A conversation between Paige Adams, Liv Donofrio, and Valerie Kraft on the 2014 revival of Miss Saigon.
Liv Donofrio: Okay, so we’re here to talk about the 2014 West End Revival of Miss Saigon, written by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, with lyrics by Boublil and Richard Maltby Jr., and produced by Cameron Mackintosh. We’re probably also going to talk a lot of trash about Miss Saigon (laughs). Specifically, we’re going to discuss how the show uses people of color, specifically Vietnamese individuals, as props to idolize whiteness. Essentially, we’ll be discussing the ways in which Miss Saigon weaponizes racism and sexism to uphold the supremacy of a white and patriarchal America.
LD: So I guess we can start by talking about, at least I am very interested in talking about, the American soldiers and the way that they are portrayed in the musical. Specifically how they are kind of seen as the standard of masculinity, especially with the entire plot revolving around this dichotomy of Chris (played by Alistair Brammer in the 2014 production) versus Thuy (played by Kwang-Ho Hong) as Kim’s only options. Because then it feels like what the musical wants us to do is see Thuy, who represents basically Vietnamese culture, as the villain. They want us to see him as like, the worst person ever. And like to be fair, he does try to stab a four year old, but it feels to me that the reason they’ve set up this dichotomy between Chris and Thuy is because they’re attempting to assert that the ideal is whiteness. She should be with this white man because this is the ideal is this white man, and they’re then implying with Thuy as the villain that her culture is bad, and Vietnam is bad, and so like what the musical wants is for us to root for and defend Chris, this white American soldier.
Valerie Kraft: Absolutely! The musical spends so much time building up sympathy for Chris, even from the very beginning. In the first songs of the musical, we see all the other soldiers in his troop completely happy to buy prostitutes, and yet, Chris is abstaining because he’s just so morally superior. And I think one of the biggest examples I can think of for the way in which we are supposed to see these American soldiers as completely forgivable, no matter what crimes and awful acts they commit, is through the character of John Thomas (played by Hugh Maynard). In the first minutes of the musical, we see him acting in a sexually aggressive manner towards these women who are unable to give genuine consent.
VK: He literally purchases Kim (played by Eva Noblezada) for Chris, as if she is an object. And then in the opening number of the second act, “Bui Doi,” we see John running his new organization, and he spends the rest of the musical being this “hero” and kind man who is just so devoted to righting the wrongs of the war and “saving” these children from poverty and orphanhood. And in contrast, we don’t get any kind of redemption arc for anyone of Vietnamese descent – we hardly get any sort of sympathy for, you know, the hundreds and thousands of Vietnamese people that were left behind after the American evacuation, and yet they’ve spent so much time building up empathy for these men who have really done nothing to deserve any of the audience’s support.
Paige Adams: Yeah, I agree! And to go off of the soldier aspect that you introduced… These boys are leaving their families to go “make right” while they’re doing wrong (sometimes starting families accidentally with prostitutes- Yikes) but just like you said, Valerie, it’s okay because “boys will be boys.” Their behavior is excusable when it shouldn’t be, all while female behavior is not only not excused but also criticized. We’re looking at the prostitutes in such a harsh light without considering or focusing on what circumstances led them to that. Instead, we’re told that Gigi is unwanted because she’s considered to be a “slut,” but Kim is desirable because of her sexual purity. Meanwhile, these boys are doing God knows what to God knows who, and they’re totally offed from criticism and consequence in a way that women were (and still are) not excused from. There’s no double standard.
LD: Like Valerie was talking about, I think there’s also something to be said for the way that the musical gives us little sympathy for the Vietnamese people who get left behind. The only inkling that we get of that is in “Fall of Saigon,” like that very gratuitous scene of all of them falling to their knees and the camera panning over their faces over and over again. It’s like two to three minutes of these people being in anguish for our viewership, and like that is a real thing that happened to real people. To me, putting that on stage for so long and like really hammering that home the way that they do, especially considering that the fact this musical was written by two white men, feels to me more like trauma porn for American audiences than it does an accurate representation of what Vietnamese people were going through. So then it makes me really suspicious about how this musical is representing Vietnam and Vietnamese culture. And again, the way that they’re villainizing Thuy and upholding Chris, who has done nothing to deserve it.
LD: I also think there’s something to be said about the way that they cast Chris and John. It feels wrong that Chris has to be a white man. We talked about this when we were reading for this section, but the way that Broadway just does not do racially diverse casting at all, and if they do like they default to white roles. It feels like they’ve defaulted to a white role for Chris, and so they put John in this supporting role. But they also put John in a supporting role that is a sexually aggressive supporting role, so at the beginning in “The Heat is On In Saigon,” it felt very much like they were playing into racist stereotypes of Black men as being sexually aggressive. And so there’s another layer to racial representation in Miss Saigon that comes from the casting that I think was completely unacceptable. There’s no reason why Chris has to be white, but Chris is white because the musical is trying to tell us that white masculinity is the standard that we should be rooting for.
VK: Liv, I think that’s a great point, and I think when you talk about trauma porn, that speaks to the ending as well. The bottom, unspoken, line of the musical is that Kim was never going to get her happy ending because she is a Vietnamese prostitute. And even though that is not necessarily explicit from the beginning, knowing what we know about who is allowed to “win” and who is allowed to have a happy ending in stories that are written by Americans – and in stories that are written by white men – it wasn’t going to be Kim. So despite the fact that Chris’ wife, Ellen, (played by Tamsin Carroll) doesn’t do anything other than glorify Chris, it’s not an accident that she is the one that “wins” Chris in the end. And even when Kim’s dream of a happy ending is ripped from her, the musical shifts the audience’s focus from Kim to Chris in those final moments. It’s not solely because we see Kim’s dead body on stage that we feel grief – we’re feeling grief because of Chris’s reaction to her.
