On the surface, Schönberg and Boublil’s Miss Saigon is pretty. It is complete with all the frivolity of the classic American musical: from extreme and shameless objectification of its female characters to the reduction of its characters of color to stereotypes, this show has it all. Miss Saigon tackles themes of love, lust, parenthood, dreams, desire, all through the perspective of a couple of protagonists.
First up, we have Kim. Kim seems to be our hero, at least of sorts. In the show’s opener, we get a good idea of who Kim is. There’s a conversation between her and the Engineer that basically tells the audience that she’s a young woman who has recently decided to sell her body as a way to put food on the table. Simply put, she’s out of options. The opener to the show is the not-so-long awaited Miss Saigon pageant, (if you can call it that) in which the Engineer can be found hustling prostitutes to American soldiers that are fighting in the Vietnam War.
In said pageant, Kim is clearly uncomfortable being viewed as just another piece of meat. This is something that those around her do we have a great mastery of. “I’m Seventeen and I’m new here today,” she sings. “The village I come from seems so far away. All of the girls know much more what to say but I know, I have a heart like the sea! A million dreams are in me!” From the outset, Kim is depicted as the typical young, easily-influenced girl (with broken english) who doesn’t really know what she’s doing and seems to have gotten herself into a situation that she can’t handle. Say what you will about Kim, she is Not Like Other Girls. The show’s story takes advantage of the empathy that it tries to collect from the audience by putting this innocent girl in this precarious situation.
Miss Saigon does an excellent job of taking advantage of the “suffering woman” trope. One complaint that many have about Les Misérables (also by Schönberg and Boublil) is that the female characters have little to no agency, meaning that they are acted upon rather than taking action themselves. For the beginning parts of Miss Saigon, this is more or less true for Kim as well. But, as a plot progresses, we see a new version of Kim who packs up and chases her son’s father. By taking a character whom the audience has learned to feel sorry for and using her to push the envelope on what it feels like to be wronged, at its essence, is exactly but every storyteller aspires to do. The problem with how Miss Saigon does it is that Kim is a very particular character from very particular context. It is evident that she’s being stereotyped and generalized into a place of such dire misfortune as a way of trying to evoke sympathy points from an audience.
As for the actress that portrays Kim (Eva Noblezada), she is not Vietnamese. Wonderful? Yes. Talented? Oh, no doubt about it. I’ve bragged to friends about her being maybe the most talented actress I’ve ever seen perform live. But at the end of the day, she is simply Not Vietnamese. And that is important. To this day, Eva swears that playing Kim in Miss Saigon was the most fun she’s ever had as a performer and the most transformative role she’s ever taken on. I worry that she doesn’t see what I see. I worry that she doesn’t understand how she was used to perpetuate a stereotype. Worse yet, I worry that she does know and just doesn’t care.
Next, we have our wonderful, lovable Engineer. The Engineer is the only male Vietnamese character in the only popular Vietnamese show in America (more or less). Musical theatre, both historically and presently, tends to have mostly white audiences. That means that this image of a Vietnamese man will be the only one that a lot of people ever really see. That’s important. Performers of color get very few chances for representation, especially in musical theatre. That means that when they do get this kind of representation, they jump at the chance, they scream and they cry, they celebrate.
That is, unless the representation is abhorrent and ill-fitting. Miss Saigon depicts the Engineer as a money hungry, smash-and-grab, make a quick buck, slick talking guy who will do anything to achieve and attain the success that he knows is possible in America. I can’t think of a more damaging stereotype then the classic “America is the center of the universe” mindset that so many people (in life, musical theatre, and everything in between) take on. Using characters of color to show off this narrative is as damaging as it gets. Moreover, it’s especially harmful because you can hide bigotry under the guise of providing opportunity for characters of color and for representation on the big stage.
As for Jon Jon Briones, (our Engineer) he is also… Not Vietnamese. That means that both of the main characters in this Vietnamese narrative are not actually played play Vietnamese people. For Miss Saigon to deface a people and a culture under the guise of representation, and then to not even actually give them that representation… there are few greater injustices in the performing arts world.
I want to take one more minute to discuss the character John, the fun-loving best friend. The (black) fun-loving best friend. John occurs at some bizarre intersection of token black character and bizarre generalization and thoughtful portrayal and complex human being. In a show that relies so heavily on the American Dream trope, it’s a little off-putting that the Engineer’s only real connection to American people ( through the military) is John. One thing that Miss Saigon never touches on, is whether or not the soldiers fighting in the Vietnamese War are a part of or living the American dream. In the original cast, John was played by a white man. I do not know what went into the decision of making him black, and I’m hesitant to argue against representation, (as I’m sure all POC in theatre are) but I most certainly do have some problems with John being a black character. John. Is. So. Weird. He goes from singing about buying his friend a Vietnamese prostitute in the Act I opener to singing about saving the Bui Doi in the Act II opener. Character arc? Maybe. General Negligence? More likely. Hugh Maynard’s presentation of John is certainly a part of this equation. He’s this cool, caring, charming guy who likes to sleep with prostitutes but also wants to help babies. Nice.
But “so what?” you ask (and you should). Well, here’s the thing. Here’s the kind of scary, bizarre, head-scratching thing: if you asked me what was wrong with Miss Saigon after my first watch, I couldn’t have told you. In fact, I would have recommended you watch it. For a long time, it’s been my mom’s favorite show, and she’s the one who got me into theater. After doing a really deep dive into the show and its themes, the first thing I did was call her and tell her that there was no way she could like it anymore (or at least, that she need be more mindful of what she was interacting with).
Before critically analyzing Miss Saigon, I didn’t see an issue with it. I thought it was a fun story with fun characters and cool music. I totally and completely neglected to realize that it’s an intentionally degrading story with caricatures of real people that were actually victims of some very heinous war crimes during the Vietnam war. This is what Miss Saigon does so beautifully but so tragically: it takes advantage of a mindset that is so ingrained into the general population, uses it to rise to general popularity, and stays there. It uses its engine and its Engineer to get into the good graces of the musical theatre world, at the expense of the people that it claims to honor.