A Discussion between Iris Tseng and Emily Leatherwood on the 2016 25th Anniversary Gala Performance of the West End Production of Miss Saigon written by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg
Content warning: mentions of sexual assault/coercion, war, racism
Emily: So, I am so excited to dive into the wild ride that is Miss Saigon with Iris today because we want to determine why this problematic (to put it lightly) show has the longevity and adoration that it does. And for me, the best way to start that conversation is to consider why, according to Dr. Essin, students who have taken this course in the past hated Miss Saigon when they only had access to the script, and loved it when watching the stage version. At first, I thought this was a no-brainer. The melodies are beautiful, there are entertaining, over-the-top dance numbers, there’s a freaking helicopter on stage! Of course that is going to be the preferable way to consume this musical; the spectacle distracts from the problematic content, or at least makes it easier to digest. However, when I considered this further, I realized that I do not think that the live performance simply is a diversion from the content, but that in some ways it actually transforms the content for the audience, and much of that is due to the actors themselves.
Iris: I for sure agree with you Emily, the format and production of a musical is absolutely meant to be performed and visually admired on a stage and not read from a page. Miss Saigon is no different. And in many ways, the shiny, bright lights of the flashy production numbers do contribute to the racist tropes and largely negative representation of Asian identities in Miss Saigon. However, actors like Eva Noblezada and Jon Jon Briones have worked to reclaim agency and power from this show through their performances, and that should not be diminished.The Broadway stage has limited opportunities for Asian actors but as change has been far too slow, performers are doing what they can with these already existing roles.
Emily: I couldn’t have said it better myself. And to start with looking at the negative, nothing better illustrates how Miss Saigon perpetuates the harmful representation of Asian identities on the musical stage than the choice of setting made by two French white guys: the Vietnam War. How do you think that this affected the portrayal of these characters – both the American soldiers and the Vietnamese citizens?
Iris: Yeah the Vietnam War definitely is one of the last settings most people expect of their fun, Saturday night date in the city Broadway musical. America’s role in the Vietnam War against the VietCong and North Vietnamese communists being such a focal point in Miss Saigon was politically concerning for many audience members even during the revival. The first large production number, “The Heat is on in Saigon”, featured the American soldiers stationed at Saigon as instant heros waiting for their “treasures”. Yep, they are immediately feminizing the women in this scene by having them be won by the men, I mean how else should a production start. The women hope to be chosen. Like imagine The Bachelor but circa 1970s and an over animated Jon Jon Briones instead of Chris Harrison kind of to a T. These bargirls, underage let’s add, are fending for the title of Miss Saigon as they are raffled to different soldiers, hoping that their bodies will be enough for a trip back to America. It’s possible that this diminishes pity across American audiences as they wonder, why should Americans always be saving the day? Isn’t their country the reason we are losing soldiers in this war? I mean are audiences really buying tickets to relive the pain of the dreaded years of the war or are just looking for a classic romance story with a man in power. Like that infamous helicopter scene before the intermission. As the families left behind push in hope of escaping the warzone, the focus is less on the issues they are leaving behind, but more on “Oh no Chris what about Kim!!”
Emily: Exactly! Listen, I am ALL for criticizing America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. And textually, in my eyes, Miss Saigon seems to at least attempt to do just that. The key word there being attempt. The soldiers are seen taking advantage of the coerced women in the brothel, and abandoning the citizens as their city and lives fall apart around them (in the aforementioned helicopter scene). But like you said, in so many ways the commentary falls short and we go right back to glorifying America and diminishing Vietnam. One of the best examples of this happening that comes to mind is the song “Bui Doi” – or what I like to call the “our bad” song. In theory, the number is supposed to highlight the suffering of the Vietnamese people, especially the children, after the war has ravaged their country and modern productions, including this one, emphasize that even further by literally including a slideshow of pictures of actual orphans as a backdrop. This is supposed to be one of the big activist moments – calling out the United States military for the forgotten they have left behind. They missed the mark by, not just a mile, but the whole 8,584 miles between America and Vietnam. Seriously, I don’t think they could have done this worse if they tried. Already the song has issues because it is a tearful lament sung by John, an American soldier that we have seen purchasing women in a brothel and abandoning the citizens as the city falls. Now, this is the guy who is supposed to be the voice for the forgotten? Yeah, I don’t think so (no shade to the talented Hugh Maynard). On top of that, the lyrics only concern the children fathered by Americans with Vietnamese women, glossing over the fact that many of those children were the result of sexual assault as well as ignoring all of the other Vietnamese people whose lives were destroyed by the fighting. And that slideshow just screams exploitation. I do not know if you agree with me on this, Iris, but the choice to set this show during the Vietnam War is not an inherently bad one. It was an opportunity to fully explore the impact that the conflict had on these citizens without making them helpless, nameless, faceless victims. The story could have been driven by their choices, but instead, the writers relied on tired narratives and largely worked to make us care about the Americans like Chris and John over the Asian characters.
Iris: You know I think that my first initial response to learning about Miss Saigon, was in fact that the intentions were meant in a way to actually give representation to an undermined and underrepresented group of Asian Americans. For sure as producers of a consumer product, the addition of romantic and theatrical elements were a selling point to draw people in the doors, how else were they to pay for the helicopter. But in actuality watching the musical for the first time, I didn’t know what to expect. I still don’t know what I expected from an American team of producers as the appearance of this culture continues to be portrayed as victims in war and their relationships. There seems to be attempts in this production that should be acknowledged and appreciated. Setting the scene of a musical in a warzone is no easy feat which for that I give them props. I would love to know how the performers of Miss Saigon, especially those playing Kim, as Asian Americans, felt on whether this was a step in the right direction or back.
Emily: There is something to be said for exposing the horrors of war. I really think Lea Salonga and Eva Noblezada said it best in the New York Times article we read – that women were and still are forced into prostitution around the world. Their stories deserve to be heard as well, although it’s very clear that Boublil and Schönberg were not the people to tell it. And that is what makes Kim such a fascinating and controversial character – she is a study in contradictions. As a victim of war and poverty, how much agency would Kim realistically have? Probably not a lot. But she is fictional, and as such two white dudes were the ones who put her in the position of a victim of war for white audiences to gawk at. In many ways she fits the stereotypes that have objectified Asian women for centuries. Yet, the actresses that take on this character have made her one of the most beloved leading ladies on Broadway of all time, and the role has been the launching pad of successful careers. God, I really, really love Lea Salonga.
Iris: I mean who doesn’t love Lea Salonga (especially as Mulan singing Reflection) but we can’t discount Eva Noblezada especially in the 25th Anniversary Gala version our class was so fortunate to watch. She continues to leave me speechless and I’m a talker. Kim is just one woman, but her story in this production speaks to the lives of thousands of other Vietnamiese women as well as other socially feminized minorities during the Vietnam War and today. In the audience’s first look at Kim, she is shy and timid, quickly thrown up to the viewing by the Engineer, in a modest, virginal white traditional dress. Her introduction included “legs unparted, parts uncharted” which quickly placed her as a fresh piece for people to play with. She had no agency at this moment and she continues to be powerless in her relationship with Chris. Although he showers her with nice words he still has ALL the power in their relationship. It is interesting that in their loving ballad, “Sun and Moon”, the lyrics one and the same, you and I”, are sung by Kim not Chris, showing the naivety of the power she lacks in that moment. Of course no one is singing a lovey-dovey romance ballad and expecting their man to be shipped away to another country and leave you for a girl and actually have a son with this man and he doesn’t know and… Oh I wish there was a warning button for men who are probably going to leave you we could push.
Emily: Ugh, that is the dream. But anyway, great point! The love-at-first-sight musical standby does not work in this show because of that unbalanced power dynamic. Kim is in such a vulnerable state that not only does it feel like she is being taken advantage of by Chris, but it also feeds into the white savior trope. I’ve seen one other production of Miss Saigon – the 2018 Broadway Tour – and the blocking of “Sun and Moon” made it even worse (if possible) because he was physically on top of her for a lot of the making out, which made me uncomfortable. Thankfully, that was not the case in this version, but still definitely not a relationship to root for.
