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.


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 Trouble With China

On this Veterans Day 2012, my thoughts turn to China, in the theater where I served more than 40 years ago. It seems odd we call it a theater, as if we are staging a show. But perhaps that is an apt description for the productions waged from the bunkers at the Pentagon and Beijing.

For several years, from late 1969 to early 1971, I flew on combat missions along the China coast and over Vietnam, Laos and the Gulf of Tonkin.  As the lead Chinese linguist, my job was to make sure we recorded the chatter on the ground and in the air, understanding clearly how they were defending us. Thus, we gained more of the “Air Order of Battle” that defined China’s military aviation capabilities.

It was a routine job but I had to be on my toes for out-of-the-ordinary chatter, particularly from the MIG pilots who scrambled to defensive patterns as we flew along the coast. If a pilot announced, “I am locked on my target,” or some such hostile action, I must tell the pilot to begin evasive maneuvers with our EC-135, the old Boeing 707, in the face of an attack.

But that was the worst case. We never had an incident because there was never a provocation. We accepted their escort cheerfully; we may have wiggled our wings. Today, bloodless drones prowl the coasts of Iran, and other hot spots. Americans are working cooperatively with China across a number of fronts, despite ongoing animosity. Plus, there are eyes in the sky.

But during the Vietnam War, China was the broad opposition. Nixon had yet to make his surprise trip to Beijing and there had been little exchange. The hostility was expressed by MIG pilots as quotes from Mao’s Little Red Book, such as, “Mei-kwo dzung-t’ung shih jih lao-hu. Mao zhuxi xue, wan wan xue.” (‘The American president is a paper tiger! Long live Chairman Mao,” and pardon my romanization of the language). To which I would write on my notepad, “prop,” for propaganda. Ho-hum.

While we don’t get a lot of quotations from Chairman Mao nowadays, propaganda is something we can still count on from the current ruling Chinese Communist Party, which is meeting this week to pick new leadership. The meetings are cloaked in secrecy, mostly aimed at its own people. As the Washington Post reported today:

“In recent days, Chinese authorities have banned certain books from being displayed, increased surveillance and house arrests for activists they consider troublemakers, and blocked some foreign news media, including the Web sites of the New York Times and Bloomberg News after stories about the massive wealth accumulated by leaders’ families.”

The Party leadership has gone to lengths to deny official corruption even though the system itself promotes insider dealing among officials in government, military and the industrial complex. After all, this is a command economy that props up the Chinese currency, subsidizes exporters, and allows industry to operate without environmental, safety or worker rights’ protections.


Meeting with human rights activist Harry Wu at the AFL-CIO in Washington. A few years later, Wu was arrested when he arrived in China legally and detained several months before an international campaign won his release. (Photo by Bill Burke)

As an advocate for American workers and their unions, I have been a harsh critic of the regime in Beijing – from Mao’s megalomania to Hu’s devious embrace of American capital and technical acumen to gain advantage in trade. Unfair trade by China has cost millions of American jobs. It’s not surprising to me that recent efforts to hack into U.S. government, military and financial communications have been traced to China, according to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

As much as I may not trust Chinese leaders, Party poohbahs and military brass, I have the utmost respect for the Chinese people and their culture. They are victims of a regime that is authoritative and cruel, but they possess a resilient spirit and serenity that I admire, as a student not only of the Chinese language but also the philosophies under which they live — Confucianism. Taoism and the 19th and 20th century evocations of Chinese internal martial arts – particularly, t’ai-chi, which I practice religiously every day.

Taoism is a rational approach to spiritualism — it makes sense to me — and sometime during my Air Force tour it quickly supplanted Roman Catholicism, my childhood indoctrination, as a guiding principle. I no longer embrace the concept of heaven and hell, or the vengeful god of Abraham, and I learned to find my way by meditating on the balance of mind and body, of my life in the universe.

I admire the Chinese artists, academics and democracy activists who risk their lives to speak out and act up. I’ve met some of them, including Harry Wu, a man who spent 19 years being “re-educated” in the Chinese labor camps and has devoted his life to exposing this gulag through his Laogai Research Foundation, and fighting for reform. A few years after we met in 1993, he was arrested trying to get back into China and spent months in custody before an international campaign forced his release.

Surveys show that Americans are inclined to blame China trade practices for many of our economic problems, particularly job loss. This is a fair assessment, and both Obama and Romney agreed they would crack down on China if elected. It would be unfair, however, if anti-Chinese forces begin to demonize, or stereotype, the Chinese. The Chinese people have a different history and culture, and we can learn much from each other as we seek to be good stewards of our planet and our humanity.

Few events reflected our common dreams more than the democracy movement in Tienanmen Square in 1989. The pro-democracy students even created a paper mache replica of “Lady Liberty” as a symbol for their movement. It was inspirational to see the brave man who defied tanks in the street, and all the students who demonstrated and proudly posted on Democracy Wall. It was the beginning of a movement to challenge the despotic rule of the Chinese Politburo, the syndicate that runs China with a greedy iron fist.  Sadly, the leaders of the movement were crushed under the tanks.

The world was watching, and the Chinese Communist Party failed the test of history. But it’s not over. As the Politburo plays its musical chair game this week, anointing the newest princeling, I salute the millions of Chinese who are resisting, in large and small ways, the oppression of the regime. A new order is in the wings. It’s only a matter of time.

Thanks to System of a Down, and their Armenian political sensibilities, for helping to capture the magic of a moment in time that we can only hope foreshadows the eventual fall of the old men of the Chinese Politburo: