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Miss Saigon: Why It’s Important- A Primer for the MAPA Production

As the Maui Academy of Performing Arts prepares for the opening of “Miss Saigon,” I’m reminded of the things that make that show, and its potential to reach young Maui audiences, so important.

Following last year’s successful, large scale undertaking by MAPA to produce “Les Miserables,” the efforts of local performers and theater artists to replicate the power of “Miss Saigon” on stage is a worthy, if enormous, undertaking. If “Les Miz” represents the American musical at its most grand and heartfelt, “Miss Saigon” trumps it.

A Troubled Start
To fully appreciate how vital a conversation-starter “Miss Saigon” is, one only needs look back to its early days on Broadway. Most American audiences were first made aware of the show right before its opening in New York (after a successful 1989 try-out in London). Word got out that its lead actor, Jonathan Pryce, was playing the role of The Engineer. Instant controversy sprung not from the show’s content (it’s The Vietnam War: The Musical!) or from its once-shocking opening scene (at the time, the most risque since “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas”), but from Caucasian actor Pryce playing a Vietnamese hustler. More to the point, he wore make-up to convey an “Asian” appearance.

This resulted in Actor’s Equity Association (AEA) refusing to allow Pryce (best known for films such as “Brazil” and the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series) from playing the role in New York. “M. Butterfly” collaborators David Henry Hwang and B.D. Wong (the writer and star of the Tony award-winning play, respectively) spoke out on the behalf of the ethnic minority division of the AE union. Wong (who filmgoers will remember as “Albert Weinstein” in the “Father of the Bride” movies) and Hwang were offended that a white actor could be (in Hwang’s words) “yellowed up.” “Miss Saigon”‘s casting director famously responded that they would have cast an Asian actor but, despite a wide search that included Hawaii, found Pryce to be the best choice for the role.

A YouTube capture of Jonathan Pryce, from an interview in the early 1990s on British TV.
A YouTube capture of Jonathan Pryce, from an interview in the early 1990s on British TV.

When “Miss Saigon” opened on Broadway in spring of 1991, it quickly became a blockbuster with audiences and an acclaimed work with theater critics. As if the musical’s monetary success and widespread popularity weren’t enough, Pryce’s controversial casting in the role of The Engineer was validated by a Best Actor trophy at the Tony awards. His co-star, Lea Salonga (whose sensational performance in the title role launched her career as an actress and singer) also won a Tony and the musical has since become one of the all-time most successful musicals in Broadway history.

Aftermath
Today, “Miss Saigon” provides that rare example of a musical that deals directly with the long-term trauma of the Vietnam war, for soldiers (on both sides) and the citizens of Vietnam. While “Hair” famously tackled the issue of 1960’s counter-culture activism and a number of theatrical dramas portrayed the lingering shock and psychological trauma the Vietnam war inflicted on countless survivors, “Miss Saigon” was a landmark example of portraying the war within the arts. What could have been a crass, dime-store philosophizing take on the horrors of war was instead a portrait of those witness to and partaking in battle, whose optimism and hopes were, by and large, destroyed. The musical’s obvious inspiration is “Madame Butterfly” (which also inspired, to a degree, the aforementioned “M. Butterfly”), which “Miss Saigon” matches in its melding of an East/West love story with grand tragedy.

The program from the original production famously re-printed a picture that inspired the makers of the musical: it showed a Vietnamese women, quietly heartbroken, as she gave her daughter over to a family that can raise her child, away from the war-torn home she was born into. That picture provided a haunting, grueling snapshot of the ultimate sacrifice most mothers can’t imagine ever making. That photo is the dramatic leaping off point for the story of “Miss Saigon,” in which Chris, a U.S. soldier, falls in love with Kim, a Vietnamese teenager who becomes a prostitute and is dubbed “Miss Saigon” in a vulgar pageant, presented to a rowdy group of U.S. soldiers. The swoon-worthy romance of Chris and Kim is initially tender, until audiences realize their union is inevitably doomed. If “Miss Saigon” is about the strength of a mother’s love, the ability of humankind to survive the most horrible circumstances and the hope of a new day, it’s also about how no one survives war unscathed. The characters we grow to love share bruised souls and bare scars from horrible compromises. Not exactly light-hearted theater-going for audiences, especially in the age of “Cats” and “The Phantom of the Opera.”