Iris: I didn’t know that scene could be more uncomfortable but I guess that would certainly do it. From “Sun and Moon” Kim to post time jump Kim almost is like introducing a new character to the stage. She is most definitely the strongest person of power on the stage in both “You Will Not Touch Him” and “Give My Life for You”. Although she is extremely vulnerable in both numbers, she is regaining her own sense of self as a woman and a mother. The scream and pain in “You Will Not Touch Him” as she watches her own son get ripped from her arms, showed audiences a new Kim, then the one in the white dress at the brothel. She immediately gains the power over Thuy as he is staged on his knees at gunpoint. Being a mother brings out a different side of a woman, one that should never be messed with when their child is at stake. There aren’t enough awards that could be handed out to Eva for that performance.
Emily: That scene! I get chills every time. But, of course, we should note that Kim’s most powerful moments not only occur when she is essentially out of options, but also revolve around her identities as a mother, which in some ways slots her right back into that neat, feminine box. But thank you for bringing up the performance, because I think this is the perfect point to talk about how Kim’s character is transformed and empowered by the actor, in this case the incredible Eva Noblezada. She owns this role, and by bringing Kim to life in this way, we as viewers also see Kim differently. How she holds herself over the cowering Thuy, I mean! Eva chooses to hold her gun steady and true, never wavering, which for an audience member changes this scene from a desperate mother with no options left to a woman strong in her convictions, freeing herself from one of her many oppressors. Vocally, Kim is a very technically demanding role that requires extreme control, range, and agility, especially during the most emotional songs, and Eva DELIVERS. This talent communicates again to us that Kim has more agency than she actually does on paper. I would even argue that she makes us believe that Kim loves Chris out of her own volition due to her progressive opening up and the joy in her eyes – and that is no easy feat.
Iris: The performer’s impact on their characters is especially apparent in, like you said, Eva’s raw and vulnerable emotion as she established herself as more than just a piece in the puzzle. She shows that even in a person’s supposedly lowest state, before their death, she was able to actually display power in her decision. Knowing that the best outcome for her son, who she’d “give her life”, is a life in America, would be less feasible as she stands a barrier is dominating. As performers continue to give entitlement for their characters and how they represent more than just themselves but also a culture of society is encouraging for the future of performance. Although Kim’s character leads most conversations about the representation of Asian Americans on a stage, a production wouldn’t be complete without the roles of the ensemble and supporting roles. What do you think about the agency of performance supporting performers got in this production?
Emily: Well, even before getting into the supporting cast we can look to the other iconic Miss Saigon lead – and no I’m not talking about Chris, I’m talking about the Engineer. Yes, the role originated by a white dude in yellowface, the pimp, the one who sings on top of a car about the “American Dream” – that guy. See, the interesting thing for me is, like I mentioned earlier, that I had already seen a production of this show prior to this class and that Engineer seared himself into my brain. The actor, Red Concepción, (shoutout to my mom for finding my program at home so I could get the right name) had a very different interpretation of the character that completely skewed how I view him ever since. He was still conniving and self-serving, but he was not the comic relief. His presence on stage felt threatening; everything from his deeper voice to his body language contributed to a feeling that this man knew more than he let on, and would do anything to achieve his goals. So I was shocked to hear that this character is often performed in a very comical, even effeminate manner. For me, this just showcases how an actor has agency over how their character is perceived, and can take power from a role that might traditionally be performed in a certain way or with a stereotype in mind.
Iris: See I think that in hindsight the writers who came up with the Engineer character were definitely like yeah you know this musical is kinda depressing like with all the war, failed romance and death, let’s add a feminine, overly exaggerated, borderline terrifying comedic relief to add a little spice. I mean he’s supposed to be the one character in this terribly depressing saga that when he comes on the stage, hopefully the audience will at least let out a chuckle. Obviously, in your experience that is not what happened and he probably just gave little children nightmares. The character should not however be overlooked as he has the largest, upscaled production of the whole musical. The performance of Jon Jon Briones in “American Dream” as he dances amongst showgirls, falling money and a car I guess feels out of place in all regards. Even with the lighting choices, this number uses spotlights and colored lighting that was absolutely not utilized in other parts of the show. As a character who literally made his way promoting underage bar girls and hoped to just tag along as “family” with Kim to America, he had little to no power in regard to escaping Saigon. However Jon Jon was able to throw all that out the window when he stepped into his character for this eleven o’clock number. He once again regained power where power was absent. It’s certainly a performance that is hard to forget (both good and bad).
