Miss Saigon Shows More Power in the Form of a Broadway Musical than Pad Thai

(tho it’s funny that pad thai isn’t a vietnamese dish)

Ejew: This is Ejew Kim and I’m here with Megan Lin and Sally Kim to talk about race and ethnicity in the 2014 West End production of Miss Saigon directed by Laurence Connor and starring Eva Noblezaga as Kim and Jon Jon Briones as the Engineer. Based on the original production by writers and composers Schönberg and Alain Boublil, Miss Saigon (2014) illustrates the life of Kim, a Vietnamese orphan girl trying to reunite with her American boyfriend Chris who had fled to the US after Saigon’s fall, whom she met as the Engineer’s employee. Through the musical, we can see the tribulations the Asian characters go through due to racial disparities and how in light of these troubles, they show aspiration and power by fighting for themselves.

Ejew: Here’s my first question. In Miss Saigon (2014) which Asian characters stood out to you? For me, the Engineer really stood out. As a half-French, half-Vietnamese man, he owns the steady Saigon strip club, “Dreamland.” Already, from how he names his business, you can sense that he is a man full of aspiration. In fact, after Saigon falls, every action, every speech coming out of him is dedicated to achieving his “American Dream” of great wealth, fame, and authority. After Saigon’s failure, he receives no opportunities to achieve the wealth and fame that he wants because he is Vietnamese instead of American. Yet, he persists on trying to achieve his desires as he names his dream the “American Dream,” showing internal power in the form of persisting aspiration, standing strong against a helpless reality.

Megan: I think that the Engineer is interesting, especially with his determination to pursue the American dream, but I think that Kim is the character that really stood out. Firstly, I think that being a woman makes her life comparatively harder than the Engineer. Especially a woman with no family left in a war ridden country, Kim’s life is bound to be difficult. As the main character, Kim has more spotlight on her, which allows the musical to more thoroughly develop aspects of her character. Being a Vietnamese woman, Kim is surrounded by an environment where women are objectified and controlled by men. She has to conform to Vietnamese societal rules, never having the power to break free. However, she is still able to recognize and execute her inner power to fight for what she loves in this restricted environment. Kim’s life is full of tragedy, but she shows resilience and strength even in the face of despair.  

Sally: I was also able to notice how the Engineer and Kim are able to push through and fight for what they aspire despite all of the ups and downs they have been through in their life. In my opinion, they were the ones who have been through the most tribulations and experienced the most helplessness due to their race. However, they are able to find the strength to get past them.

Ejew: To bring the focus more on the acting, how do the actors’ movements portray power? Do they show helplessness in any way? Aspirations? I think the Engineer’s power comes from his sly, rather joyful—and sexual—body movements. His number “The American Dream” really emphasizes this: He seems to be really enjoying the vision, flying his hands up to the sky so many times and striking his head back to laugh hilariously at his fancy stipper ladies and showering money. At one point he grinds on “his” fancy white car, and this seems to be conveyed as his best, true-to-self expression of joy about his “American Dream”—all his life he’s been working with prostitution…how else could he have expressed pleasure? This level of joy he seems to show is quite amazing, especially to think about how much of a depressing time he is spending post-Saigon, earning merely 10 cents an hour under a boss—definitely something that a born-to-be-ceo, money-lover man would have a hard time with, and something other characters seem to not be able to show. And it’s this ability to keep dreaming—with positivity—in a devastating reality represents the Engineer’s internal power. 

Megan: Kim is very different from the optimistic Engineer. She is naive, innocent, and doesn’t have the same playfulness that the Engineer has. Yet she shows her own internal power in several musical numbers, such as ‘The Heat is on in Saigon” and “This is the Hour”. She’s only a 17 year old girl, yet she’s able to stand in front of all these people (the prostitutes and the American soldiers alike) and present herself to make a living. Just imagine witnessing the horrifying deaths of your family and your next best option is being a prostitute. Really just shows how helpless Vietnamese women were during this time period. So Kim having that amount of determination and strength after this tragedy, just shows so much about her character. The way that she holds herself and her straight posture shows that she has an internal power that is incomparable. Instead of cowering, acting submissive, or holding her head down, Kim looks ahead fearlessly. In “This is the Hour” her inner power manifests and fully emerges. She is willing to stand in front of her son, Tam, when Thuy is holding a knife to try to kill him. Then the scene that really took the cake was the scene where Kim actually holds a gun to fight against Thuy and she holds Tam right behind her. This scene was really powerful because it showed how she was willing to stand up against her cousin, someone who is her family, for her own son. She could have agreed to marry him and had an easier life as a housewife, but instead she decides to fight against him. Her determination and strength in the face of tragedy just go to show her inner power. 