Lea Salonga as Kim in "Miss Saigon," performing with Brian Baldomero on Broadway in 1991.
Lea Salonga as Kim in “Miss Saigon,” performing with Brian Baldomero on Broadway in 1991.

The Helicopter and the American Dream
When “Miss Saigon” first premiered, no one could discuss it without mentioning The Helicopter Sequence, in which a helicopter truly appears to appear and rise on stage, leaving behind those who are victims to The Fall of Saigon. It was stunning, theatrical showmanship, the kind of spectacle that solidified the musical’s place as a must-see. It was also a stage effect that made the character’s feeling of helplessness even more vivid.

The master stroke of “Miss Saigon” is the character of The Engineer, a do-anything-to-survive hustler whose creation of the title pageant is our introduction to his inherent sliminess and the contrasting innocence of the love story. The Engineer acts as a one-man Greek chorus, providing an amusingly dark commentary on the desperation of human survival at war time. His final number, “The American Dream,” is the show’s most memorable tune. It’s also the number that perfectly sums up feelings of disappointment and cynicism in regards to the Vietnam war, both for The Engineer and the audience. The lyrics tell a jaded tale of Vietnam’s war time history (“the frogs went home, who came? Guess Who / Are you surprised we went insane?/ With dollars pouring down like rain”). They also paint a vision of America’s golden opportunities and crass accessibilities for selling out (“bald people think they’ll grow hair/ The American Dream/ Girls can grow tits by the pair/ The American Dream!”). When I witnessed this performed on the Broadway stage in 1993, the actor playing The Engineer further pushed the satirical themes of the number by dry humping a Cadillac on stage.

Closing Thoughts
In addition to being the most spectacular Broadway musical I’ve ever seen, I remember leaving that Manhattan theater with a heavy lump in my throat. The faces “Miss Saigon” evoked, both fictional and historical (the real mother who gave away her baby, as well as Kim and The Engineer) haunted me for days.

I’ve seen countless other musicals since, on Broadway and elsewhere, and none have impacted me like “Miss Saigon.” As a correlation of modern musical drama and the horrible losses from the Vietnam war, it’s an emotional hand grenade and a masterpiece of musical theater.

Coincidentally, a few months after I saw “Miss Saigon” for the first time, Oliver Stone’s film “Heaven and Earth” opened in theaters. Based on the writings of Le Ly Hayslip, it portrayed the experience of a Vietnamese woman who survives the Vietnam war but has an equally daunting, personal conflict when she marries a U.S. soldier (played by Tommy Lee Jones) and must deal with his bouts of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The film plays almost like a non-musical version of “Miss Saigon,” a cinematic companion with similar concerns and recollections of a horrible time in human history.

The issues that spring from the war in Vietnam continue to challenge and engage us. While the first appearance of “Miss Saigon” stateside was cause for a necessary debate on actors cast against race, the controversial aspects of the show and the themes it portrays continue to resonate.

I’m thrilled that a large group of talented artists have collaborated at The MAPA to bring this show to Maui. “Miss Saigon” asks difficult questions, will evoke a wide range of emotions from its audience and, perhaps above all, pays tribute to the young, earnest souls that the war sacrificed. As a means of telling a complex, difficult story through the guise of entertainment, it’s an essential piece of musical theater and its premiere on the Maui theater scene is a gift for theater goers.

Miss Saigon plays at The Maui Arts and Cultural Center from August 14-24th 2014. Tickets are available at mauiarts.org or 242-SHOW (7469).

Article cited: “Union Weighs Miss Saigon Casting”/ Alex Mitchell 7/25/90

http://www.nytimes.com/1990/07/25/theater/union-weighs-miss-saigon-casting.html

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About Barry Wurst II

Barry Wurst II
Barry Wurst II is a senior editor & film critic at MAUIWatch. He wrote film reviews for a local Maui publication and taught film classes at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs (UCCS). Wurst also co-hosted podcasts for Screengeeks.com and has been published in Bright Lights Film Journal and in other film-related websites. He is currently featured in the new MAUIWatch Podcast- The NERDWatch.

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