VK: Once again, even in her death, the feelings of white Americans are emphasized over the loss of a Vietnamese woman. Kim is sidelined, and Chris’s feelings are given priority, despite the fact that he was the one that abandoned her. In fact, anything that’s related to Kim always somehow goes back to Chris, which, once again, upholds the idea that white emotion is the most important, and thus, it is the white man who is the most important of all the characters. Whether it be John, a black man, or whether it be Kim and the other prostitutes who are Vietnamese women – they solely exist just to move Chris’s plot forward. It’s not about them or their experiences whatsoever.
PA: And strictly addressing the Vietnamese-American issue, whiteness is idolized to the point of suicide. It’s terrible because at the end, we are ‘taught’ that it’s better to be dead than to be Vietnamese. Our takeaways are that the victims are Vietnamese women, and the villains are Vietnamese men, and the Americans just sit back and reap the benefits of being considered the ideal. The Vietnamese struggle is downplayed by the emphatic greatness of being white and American. Kim would rather be dead than be Vietnamese (specifically non-American), and this is exactly what the white, patriarchal, American audience wants to hear.
LD: I think we also see that idolization of whiteness and that idolization of America in The Engineer (played by Jon Jon Briones) a lot as well, like his entire plotline, is just he wants to get to America. And like, there’s another aspect that he wants to get to America specifically by exploiting women. I think we could honestly write a whole other essay on the Engineer, and we could probably write an essay just on “The American Dream” as a number, but we’ll touch on it a bit here.
LD: I’m honestly not sure if it’s placement in Act Two is ironic or not. I’m not sure if the musical is attempting to critique itself. While I was watching it, I had a little bit of like, “Oh, this is a little ironic that he’s talking about the American dream when we know that the American dream is literally crumbling for Kim in front of her eyes.” So maybe that was the musical’s attempt to make an actual critique about American involvement in the Vietnam War. But what I think when you step back, what we take away is that the Engineer was obsessed with being American. He was obsessed with coming to America and it’s once again it’s this demonization of being in Vietnam, it’s calling the Bui Doi “raised in hell,” it’s pitting Vietnam against America and painting Vietnam as a place of “hell” without acknowledging the way in which American involvement made it worse. The only acknowledgement that we get of that is talking about the Bui Doi, but again, that is more of a plot point for Chris to establish that John is going to find Tam and not an actual critique of these American soldiers and their actions abroad.
VK: I think one of the best examples we get about the way that America and whiteness are shown as superior to Vietnam and “Asianess” is Thuy versus Chris, because essentially those are Kim’s two options. She can either go with Chris, she can go with Thuy, or she can die, which is what ultimately happens. And Chris – and let’s not beat around the bush here. Let’s call it what it is. Kim was bought for Chris. Kim is underage. Chris literally raped her – Chris is still painted as “the good guy.” Oh, he’s just so kind, he’s going to take care of her, he’s gentle, he’s not like the other soldiers. And in contrast, we get this villainization of Thuy. As we learn in “Thuy’s Arrival,” Thuy betrayed Kim by siding with the communists and abandoning her. We see Thuy act violent and crazed, and like Liv mentions, even willing to kill a child just to have Kim as his wife. And of course, this violence and attempted murder is horrible, but I feel like this is a very intentional dichotomy that the musical writers set up. It would be one thing if Thuy was Kim’s childhood best friend and she simply just didn’t love him the way she loved Chris. But to continuously make Thuy the villain, and in the same vein, gloss over all of the reasons that Chris is a terrible person seems to further emphasize that white soldiers are “good” and the Vietnamese characters are “bad.” Because it’s something that is highlighted over and over with Thuy – and perhaps even with his ties to communism, which has historically been villainized and portrayed as the most “un-american” ideology possible. And this dichotomy of “white/good” and Vietnamese/bad” is even further exemplified by the character of The Engineer. The Engineer profits off of the sexual abuse of women, and the American troops are not only complict in this, but active participants. Yet, only The Engineer spends the production being characterized as sleazy, whereas the American soldiers – who literally rape these women – very quickly are absolved of this and spend the second act of the musical portrayed as respectable Americans that have bravely fought for their country. Even John, who is shown as the epitome of sexual aggression and sexism in Act 1 is polished and refined in Act 2, an honest man in a clean suit working hard at his organization, completely absolved of his violence from before.
PA: It really just further reinstates the problem with depictions and realities of America- to be honest- and the American dream. We all encourage each other to pursue the American dream, but what we don’t discuss is that the pursuing is at the expense of someone else. America is the land of the free at the expense of people’s freedom (even still). It’s the land of opportunity because it took opportunities from others. I’m not sure if Miss Saigon is necessarily critiquing that or satirizing it, or if it’s simply encouraging a realist view that you have to be selfish to not be exploited in American culture, let alone accomplish what you want and achieve the great American dream. And perhaps the attraction to Chris symbolized the attraction to the American dream, despite how problematic it is? (Problematic favorites @ week 1, am I right?!)
LD: I just want to make one final point– I also think we have to recognize that this musical is adapted from source material which has been around forever and is rooted in stereotypes of Orientalism and this American fascination with the “exoticism” of Asian women. And we need to ask ourselves, why? Why is this a story that needed to be revived in 2014? Why did we need to make Madame Butterfly from a play to a musical to an opera, and why did two white men (Boublil and Schönberg) have to do it? Why are they so obsessed with this kind of tragic prostitute story? We saw them do it in Les Mis in “I Dreamed a Dream,” and there’s major parallels between “I Dreamed a Dream” and “The Music in My Mind.” Why is this? Why is this a story that we keep repeating when it is so obviously rooted in American imperialism?