese virgin named Kim, who works in a bar and brothel called Dreamland.
This multimillion revival, produced by Sir Cameron Mackintosh, lands in Edinburgh later this month. And, as cast members are keen to emphasise, this is definitely not a scaled down version of the Broadway show; it is exactly the same gargantuan production. It takes 16 trucks, each 45 feet long, to transport this beast from venue to venue, to say nothing of the human effort involved. It is spectacle on a grand scale. For anyone who knows Miss Saigon as 'the musical with the helicopter' (spoiler), this version does not disappoint on that front.
The show is not without controversy; it's rare to find a review that doesn’t mention the storm of criticism sparked by the original production’s decision to cast Jonathan Pryce, a white English actor – in facial prosthetics and make-up to alter his skin colour – to play the show's Vietnamese villain, The Engineer. This ‘yellow-face’ controversy has, understandably, dogged the show ever since. However, this revival has made a number of changes that aim to lay that problematic history to rest.
From the Bord Gais Energy Theatre Dublin, where we meet to discuss the show, Ashley Gilmour (who plays Chris) stresses that all the Vietnamese roles are now “...played by Asian people.” He comments on how the industry has changed, with producers and casting directors now “...giving much more opportunity to different ethnic backgrounds.” In his view, Miss Saigon, while initially divisive, now unifies everyone involved. "What the show does is it bring loads of different cultures together into this big family,” he explains.
It's clear that the cast are doing their best to distance themselves from the show’s racially questionable origins. Red Concepción, who now plays The Engineer, highlights the changes that have been made to some of the songs. The wedding song, for example, now contains Vietnamese lyrics, rather than the gibberish that was originally written into the scene.
Both Concepción and Gilmour also discuss at length the relevance of the show to the contemporary moment. Says Gilmour, “One of the key themes is war, and families being torn apart, and relationships being torn apart, and that’s happening all over the world. When we stage it and when we choreograph it, it is exclusively about those times. But it makes it really nice for us to tell that story when we know that it’s sending a message that is really important in today’s society. Although it’s about the Vietnam war, it’s relevant to everything.”
Concepción concurs: “Everyone in the cast is in agreement that it’s very important that this is being done now, considering the political climate.” It is clear that for this team, Miss Saigon is a challenging piece of theatre, speaking to current global politics, the refugee crisis, and, although unnamed, even Donald Trump.
The performances from the cast are near faultless and the commitment to the piece radiates from everyone on stage. The flashy spectacle is also, as Gilmour says, “more like a gritty sort of film” than most musicals (the ones not produced by Mackintosh, at least). But it can be difficult to shake the feeling that, rather than being 'real', this show follows a recognisable pattern, one where the Asian characters are victims, and while the Americans may be hapless they still mean well. The Engineer’s showstopper number may gesture towards the damaging fallacy of the ‘American Dream’ (the song’s title), but the show’s climax, which sees Kim make the ultimate sacrifice in order to get her child into the ‘safe embrace’ of the US, romanticises transnational adoption, reaffirming the idea that the West is a better mother to a child than its own. At its heart, this is a white saviour narrative. A titillating one at that.
Both Concepción and Gilmour seem highly attuned to the issue of Western cultural stereotyping. Concepción speaks candidly about the West’s misapprehension of strength in Asian cultures: “As a South East Asian, I think we define strength in a different way. The Western definition of strength is more active, it's proactivity. I think one of the things people don’t realise is that for a South East Asian, it's fortitude. It's endurance.”
Concepción picks out Kim’s sacrifice as an example of a mother who “will do everything that she possibly can, with the limited resources she has,” and the sex workers at Dreamland as an example of “quiet strength." He feels Miss Saigon “does not shy away” from showing the repercussions of war on women’s lives and bodies, and does not offer viewers an easy time. “I don’t think art should be comfortable," says Concepción. "If it’s comfortable, then it’s just entertainment and it doesn’t hold anything socially or culturally significant.”
In this particular performance in Dublin, cheers and whoops emanate from sections of the audience during scenes where the Dreamland girls dance in bikinis, and there are audible howls of laughter at cross-dressing sex workers in Bangkok. The cast may hope that this is a discomforted reaction to challenging art, but it is difficult to ignore the titilation individuals are drawing from the female body.
This revival does almost all it can to pose itself as a discomforting take on war, and it is at times uncomfortable viewing. However, the standing ovation and sobs from parts of the auditorium at the conclusion suggest that this production will continue to be a smash hit for years to come.
Miss Saigon, Festival Theatre Edinburgh, Wed 17 Jan - Sat 17 Feb, tickets available at edtheatres.com/misssaigon