Ejew: How do the songs and lyrics from the musical’s authors show the characters’ emotions? How does this contribute to the three factors of our discussion: aspiration, power, and helplessness?

Sally: Kim holds a lot of power internally and in the musical number “This is the Hour,” she is finally able to emit this power and use it to give herself a voice. Kim is willing to do anything for Tam. When he is in danger, Kim knows how to emerge from this internal power in order to save him. Kim’s strong vocals while singing, “You will not touch him” towards Thuy adds on to the demands that she is putting on him. Instead of potentially saying, “Please don’t touch him,” shouting “You will not touch him” has a stronger and demanding tone. Continuing on, she sings, “I’m warning you, for him I’ll kill” while holding a gun towards Thuy and before pulling the trigger she adds on, “You will not take my child.” In this number, the lyrics fully portray Kim’s fearlessness against powers who try to take control of her. The lyrics are way more adamant and relentless. In addition, the way she sings these lyrics by slightly belting and putting as much controlled power as she can shows how Kim is now able to go against those who have taken control of her in the past. I was so glad to see Kim portraying her inner power and not using any words that allow room for Thuy to manipulate and control her.

Megan: I think that the Engineer also really shows the three factors of our discussion. He has an entire song dedicated to his American dream (coincidentally named “The American Dream”), where he conveys his aspirations and shows his desperation to get to his goal. Many lyrics in “The American Dream” show the engineer’s dreams in America. One of the lines is: “In the states I’ll have a club that’s four-starred/ Men like me there have things easy/ They have a lawyer and a bodyguard/ To the Johns there I’ll sell blondes there”. I feel it that these lines really show his ambition and his belief in his own power to pursue his dream. This is especially because he doesn’t try to cover up anything and is very explicit with the lyrics that he uses. He also portrays his frustrations with his current living which is another he shows his aspiration and struggle for power. This is seen in certain lyrics such as: “I’m fed up with small-time hustles/ I’m too good to waste my talent for greed”. In these lines it once again shows his confidence in himself, while at the same time showing how the Engineer felt limited by the boundaries and helpless in Vietnam. He even asks why he had to be born as a citizen of Vietnam and that America was where he truly belonged.

Ejew: Last but not least, how do you think the set and costume design emphasize aspirations and power—against helplessness—in the characters?

Sally: I want to focus on the Engineer. Throughout the musical, the Engineer is seen wearing flashy costumes and also dresses in rags. As stated before, his number “The American Dream” highlights the power he holds and his aspiration for this ideal life. In this number, the set is decked out in flashy diamonds, with the ensemble dressed up in sparkly suits and bodysuits. The background is of a golden Statue of Liberty with gold pillars surrounding it. Most importantly, the Engineer is riding the convertible in a sparkly red suit with a deep v-neck blouse while the spotlight is shining on him. The design and costume in this number accurately depicts the American Dream, which is filled with overflowing wealth, authority, and fame. The shining lights, the sparkly outfits, the gold embellishments across the stage, and the bright and contrasting colors really brings this dream to life and you can’t deny the joy and pleasure it brings to the Engineer. The difference between this setting and his usual life emphasizes the struggles he goes through, but the Engineer’s ability to keep on dreaming and imagining this life despite them shows the Engineer’s internal power.

Ejew: Same!–the contrasts in artistic design that the directors implemented definitely caught my attention. The most interesting one for me was for the number “I Still Believe” by Kim and Ellen. This left a strong impression on me because of how the stage was constructed to contrast the two characters: Kim is literally on the lowest stage ground with dark and green lighting while Ellen is on a higher leveled stage under bright yellow lights—explicitly portrays how Kim is of a lower status than Ellen. In fact, Kim stays under a rusty shack, wearing torn clothes and half-sitting on her knees, while Ellen is on a silky bed with Chris, wearing flowery clothing and having city lights on her background. This difference in style highlights their financial gap, and suggests Kim as weaker than Ellen, and to be helpless about reaching her goal of reuniting with her love Chris—which means taking him back from Ellen.  However, I think eventually Kim demonstrates agency. We can see this by the clothes she pick for her son and herself right before she commits suicide in meeting Chris. She puts her son in a bright-red Mickey Mouse sweater and white cargo shorts—very noticeably different, very American—while she herself styles herself the exact way she did when she first met Chris. It strongly represents how she wants her son to have a better future in the US, while she remains in the past, in Vietnam.

Megan: Yeah. Overall, I think we all agree that Miss Saigon, through their Vietnamese characters, demonstrates aspirations, and both helplessness and power of the Asian race as a minority victimized under discrimination. The helplessness emphasizes the burdens that minorities—specifically people of the Asian race—face even today, but also gives encouragement to fight against racial injustice and help shape a world of better equity.