Emily: Absolutely. If you want to talk about an actor infusing power into their character, you have to talk about Gigi. I mean, Gigi is probably the one other named character who is a contender in the battle for the title of person-with-the-least-amount-of-agency with Kim, and that is explicitly spelled out in the song “Movie in my Mind” – or as I like to call it, the “trauma-induced fantasization” song. I could literally quote every lyric here but I’ll restrain myself. Suffice it to say, the song is doing everything it can to make Gigi out as a helpless victim who will “just close her eyes” when she is physically abused by the soldiers, and whose only hope is that a white man will whisk her away and provide for her. Not good. Enter Rachelle Ann Go. All of a sudden, this number has a new energy, and somehow, against all odds, it feels like Gigi has power. She stands tall, with her shoulders squared, and belts the chorus with immense strength, volume, and talent. You cannot take your eyes off of her. She does not appear as a victim or an object of pity that we can use to make ourselves feel better, which is how she is written. The performance choices are monumental in making Gigi a standout character that defies tropes, even as she sings lyrics that are full of them.
Iris: I mean even the lighting of this emotional song encapsulates the lyrics and performance you mention in a perfect way. As it is this “trauma-induced fantasization”, they spotlighted Gigi in her powerhouse ballad as she sings about the potential “dream I long to find” encouraging the audience to solely focus on her. Meanwhile looking closely at the ensemble in the back, instances of drug usage, domination of the soldiers over the women are all seemingly in the blur. Yes, let’s give representation and power to Gigi, but not enough to clear the stage of American dominance.
Emily: Yeah, exactly, this is not to diminish the glaring problems with the text of this song (or the rest of the show for that matter). But I think we can acknowledge the effort that actors like Rachelle Ann go put in to reinvent these characters, and provide better representation.
Iris: And that’s our big takeaway isn’t it. With all the characters we’ve discussed today how has Miss Saigon been a breaking point for positive or negative representations of Asian identities. Past productions of this musical has led to serious issues with the Asian community as representation is clearly lacking. I mean the casting of Jonathon Pryce, a white male, as the Engineer, not a white male role, stirred conversations to actually fight back. Uses of yellow face were indeed negative representations of the Asian community, a group already at a low 4.5% of Broadway musical actors from recorded data in 2014 to 2015 , to have even less power in performance. The fight for more equal representation is still ongoing as casting for both Hollywood and Broadway performers are still unequally proportionate between minority groups, especially Asians, and white actors. As an Asian American woman, it is incredibly exciting to be able to see people who look like me on the stage in a role that might not necessarily be written for Asians. Although many minority groups are at the crossroads of fighting for their equality, especially in the past unprecedented year, light was just recently shone on the racist discrimination of the Asian American population. It is important the Miss Saigon is not the last production that emphasises how feminizing the other is demeaning to the community. They strive to continue work within the theater world to increase the representation and provide more stories that follow the empowerment of this community.
Emily: The Engineer himself, Jon Jon Briones, said he “truly believes that, because of ‘Miss Saigon,’ Asian actors are seen in a different light.” There is power in that, and I think we both agree that so much of that power comes from the Asian actors themselves. They are the ones who have made Kim and Gigi and the Engineer. They are who we remember when leaving the theatre (or pressing X in the corner of our screens). Change needs to happen, and minority groups deserve better opportunities and positive representation on stage, but as the fight continues, we can acknowledge how these marginalized communities have transformed work like Miss Saigon into something, well, a little less terrible than it is on paper. And screw the helicopter.
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Spent Five Years Quietly Gathering This Data Themselves.” Quartz, 4 Dec. 2016,
Paulson, Michael. “The Battle of ‘Miss Saigon’: Yellowface, Art and Opportunity.” The New York
Times, 17 Mar. 2017,