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:

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