Miss Saigon, the musical by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil with lyrics by Boublil and Richard Maltby Jr., opened this week at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood following a successful Broadway revival in 2017 and 2018. Based on Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly, it takes place in 1970s Saigon during the Vietnam War and tells the story of a South Vietnamese woman and a United States Marine who fall in love.
The action begins in 1975 at a brothel called “Dreamland” that is run by the conniving Engineer (Red Concepción). He is proud of his newest crown jewel, Kim (Emily Bautista), a 17-year-old peasant who has never been with a man before. Kim was attempting to flee her burning village after the tragic death of her parents when the Engineer preyed on her, trafficking her into sex work. Her first night at the brothel, she meets Chris (Anthony Festa), a Marine who seems mostly disenchanted with the whole unsavory scene until he lays eyes on Kim, whom he can tell is “different” from the other girls. Chris’s friend John (J. Daughtry) buys Kim for him, and Chris initially tries to give Kim money to flee, but ends up spending the night with her anyway. They are both thrown by the sudden depth of their feelings for one another, and within days they are “married” in a secret ceremony thrown by the other bargirls, with Chris promising to take Kim with him when he leaves Vietnam. But when the action jumps three years into the future, it quickly becomes apparent that never came to pass. Chris is living in Atlanta with his new wife, Ellen (Stacie Bono), but he still dreams of Kim, who unbeknownst to him has given birth to his child, a boy. Act two sees them struggling to reconnect, but too much stands in their way, and their story ends in tragedy.
It might be apparent from this brief synopsis that there are aspects of the story of Miss Saigon that are problematic, and the show has seen its fair share of controversy over the years. The original Broadway production in the early 90s came under fire for casting white actors as both the Engineer and Thuy, Kim’s childhood love interest, even going as far as using bronzer and eye prosthetics to make them appear “more Asian.” Despite outcry, the show went on with those actors still in the roles, and Jonathan Pryce even won a Tony for his performance as the Engineer. In the decades this musical has been performed, members of the Asian-American community have organized against it many times, citing the story as racist and offensive, perpetuating harmful stereotypes about Vietnamese people and specifically Vietnamese women. This recent revival finally replaced a section of the wedding scene originally written as actual gibberish intended to “sound Vietnamese” with actual Vietnamese words. All of the show’s authors are white men, and even this production is directed by a white man, Laurence Connor. If you are unaware of how Kim’s story ends and want to avoid that spoiler, stop reading now, but, when Chris, her white “savior” (who is not all that great himself, but more on that later), is unable to rescue her, Kim commits suicide.
Sure, Miss Saigon has a beautiful score, and some striking staging—the scene where a helicopter takes Chris and the rest of his platoon out of Vietnam as locals attempt to climb the fence, desperate for a ticket out, is the best known set piece, and it is impressive. But, the female ensemble spends nearly the entire show gyrating and wearing next to nothing while being objectified and abused by men. An argument could be made that this is meant to shine a light on the harsh realities of sex trafficking in Vietnam during this time and what life was like for those women, but then you meet Ellen, the only white woman in the story, and she looks the part of a prim and proper Stepford wife. And despite Kim putting Chris on a pedestal in her mind, it is a struggle to find one honorable thing he does. He half-heartedly claims to not be interested in prostitutes for about five minutes before immediately giving in the second Kim takes him to her room, and then fails to mention to his new wife of two years that he was basically de facto married before. And let us not forget that Kim is only 17 when they meet.
This brings us to the character of the Engineer, whose over-the-top eccentricity, snappy suits, and funny dance numbers show that he is clearly intended to be the comic relief of the piece in some way. But why are we laughing at a sex trafficker and pimp who is abusive to the women who work for him? In the first scene alone, we see him yank Kim by the hair, mock her, and exploit her, but then later, the musical urges us to find him charming. Simply no can do—this man is a villain, through and through, and playing his behavior for laughs is uncomfortable at best, deeply problematic at worst.
Bautista is giving a lovely performance as poor Kim, who gets about one moment of quasi-agency that she is forced into throughout the entire story. Her voice is strong and clear on songs such as “I’d Give My Life for You,” which in title alone sadly sums up her entire characterization. Concepción gets to shine on the big 11 o’clock number “The American Dream”—the material is not his fault, and he is giving a fine performance with what he has been given. One of the loveliest songs in the show, “Maybe,” is actually sung by Ellen, who is more of a caricature of a typical American housewife than a person. The large ensemble and orchestra sound terrific throughout, and this production is certainly not lacking in spectacle.
Miss Saigon is the 13th longest-running show in Broadway history. It has won major awards and played cities all over the world. But, as I have said before in reference to other problematic shows, just because something was once very successful does not mean we need to keep producing it. As society moves forward and hopefully becomes more socially conscious, we can choose to not perpetuate stereotypes and to let certain art stay in the past where it belongs.
Miss Saigon runs at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre through August 11th. The running time is 2 hours and 45 minutes, including one intermission. Tickets start at $49 and can be purchased here. After LA, the tour will stop in Denver, Tempe, Costa Mesa, and Seattle, among other cities. For more information and to purchase tickets for other cities, click here.