Redemption Song?

miss-saigon3_2900882kA revival of the musical Miss Saigon is shortly to come out of preview in London and there are already rumours of it then heading to North America (and no doubt then further afield). Once called one of the four great stage musicals of the 20th Century (one of the others being Les Miserables) it is estimated that 34 million people have been to see it across 29 countries, for which it has been translated into 15 different languages. Originally opening in 1989, I saw it here in Hong Kong in 2001 and I have to say I thought it was great, as far as a musical can be for me. I had been living in Asia for 5 years at that point and was beginning to understand the history and the culture of a region in a way you only can if you live there.

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I was a child as the Vietnam war came to a close in 1975 so hadn’t really engaged with atrocities of that particular conflict. History, in my education, was very much a British one, stretching as far as Europe to cover the likes of the Thirty Years War and The Reformation – nothing as even contemporary as World War II. Of course I knew the basic facts about what happened in Vietnam and the terrible consequences that were inflicted on a people in the name political ideology. By the time I saw the production in Hong Kong I had visited Vietnam, and as you do, had devoured as much information as you can to try to understand a new country – it’s history, society, culture and so on. I’d also seen and been affected by the iconic films about the war – The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now. Consequently, watching Miss Saigon I remember struggling somewhat with my conscience . The music did it’s job and you were sucked kicking and screaming into the simple narrative and the over-played emotional lives of the characters. Yet with well in excess of 1,000,000 Vietnamese having lost their lives quite so horrifically, was it right to sentimentalise the war and it’s legacy in such a way?

Indeed one critic at the time accused the show of hitching its portentous showbiz wagon to the solemn star of the Vietnamese tragedy A Filipino critic, Isagani R Cruz, observed in 1989 that

All the Vietnamese and Thai characters in the story, whether played by Filipino, Malaysian, Italian, French, Dutch, Japanese, American, or British performers, were the scum of the earth – pimps, prostitutes, bar habitues, sadistic and mindless soldiers, anti-nationalist visa-hunters at embassies. None of the Asian characters had any redeeming human qualities. Even The Engineer (played ingeniously by Pryce) helps Kim (played by Lea Salonga) only because her child is his “passport to America.”

No matter what we think of communism, we cannot deny that the Vietnamese fought a war to get rid of foreigners in their own land. Miss Saigon makes it appear that the Vietnamese fought the Americans simply because of Ho Chi Minh’s ego, symbolized by a gigantic statue hoisted up by mindless communist soldiers. We might as well say that the Americans fought the British because Thomas Jefferson and George Washington wanted memorials built in their honor, or that Filipinos fought both the Spaniards and the Americans because we wanted to have a Rizal Park.

Cruz wasn’t alone in these views. Other criticisms included the casting of a caucasian actor, Jonathan Pryce, as The Engineer, a Vietnamese brothel owner and central character in the musical – although to be fair this was subsequently righted in future castings. It is interesting that in the ‘trailer’ for the new production, Cameron Mackintosh goes to great lengths to point out the international casting of the new production.

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When the tickets went on sale in September last year for this new production,  the box office took £4.4 million in the first 24 hours and advanced sales have so far taken £10.2 million. This is a show people want to see, so are the criticisms levelled at the original miss-saigon-1_2902467kproduction about distorting the truth of the war and stereotyping of its Asian characters fair? Or perhaps the real question is are they any longer fair? Are liberal sensibilities around
these questions just that, sensibilities. Generally musical theatre , contemporary or otherwise, is never going to be able to have the subtleties of a straight play, particularly in-depth of character and narrative. If they take as context something as difficult and potentially divisive as the Vietnam War there are bound to be critical voices of descent.  I suppose what I am asking myself is that as the events become part of history, is it permissible to ignore the superficial nature of their treatment and just enjoy the musical for what it is – a great entertaining night out at the theatre.  

My original prompt for writing this post was the opening of a new multi-media theatre piece in Amsterdam about the life of Anne Frank and the criticism directed at it for not treating the holocaust with the dignity and sensitivity deemed appropriate.  I will save that discussion for another post, but you can see the similarities

I am completely aware that you could name quite a few musicals where the context is a historical event in which many people lost their lives, Les Miserables being a great example. Perhaps musical theatre represents a facet of human nature – the want to look at something from the past, of which as a race we should be rightly shameful, and find the good, the happy, morally acceptable ending.  A way of absolving ourselves, maybe? Redemption? I don’t know. It will be interesting to see if the reviews of the new production of Miss Saigon raise the same objections, or whether the events it portrays are now far enough in the past to allow it to be a story well told, a night at the theatre and just that.

miss-saigon5_2900874kTo close, the excellent, in-depth and thoughtful article by Serena Davies, written for The Telegraph, about the new production, which I Tweeted last week.

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