The 1989 musical Miss Saigon reframes the tragic love story of the 1904 opera Madame Butterfly around the Vietnam War and fall of Saigon. The writers Alan Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg explore the meanings of family and motherhood through Chris’s relationship with main character Kim and Ellen, his American wife following the war. By setting up Ellen as a foil to Kim, Boublil and Schönberg reveal the prejudices of Americans against the Vietnamese. Kim, the lens through which the audience sees Vietnam, represents and generalizes the powerless, dependent, and sexual role young women took on during the war. Her love interest Chris retains all the power in the relationship and, even after he leaves, he and America represents Kim’s symbol of hope for a better life. Although this musical portrays Asian women as helplessly dependent, as an Asian-born American woman, the show still allows me to feel seen on stage. People are naturally drawn to stories with characters they can empathize with. As an adopted person with a Chinese birth mother and a white adoptive mother, the true love story told in Miss Saigon wasn’t between Kim and Chris; it was between Kim and Tam and the sacrifices she made to give her child a better life. In Miss Saigon, Chris’s two love interests, Kim and Ellen, reveal the differences in which the American and Vietnamese define the responsibilities of family.
Successful writing team Schönberg and Boublil based Miss Saigon on the opera Madame Butterfly, which itself was based on an 1898 short story of the same name. Although audiences aren’t responsible for knowing the history and inspirations behind a show that date back a century, if critics choose to contextualize and critique Miss Saigon through a 21st century lens of the Vietnam War and Asian culture, they should also know that Vietnam was simply chosen as the backdrop, rather than the unique setting where this specific narrative must take place. As an Asian woman, I found the overtly sexual portrayal of Asian women during a devastating war extremely disturbing; however, Boublil and Schönberg’s conscious simplification of Vietnamese culture sought to serve the purpose of the story they were telling and create an environment that fit the Madame Butterfly narrative. Boublil and Schönberg intentionally generalize their characters so audiences can more easily understand their scenarios from a white perspective. Specifically, Kim’s intersectional identity or lack thereof suggest that Boublil and Schönberg believe that a non-American character must be defined by a universal trait such as relationships so American audiences can empathize with them.
From the beginning to the end of the show, Kim is crippled by her lack of choice and only asserts herself when protecting Tam. Although her love for Chris seems to be her lifeline throughout the devastation surrounding her, her actual hope resides in the belief that Chris will give Tam a better life. Kim is introduced to the audience after losing her entire family, and finding comfort in the arms of Chris, falls in love with the idea of companionship and opportunity more than Chris himself. In “The Confrontation”, Chris also admits that “in the shambles of war [he] found what he was looking for. Saigon was crazed but she was real”. Chris and Kim both gave each other what they needed in that moment, making the authenticity of their love irrelevant and building an instant attachment. Kim and Chris are happily in love and Kim is wearing a wedding dress. The next image the audience sees of Kim is her dirty and disheveled following the street parade establishing the three-year time jump. Although Chris has clearly left her behind and she is alone, she sings “I Still Believe” expressing her faith in Chris. Since this song comes before the audience is made aware of Kim having a son, she appears lovestruck and naïve, especially after Chris’s wife is revealed when the song becomes a duet. “I Still Believe” establishes Chris as Kim’s lifeline when Kim sings “As long as I keep believing I’ll live”. However, once Tam is revealed when The Engineer finds her, the song takes on a new meaning: Chris not only represents her opportunity to experience love, but also to give a better life for her son.
While “I Still Believe” reveals Kim’s blind faith, independent of Tam, “I’d Give My Life for You” explains why faith is her only option now that she is a fugitive. In “You Will Not Touch Him”, Kim kills the cousin she was supposed to wed when he threatens her son, screaming that Tam is what she “lives for” and her “only joy”. After killing Thuy, Kim permanently brands herself as not only a powerless victim, but a victim who can’t ask for help. Kim’s desperation to fulfill her duty to Tam pushes her to ask The Engineer, a man who previously sold her as a prostitute, for help. In “I’d Give My Life for You”, Kim contextualizes “I Still Believe”, illustrating how the faith she has in Chris isn’t out of naivete. Kim’s tragic love story isn’t between her and Chris; it’s between her and her son and Chris is a symbol of hope. She keeps herself going by believing that someday Chris will give her the life he promised, and she remains in love with the companionship he gave her. Kim’s relentless devotion and protection of Tam gives her a lifeline to not only Chris, but also the true love story of Miss Saigon.
Ellen, Chris’s American wife, serves as a foil to Kim, fighting to keep Chris because she doesn’t want to lose her family, while Kim fights to help her son. In “Room 317”, Ellen reveals herself as Chris’s wife to Kim; the melody of “You Will Not Touch Him” plays in the background as Kim processes the information, showing how her thoughts and heartbreak immediately reroute to protecting Tam. When she begs Ellen to take Tam back to America, Ellen immediately becomes defensive claiming that he’s not her son, and they can’t take him away from his mother. Although Ellen still rejects Tam, the 2017 adaptation took clear steps to make her character more sympathetic. From the beginning of the scene, when Kim explains that she’s not the maid Ellen says “how can I help you” rather than “what do you want then”. Additionally, Ellen’s defensive solo “Her or Me” that essentially declares that she will do anything to keep Chris is replaced with “Maybe”, a more contemplative song to reflect her inner conflict about her and Chris’s responsibility to Tam. The director’s choice to change these songs and lines to make Ellen more sympathetic show her true love for Chris and how her heart will break if he leaves her. When Chris returns from searching for Kim, Ellen’s tells Chris “you may say what you want, but she’s still born you a son”, revealing her belief that Tam may legitimize Chris and Kim’s relationship more than her marriage. Her insecurities culminate until she delivers the ultimatum that Chris must choose Kim or her. Although Ellen does seem to be the deciding factor keeping Chris from accepting Kim and Tam as his family, the 2017 producers and Tamsin Carroll’s portrayal of Ellen force the audience to sympathize with her making her more of a legitimate foil to Kim rather than just a villain.
Kim’s willingness to give up her son and Ellen’s wish to provide only monetary support to her define the main conflict in Miss Saigon. While the play is fraught with violence, heartbreak, and war, the play ends with Kim sacrificing herself to protect her son. The play concluding at with Kim’s death revealed that the ballad “I’d Give My Life for You” determined the ending before the second act even began. Chris’s failure to save Kim also serves as an allegory for the America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Although he falls in love and vows to help her get to America with pure intentions, political strictures make it impossible to keep his promise, only to find out years later that Kim had faithfully waited the entire time. Like America in Vietnam, Chris’s intentions and execution were both morally controversial, with the ultimate question being if he should’ve gotten involved and made impossible promises in the first place. Kim and Vietnam are portrayed as powerless, while Chris, Ellen and America hold all the power and opportunity. Ellen is able to persuade Chris that preserving her vision of family is worth sacrificing Kim. Kim, on the other hand, is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for her son.