This is not a review. Rather, it’s a memory of an event that caused a kind of metastasized growth inside and, until now, kept me from ever being able to attend a performance of the Broadway phenomenon that was Miss Saigon. (It premiered in London in 1989.) Watching the revival tour production these many years later at The Kennedy Center was like experiencing two parallel movies simultaneously: what was playing out on stage and what has continued to play in my head. I’m speaking, of course, of the Vietnam War.
I was not a soldier. Nor was I a civilian on the ground in Saigon, though growing up in Southeast Asia for a great deal of my early life, I knew plenty of both. Like many of my generation I was shaped by a war which had also metastasized and was being fought not only in the rice fields of Vietnam and at home but all over the world in protests in front of American embassies, in the media, and in conversations in bars and coffee shops. Many of us tried to shake free of it, but Vietnam was what defined us.
Watching the musical, from the first sound of a helicopter – as ubiquitous as it was painful – I was back in an emotional place. The sound of beating blades have marked every film and has been featured in almost every story from that period. For me it triggers feelings of fear, disgust and shame.
For this Broadway musical tour, the sound was clever foreshadowing of one of the biggest stage production events in the history of showbiz. Spoiler alert: a helicopter lands on stage.
at The Kennedy Center
closes January 13, 2019
Details and tickets
In between there is an act that purports to be the unfolding of a love story patterned after Giacomo Puccini’s opera, Madame Butterfly – the new western imperialist stand-in being a twenty-something GI. Chris seems to be a different kind of guy, one who genuinely if impulsively wants to free Kim, the new virgin from the country, from her certain life as slave in the sex trade.
The problem is, sex sells. On Broadway as in red-light streets in Asia. Then and now. So we watch, maybe slightly titillated or maybe a little queasy with the #MeToo movement fresh in our minds, but we watch nonetheless as nubile young Asian women gyrate and snake their bodies up and down poles and display crotchshot-splits and other highly choreographed sexual positions.
Thus, the problem becomes that the real center of this show is not the Puccini-like couple but the pimp and bar owner, called “The Engineer” in this production, played by Red Concepción. He sells his mega peep show in number after number with full orchestra blaring. (His songs are reminiscent of the creative team’s other popular low-brow character, the Inn Keeper, in Les Misérables.) By the time Act II moves into “The American Dream,” it has the character humping the hood of a Cadillac, with glitzy showgirls strutting their stuff, it’s way over “over the top.” I think we all got what we came for.
The reality was a lot cheaper and sadder. (Memories again.) Big Asian cities always had at least one street, known by name even by protected adolescents, where sex was cheap and just about any configuration was for sale. American ex-pats like my parents might offer American-style backyard barbecues, but soldiers on R&R begged to be taken to such-and-such a street. I’d oblige in Singapore as local tour guide and, as we strolled past doorways filled with flesh wares, someone might shout out hopeful propositions, “You want a looksee?” “Two girls and a dog?”
Everyone was trying to run away from something. Some did it with alcohol. My generation with weed or other readily available opiates. This too became cause for battle, as both generational sides lined up, feeling superior and less dependent on their drug of choice than the other. Overseas, I heard voices hammering me with accusations like “You and your friends, burning bras and the American flag, if you were my kid and I saw that, I’d shoot you.” And back home, “You’re a running dog of your family – all imperialist pigs.”
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In a grass roots theater festival, even the Secretary of the American Communist Party took pot shots at me when I was working with a group of Hmong refugees, helping to tell the story of the “boat people.” The guy attacked me for choosing the wrong side, and calling these mountain folk, who had fought for the Americans and had been granted refugee status, traitors and also “running dogs.”
What do audiences, discovering Miss Saigon from another generation, see when they watch this musical today? Do they understand the quickly made and just as quickly abandoned mixed-race families? Do they get how, in one line yelled over the blare of helicopter and accompanying chaos, “The Ambassador is not leaving until everyone is out,” the big lie opens up a canyon of shame and despair in failure?
Do they understand that behind the scenes, then as now, politics were being played out? Recently, we have learned that LBJ, the president whom so many damned for his dirty war, was actually brokering a peace deal that was torpedoed by the ambitious Nixon who purportedly and treasonously consorted with another country in order to get elected.
In Vietnam, 20,000 more soldiers had to die and many more wounded. Who counted the Vietnamese and Cambodians killed and wounded? People left behind. People who left something of themselves behind.
Are we stupefied, listening to so many alternate facts, we really won’t believe it is happening again?
Musicals, as a form, must be forgiven, no? Their goal is not to paint it true but dazzle, delivering bodacious song-dance-and-design as spectacle, is it not? Are we to criticize Miss Saigon for ramping up a version of the Vietnam war that would have it played out in bars with soldiers ever on R&R accompanied by barely-clad girls? Should we short “Les Mis” for it multi-million dollar budget depicting homeless street people?
I clearly hope for dialogue, and suggest you also read my colleague David Siegel’s, Miss Saigon: Time to Say Goodbye.
It deserves a larger discussion. What are our expectations of musicals, and should they change to suit the times? Have we grown up, and do we just want more? Is there a part of us that ever wants a place to dress up (or down or not at all?) Will the form change to suit the new century?
The tour of Miss Saigon is at The Kennedy Center until January 13.