8. Miss Saigon
Points – 97
Votes – 14
Firsts – 1
Miss Saigon premiered in London in 1989, and was instantly critically acclaimed, yet dogged with controversy. Its journey over the next thirty or so years has somewhat paralleled the attitudes to race in theatre and how they have changed.
Let’s start with the show. Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg (French, if their names left you in any doubt) were inspired by a photograph they saw in a newspaper of a Vietnamese mother leaving her screaming daughter at an airport, bound for America to live with her GI father. The mother knew that she would probably never see her again, but was doing it to give her a better life. With Puccini’s Madame Butterfly (itself an adaptation of Madame Chrysantheme, making three variations of a similar name) fresh in their minds, they wondered how the two could meet, and developed the story of star crossed lovers – however this adaptation would see an American soldier in the Vietnam War and his seventeen year old prostitute lover. The music is big, bold and militaristic at times, sweet and sentimental at others, and can flip from the excitement of the red light district, to the exhaustion of those trapped in a horrible situation, to the oppression of the constant fighting in mere moments. There is a mix of the kind of orchestration that was rife in 1980s musical theatre, mixed with Asian instrumentation that is different to just about anything out there. An incredibly well received show, the 2014 revival in the West End made four million pounds in ticket sales in twenty four hours when they were first released.
Almost as interesting as the show is the controversy behind it. It has hosted several famous stars – Lea Salonga and Joanna Ampil started their careers in the show, The Barrowman was an early Chris and even Gareth bloody Gates (although in concert form) – but it’s big initial coup was Jonathan Pryce as The Engineer – a French-Vietnamese pimp and one of the most interesting and exciting characters in the show. The controversy comes in the fact that Pryce is very definitely white. To make this work, they bronzed his skin and he wore prosthetics on his eyes. Weirdly, this seemed to go almost without comment in London, but the Broadway transfer was not so pleased, and they blocked Pryce’s visa, insisting that Asian-American actors were capable of playing the part. Cameron Mackintosh was not pleased, and took out a full page advert in the New York Times announcing the cancelation of the show as they were messing with the artistic integrity of the production. Under pressure from the New York mayor and many other outlets, the decision was overturned and a very long Broadway run was started.
It is the follow up that was so interesting. Despite criticism at the time about his motives, Mackintosh seems to have had at least some of the right intentions. Pryce’s make up and prosthetics were removed before the US move, and after he stepped down from the role there has never been a white performer to professionally play that part. The show has proven a huge stepping stone for performers of Vietnamese heritage across the world, and many who even criticised the initial casting have seen the benefits to non-white performers. There are still questions about the portrayal of Vietnam, and some questionable stereotypes, but everyone involved has worked to limit these where possible – for instance, it was discovered that the lyrics to the wedding song were just nonsense words, so the show was reworked to include Vietnamese that fitted suitably. None of this is meant as a condemnation or vindication of the show, but the constant dialogue around the issues, and even more so the demonstrative changes that that have occurred are a refreshing parallel to an issue that is still relevant today. None of this helped it much at the time – the show did not do as well at the Tonys as you may expect, being beaten to Best Musical by Will Rogers’ Follies (no, me neither) upon a wave of disappointment at the casting shenanigans.
In researching these shows there is occasionally an interesting story that crops up that doesn’t fit in to the narrative of the write up, and this show has a great one – although one that I can’t find all the details on, so excuse me as I try and dredge up some details from when I read this is a book many years ago. The show has been transferred all over the world, but has some particular issues that follow it – the prime one being the set. Theatre Royale, Drury Lane was its original home, mainly because that particular theatre has one of the largest backstage areas in Europe. As the set includes – alongside all of the other trucks usual to a show – a Cadillac, a twenty foot high statue of Ho Chi Minh, and a helicopter that needs to fly in, transferring it involves either reducing some set pieces or finding a massive theatre. For this reason, the relatively small town of Bomlo in Norway produced it as an outdoor show, and got around the technical hitch of having a fake helicopter fly in to collect the soldiers, by instead getting a real helicopter to fly in and collect the soldiers. Whilst an incredible visual spectacle, this did cause some problems in that the helicopter in question was used for medical emergencies. This meant that sometimes, it simply didn’t arrive as it had more pressing concerns and all the soldiers had to stage the dramatic fall of Saigon by just walking away. I would still have paid to have seen that.
The show is another that holds a place in my heart, as it was Miss Saigon that got me into musical theatre in the first place (yeah, an unusual starting point, but when your alternatives are Annie and Cats…) and was the first show that I went to see in the West End. In many ways, I have my nans to thank for my love of theatre, as one started by taking me to see pantomime at the Erith Playhouse at a young age and the other first taking me up town to see this show. As a drama teacher, amateur actor, and person who has just spent about eight hours a day for the past week writing about theatre, I cannot thank them enough.
Alex’s Song Choice – “I Still Believe” – this is probably the hardest choice so far, but this song encapsulates how well Boublil and Schonberg are able to make a song swell and build, whilst also being able to throw in dissonant drama as well. I won’t link them all, but I also love The Telephone Song (some great recitative between Chris, John and The Engineer, but maybe not one for a singalong) Morning of The Dragon (there are not enough dark and sinister dance numbers in MT) and This Is The Hour (high drama)
Lockdown Pick – “The Telephone Song” – but updated to “The Zoom Song”