I love Broadway musicals.
There is nothing quite like two hours of watching a story unfold through glittery costumes, showstopping belted solos and over-the-top dance numbers — not to mention that they’re responsible for 90 percent of the songs I perform in my daily one-woman shower cabaret. I love being immersed in worlds in which 19th-century French rebels revolt through well-harmonized song and New York street gangs fight with choreographed ballet and synchronized snapping.
Because I am a basic Broadway bitch and am all about Asian representation in media, “Miss Saigon” had always been on the back of my mind to watch. I knew that it was one of the few mainstream musicals to feature an Asian lead and ensemble and that it launched the career of real-life goddess Lea Salonga. But I didn’t get around to it until recently, when I found out there was an official recording for the show’s 25th anniversary.
For those of you who have countless better things to do than watch a recording of a musical, “Miss Saigon” is the story of 17-year-old Kim, a Vietnamese barmaid. Loosely based on Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” “Miss Saigon” chronicles Kim’s life as she falls in love with an American GI, Chris, days before the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War. The story then jumps to three years later: Chris is back in the United States with a new American wife, Ellen, while Kim is still living in the hovels of Saigon — now, Ho Chi Minh City — with her and Chris’s child, Tam. The show ends with Kim killing herself on stage, so Chris and Ellen have to raise Tam in America — a mother’s ultimate sacrifice so her child can have a better life.
For sure, “Miss Saigon” is not the happiest of musicals. No one leaves the show exuberantly humming the songs or tapping to an imaginary beat as they would with “Mamma Mia!” or “Grease.” When I finished watching, I just felt incredibly depressed. But there was also another feeling, a thought that lingered with me throughout the show as soon as the opening number started: “What the fu…”
I could list the relatively objective structural criticisms of “Miss Saigon,” such as the forced relationships, uneven pacing and lack of character development. But what really grinds my gears about the show is how blatantly it advances a caricature of Vietnamese culture — yet it is still considered classic enough for it to have constant revivals and touring productions. And the 2014 version is the “woke” one; the original production from 1989 (not even that long ago!) cast white actors to play Eurasian roles and then used prosthetics and cream to make them look more Asian.
For a musical set in Asia with an Asian lead, “Miss Saigon” is blatantly made by white people for white people. Created by the same forces behind “Les Misérables,” the show is full of operatic theatrics and ballads akin to those in its French sibling. But while “Les Misérables” revolves around the French, no one is singing “I Dreamed a Dream” in a cartoonishly Lumière-esque French accent. The problem with “Miss Saigon” is that the Vietnamese culture it portrays is exoticized and horribly caricatured — in the original production, Kim and Chris’s pseudo-wedding ceremony song is sung in gibberish Vietnamese. I thought “Miss Saigon” was a tragic romance about star-crossed lovers (because it is literally billed as “The Epic Love Story Of Our Time”), but what I got instead was about 20 minutes of contrived romance followed by 2 hours of tiring melodrama that used Asian culture as a decorative prop.
The show is a full-fledged Broadway-caliber production — just ask the helicopter that lands in the second act’s climactic scene. It is ripe with gorgeous ballads and scene-stealing performances, giving dangerous superficial credibility to unfortunate storytelling. The audience can ooh and ahh all they want at the elaborate Vietnamese victory-parade dance sequence or borderline-pornographic choreography during the brothel scenes, but the Vietnam that “Miss Saigon” creates onstage feels as fictional to me as the Oz in “Wicked.”
“Miss Saigon” tells a Vietnamese story through a distorted Western lens, and what scares me is that because of the show’s almost irritating indelibility, much of the audience will only see this story through the stage’s distortion. Yet they’ll think it’s fact. People will leave theaters teary-eyed, talking about Kim’s tragedy or the “Waterworld”-esque helicopter stunt, and they won’t stop to question whether the musical was at all an actual glimpse into Vietnamese culture. And based on critics’ reviews of the ongoing national tour, it seems like they are still aren’t.
My favorite part about musicals is that, for two hours, you can leave your real life and be transported to another world where it is considered normal for people to jump into song and dance. But even I, the girl who once sang every character in “One Day More” during a very long road trip, have to stress what it is important to remember when you leave: That world only exists on the stage.
Julie Lim writes the Thursday column on how media shapes our perceptions of the world. Contact her at [email protected].