Miss Saigon Revisited

As Cameron Mackintosh prepared to bring “Miss Saigon” to Broadway in 1990, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach.  Would the burden of those years be reduced to a song and dance routine? As a Vietnam veteran stationed briefly in Saigon and Bangkok, the settings for Acts 1 and 2, I didn’t see how a musical could do justice to that historic passage.

I’ve gained a new appreciation for musicals since then, encouraged by my musical muses and having seen history and modernity fused in fine musical form with “Titanic,” “Les Miserables,” “Next to Normal,” “Ragtime,” “Spring Awakening” and many others. I learned, as well, that “Miss Saigon” was modeled after Puccini’s opera, “Madame Butterfly,” and promised to rise above the Vietnam landscape with a timeless story of love and loss.

ImageAs we approached the performance last weekend at the Signature Theater in D.C.’s Virginia suburbs, my anticipation at seeing the musical was tempered by memories of how I resisted “Miss Saigon” when Mackintosh decided to export it from England to America. There was more at stake for me then than how the Vietnam War was depicted.

At the time, as the editor of the AFL-CIO News, I was concerned that Mackintosh was using an Englishman, Jonathan Pryce, to play the French-Vietnamese “Engineer,” using prosthetics to make his eyes look Asian. With Actors Equity jobs on the line and Asian-American actors offended by the prosthetics, the union challenged Mackintosh to open the Engineer role to Asian or mixed-race actors.

Pryce is a fine actor, of course, but it was the principle. Why not give a young Asian actor the chance to play a central role in a groundbreaking musical set in Asia? I wrote a letter to the editor of Variety, decrying an anti-union editorial and expressing support for the position of Actors Equity, which had threatened to scuttle the production.

ImageLater the union dropped its objection to Pryce playing the role when he agreed to forgo the offensive Asian-eye prosthetics and Mackintosh agreed to seek qualified Asian actors as replacements or understudies, and to originate the role of the Engineer in future companies.

The Engineer plays the pimp who hustles the bar girls in the Saigon club, Dreamland, then helps our heroine, Kim, escape to Bangkok. In a climactic scene near the end of Act 2, he speaks for every immigrant in “The American Dream,” as dancers who pranced with spears and black pajamas now sport top hats, nylons and Vegas glitter.

It was quite a show, this “Miss Saigon.” I immediately regretted my initial resistance to seeing the musical, which is a fine follow-up by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil of their successful Les Miserables. The mad exit from Vietnam, the lost dreams and lost loves, resonates with their martial musical style – everyone is living on the edge, with life and death in the balance. Their voices soar in song, some memorably and some perfunctorily, as just lines.

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Thom Sesma as the Engineer

At Signature, Thom Sesma fills the shoes of the Engineer, and he is masterful. Sesma’s bio doesn’t reveal his heritage, but his features are Asian Pacific, perhaps Hawaiian or Filipino. He previously portrayed the Engineer in the second national tour in the mid-’90s, and he has played the King of Siam in the King and I.

The star of this show, however, is Diana Huey, who plays Kim, the 17-year-old orphan forced to work at Dreamland, and whose torrid affair with GI Chris (Gannon O’Brien) results in vows of love, a love child, and tragic abandonment as the Saigon embassy is seized. Huey carries off this role despite having little experience – mostly children’s theater and some karaoke in the Seattle area. But she seemed to be born to play Kim.

Miss Saigon is designed to be an operatic tragedy and, thus, the setting in the final throes of the Vietnam War is fitting indeed. I found myself transported back – at least to the club scenes where I had joined so many other GIs in escaping the war. In Miss Saigon, you are forced to see those scenes through the eyes of the Vietnamese, and to understand their own efforts to escape, through all the occupations, from the French to the Americans.

Here’s how the Engineer sings it, in The American Dream:

“My father was a tattoo artist in Haiphong
but his designs on mother didn’t last too long
my mother sold her body, high on Betel nuts
my job was bringing red-faced monsieurs to our huts
selling your mom is a wrench
perfume can cover a stench
that’s what I learned from the French

Then it all changed with Dien Bien Phu
the frogs went home. Who came? Guess who?
Are you surprised we went insane
with dollars pouring down like rain?
Businessmen never rob banks
you can sell shit and get thanks
that’s what I learned from the Yanks”

If that seems harsh, well, war is hell.  I was happy to see that it could be presented in all its gritty reality, with songs and dance. Very artfully done.

