The new national tour of Miss Saigon lands in Chicago in a few days. I saw the original run on Broadway in the 90’s and I’ve watched the filmed 25th anniversary production. It says something about our world that the political and social issues explored in the musical are still relevant. Let’s see what I’m talking about, since I’m such an authority on both theatre and the Vietnam war (who isn’t?).
SPOILER ALERT – I TALK ABOUT EVERYTHING
A few points to consider along the way:
- the more you know about the Vietnam war, the better.
- The writers of Miss Saigon are French. Colonialism (Indochina), along with a litany of bad decisions, left a lasting impression on the French.
- Miss Saigon is not a character study. It’s closer to a parable. It paints with broad strokes to deliver, among other themes, a treatise on imperialism, on the lasting wounds of war, on immigration and the allure of the American Dream.
- In Ken Burns’ documentary Vietnam, a former Vietcong fighter tells a brief story. His brother brought his fiancé home to meet his family, shortly before going to fight. The brother died in battle not long after, but his fiancé refused to find another man to marry. Instead, she took her own life.
Miss Saigon offers a challenging experience. It’s not easy; it doesn’t pull punches; it requires conversation and active participation to understand all the themes. I think this confounds critics at times because it’s not a show about empowering anyone and it doesn’t spell it out for you (except the American Dream thing, they clonk you on the head with that).
Miss Saigon begins just before the fall of Saigon, in April of 1975, and deals with the aftermath of the war. Seventeen-year-old Kim arrives in Saigon after fleeing her bombed-out village. She is lost and alone, which, makes her the perfect prey for a pimp called the Engineer, who offers her immediate work as a prostitute.
During her first night working in the bar called Dreamland, Kim meets a U.S. Soldier, Chris. He is the only one who shows her any kindness or respect. She doesn’t want to end the evening with the other drunk, high, and violent soldiers in the bar, so she takes her chances with Chris. What follows is brief, but whirlwind romance that crashes down with the fall of Saigon, leaving Chris and Kim separated.
Fast forward three-plus years and Chris is back home in America and has a new American wife. Kim is living on the streets in Saigon, where, unbeknownst to Chris, she has given birth to his son, Tam. It’s all she can do to stay alive and care for their child. With little to hope for, she dreams of seeing Chris again and giving her son the chance for a good life in America.
Several large themes fuel Miss Saigon. One is the way unique cultures understand, or more often, don’t understand each other. Such as when Chris marries Kim in a Vietnamese wedding ceremony, but he appears to have little understanding of exactly what has happened. It has repercussions. There are both personal and political takeaways here.
Consider these two lines by Kim that bookend the story:
“I’m so much more than you see. A million dreams are in me.”
“You don’t know; you can’t know what I’ve done to be here.”
We only have to look at our own society to get this. All of us, regardless of race, creed, or color, want to be understood for who we are and what we’ve done with our lives. It’s a matter of respect, of recognizing a person’s dignity. Ask the black man who sat down in Starbucks waiting for his friends and found out the police had been called in. The store didn’t know anything about him and made assumptions.
Similarly, in Miss Saigon, Kim stands face-to-face with Chris’s new wife, Ellen. Ellen lets Kim know that decisions have already been made about her and Tam without anyone asking her. Ellen and Chris can’t know what Kim has done to be there, or what her hopes are. But the audience knows. And there’s nothing they can do about it but watch the consequences play out.
There are also overtones of imperialism in the above scene, where a first-world country imposes their will on another country under the premise that it’s for their own good. We know what’s good for you, not you, and you’ll eventually understand and be better for it.
Consider America’s lack of understanding of the Middle East, of its history and of Islamic culture, from Afghanistan in the 1980’s to Iraq in 2003. Good intentions or not, what repercussions have we seen from that?
Another theme in Miss Saigon is the “America Dream,” viewed through the eyes of the Engineer. The question becomes, is that what the American Dream is? This perverse thing? Or is it the limitless possibilities that Kim hopes it is? The Engineer has a line, “I deserve to be in a land where a man sets his price and you pay and he’s yours.” Is that America? Sounds like politics…
The main theme is the idea of “a mother’s ultimate sacrifice.” I’ve read reviews that are unhappy with the idea that an Asian girl kills herself over a failed relationship with a white guy. Except that’s not what happens at all. Kim clearly articulates that in the song “I’d give my life for you.” It’s further explored through the Engineer, who grew up fatherless, watching his mother prostitute herself to French occupiers, even helping secure customers for her. When the U.S. comes, he opens a bar and starts selling women to the G.I.s. It’s all he’s known; it’s left him a greedy pimp with little to show for it. Now Kim is working as a prostitute with her young, fatherless child by her side. She sees the parallels; she doesn’t want Tam ending up like the Engineer. In her final moments, Chris asks her why she shot herself (in the stomach I guess?). She replies, “The gods have guided you to your son.” It’s not about Chris, it’s about Tam. It’s about the real issue of Amerasian children after the war. On a broader level, it’s about immigration, and not just in America. All over the world, refugees from violent conflict are searching for a new home.
There are people who see Miss Saigon as a “White Savior” story. No one is saved, and America is not painted in a good light. The show is extremely political, with characters as stand-ins for various countries, for political and philosophical ideologies. White is irrelevant here. On ground level, when so many South Vietnamese wanted out for fear of the approaching Communist army, Americans were the only way out. There was no question that the invading communist army would go on a violent purge once they took power.
(If you’re interested in seeing how desperately people wanted out, watch the documentary Last Days in Vietnam.)
Another complaint is that Kim is a prostitute. Fair enough; it’s low-hanging fruit. However, Miss Saigon deals specifically with the mixed-race children of U.S. soldiers and Vietnamese women left behind. There are estimates of 30,000+ children (I’ve read smaller and larger estimates). It’s true that children of U.S. soldiers were born to Vietnamese prostitutes. If you’re going to write a story about these fatherless children, a prostitute in Saigon is a reasonable choice. The stories of these women is yet another layer in the tragedy of Vietnam.
I think the U.S. is the greatest country in the world. But that doesn’t mean we’re always right. There should always be room to step back and reevaluate what we’re doing. That’s one of the reasons we have free elections.
Similarly, Miss Saigon isn’t a perfect musical. It tries to do too much and that hurts the narrative in the second half. There are too many points to be made, which distracts from what could have been a deeper study of Kim and Vietnamese culture that I think some critics wanted. The writers also hurt themselves by demanding to follow the plot-line of the Madame Butterfly opera. The plot ends up forcing the action instead of letting character choices shape the story. These missteps don’t interfere with the power of the story, though. The authors set out to shine a light on specific issues and they do it. It’s an outstanding musical.
It’s interesting to read the many polarizing opinions about Miss Saigon. I think the problem we have as a society, or maybe a species, is that we can’t stand to have our thinking challenged. Only verified.
Honduras. It’s violent, basically overrun by drug cartels. The primary consumer of their product is the United States. So, the U.S. appetite for white powder, combined with the U.S. War on Drugs, has helped create a virtual narco-state. Hondurans are fleeing the violence for what they hope will be safety and a new life. They are running to the country that helped create the problems they are escaping. The prosperity of America still calls.
Madame Butterfly. The story has inspired many other tales. In the original short story, the title character, Cho-Cho-San, doesn’t kill herself. In that story, her American husband sends his new wife to take Cho-Cho-San’s son away to live with him in America. When she arrives, Cho-Cho-San and the child have vanished. A bold statement from Cho-Cho-San. How come no one ever bases a story on that?