Miss Saigon has been extended through September at Signature. If you have a chance, go see it! Here’s the trailer from the creative people of Signature:

The Body Electric

Most of the individual exercises during Sifu Mark Rasmus’s workshop, “The Science of Elastic Force,” involved giving our partners enough pressure to allow them to bounce us by absorbing that force and turning it back on us, and vice versa. We were encouraged to sense the “springs” in our elastic joints and connective tissue. And we learned that developing that elasticity takes work.

ImageWe would alternately “push” and “pull” to open our joints and stretch our connective tissue. Pushing the arms, hands and fingers outwards, stretching the joints, is a natural movement. But then using the muscles in your arms to “pull” back against the reach, stretching and opening the joints, proved to be more of a stretch.

Sifu instructed us to use the magnetic Yin power to absorb the incoming force, drawing our partners off balance in order to make them susceptible to the return Yang power, which he described as electric, the opposite polarity to the magnetic force. How “electric” we were in response to our partner’s push depended on how well we were cultivating the elasticity of our joints and connective tissue.

It was hard to miss the difference between the electric force that Rasmus generated compared with the less assertive movements of his students. Using his arms only to “feel” the balance of his partner, his body would pulse against the incoming pressure, bouncing his partner violently but catching him with his sensing hand to avoid injury.

I have used “partner” and “opponent” alternately in describing this training to distinguish between developing the techniques in practice and using the techniques for self-defense. Our Sifu made clear, however, that the practice partner is an essential condition for becoming adept at tai chi as a martial art. One cannot simply practice the form and expect to develop the expertise necessary to defend yourself, he said. You have to practice with a partner.

That partner must be a willing foil for you, not your opponent. You don’t want a “sparring partner,” but a guide to help you develop your skills, and vice versa. “This is not the time to fight,” he said. “It is the time to learn.”

To connect with your partner or your opponent, you must tune into the same frequency, Sifu says, and you find that frequency by touching them gently, by sensing their root and their vibrations. This was perhaps the most difficult concept for me to grasp, and I struggled to gain this sensitivity to vibrations and frequency.

In this video clip, Sifu Mark Rasmus demonstrates to our group how to sense the frequency of a partner’s push, allowing you to “switch off” the body’s resistance to absorb the pressure and break the balance of the pusher. We quickly learned it is not as easy as it looks:

Aaron Green, director of Mid Atlantic Movement Arts, sponsor of the workshop, worked with me as my partner a few times, encouraging me to listen with my mind to the “switch” when he could be drawn off balance by my magnetic force. Inevitably, I would see it in his eyes, rather than feel it through the touch.

Tai chi teaching demonstrations of fajin – masters “bouncing” their opponents – as seen often on YouTube, may involve complicity of the student, whether overt or otherwise. The master has demonstrated the moves, and the autosuggestion for those who are most sensitive will be enough to move them, sometimes without any visible force.

This is not acting, however. It is a power that exists, particularly among those who do not resist it, who feel the power and respond to it.

As Sifu Mark touched each of his students, demonstrating different techniques, he pointed out that he feels different energy from different people. “Some are more receptive to this training; others are resistant,” and he likened this sensitivity to that of hypnotism, whether someone is receptive to autosuggestion, or who resists efforts to “put them under.”

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Drawing from his Hermetics training, Rasmus teaches that we can focus our mind through meditation to increase our magnetic and electrical forces, that we truly have control if we allow our minds to lead. The meditations rely on elements of the earth, water, fire, and “ether,” an astral plane, which correspond to trigrams in the I-Ching, the mystical Chinese Book of Changes.

As we sit quietly and meditate on the space between our hands, breathing in and out, Sifu asks us to take one particular thought, something you want, “perfect health, for example, anything,” and project it into the space between our hands, breathe into it and accept it as our own, close up our hands, embrace our thought, make it reality.

It is a summons to tai chi warriors to carry our vision forward, to believe and to succeed, guided by this art that focuses the mind and conditions the body to win. Clearly, we must practice. We have much work to do.

For more information about Sifu Mark Rasmus and his teaching, check out the website at www.markrasmus.com. He is making plans for another tour of the United States next year.