Ejew and Sally, synchronized: Yes! (Ejew thinks this is funny) 

Gypsy asks: Are you REALLY unbiased?

By Ejew Kim

For the first time I was glad that I missed a class to binge on K-Drama, and that I got so angry at that one overprotective villain mom that I refused to leave my room for 3 days straight. Or else I wouldn’t have been able to understand Rose Hovick in the 1993 televised film Gypsy as a mother nor her daughter Louise as a girl who loves her mother, and be left hating on one of the most popular productions of all time.

To give a quick introduction of Gypsy before I slowly get into the why: Originally based on Arthur Laurents’ book Gypsy: A Musical Fable, Gypsy (1993) by composer Jule Styne and lyricist Stephen Songheim features Bette Midler as Rose and Cynthia Gibb as Rose’s daughter Louise. The musical illustrates the journey of Rose, full of dreams to be a star actress and trying to make her daughters one, through the Great Depression and the collapse of vaudeville, in which eventually one daughter leaves and her remaining daughter Louise becomes a stripper. In Gypsy, Rose and Louis represent femininity as encompassing power and complexity that can only be identified when escaping gender bias.

However, my first watch of Gypsy in BroadwayHD, plus the first week thinking about it, it was a horribly sexist film. Rose’s stubborn pushing of her daughters seemingly showed that women getting out of their way to try to achieve dreams are a pain while Louis’ “glow-up” seemed to scream that femininity equals being pretty for men. I had plenty of reasons why:

Rose. I bet everyone admits at some point in the movie that she’s a cringe. And from my first watch, she is a cringe that gets worse. The acceleration point is when Rose performs “Everything’s Turning Up Roses”: The way how her eyes were enlarged so much as she built up her determination and excitement to make Louise her star, and especially how she opened her eyes in a way that the audience could see so much whites of her eyes, portrayed her so full of energy and fierce determination that it was almost scary. Her body is so tensed up throughout the whole song, and her singing as well. She scratches her voice for an aggressive effect (ex. “coming up ROses”) and she gives a lot of strong accent to the beginning of almost every line, especially whenever she looks in a new direction and turns her body aggressively (for example, “NOw you’re, IN it”). The aggressive energy adds to her characterization of determined, focused, full of energy—all in a crazy way. And this is especially scary because this comes right after she gets depressed learning about June leaving—it’s disturbing that Rose cannot stop pushing her dreams even after seeing what it does to not only her daughters but herself as well…I feel an urge to distance her. Her stubbornness continues: Even after she finally admits that she pushed her children for her own dreams, she still does not let go of them; instead she sings her last number “Rose’s turn,’ which ends up with her getting angry—“When is it my turn?”—and repeated lines of “For me” plus a series of bows. She is so self-endorsed, still wanting to fulfill her desires that have been hurting so many people—Louise who just wanted a normal family life, Herbies whose promise for marriage was joked at, June who lost her chance going to acting school, etc. What we want to see at this point is annoying Rose to stop pushing people around, marry Herbie, and become a housewife like normal women of that time, like how everyone around her—her father, Herbie, and Louise—wants her to be. The film projects the idea of women trying to assert power to pursue their dreams, as something that causes issues—a definitely problematic depiction of gender roles for today.

Louise, from the very start, is that character the audience sympathizes with: Compared to her blonde (“thus pretty”), better performing sister, Louise has darker hair, smaller and lower voice, and a stiffer body—she has less of the typical “feminine” qualities and therefore is characterized as inferior. Even when she becomes mom’s new main actress after June leaves, she wears pants, a blazer, a black captain hat…even her blonde wig reminds me of 18th century old white men. She could have totally passed as masculine. The sad part for sympathy is that Louise herself believes in her “lack of femininity” and inferiority: Whenever she talks about June (not herself) being the star, she says it with such strength and positivity in her facial expression and voice (and with zero bitterness/sadness) that she seems very confident about this claim—the confidence missing most of the time, especially when performing. 

But when Louis puts on her dress for her spontaneously-booked stripper performance and looks at the mirror, she experiences a change in self-image. As she slowly freezes in front of the mirror with shock, the strings in the music vibrate rapidly at a high note, creating sudden tension—like the sudden ding of the bell when shocking information has been presented. And yes, it is confirmed in the following Louise’s dialogue that the shocking information here is “Mama, I’m pretty..!” Then a sweet melody of a softer and more positive tune plays right after, at the right timing as Louise touches the side curves of her body. And then she puts on a firm, determined face and walks out to the backstage behind the curtains, looking head straight, gaze forward, and open shoulders—she’s confident alright. And though that very first performance went pretty rough with her nervous stiffness, she soon starts moving with more courage. The later performances as the now famous Gypsy Rose Lee shows a clear boost in confidence—voice projection, a relaxed smile, wide strides, on beat, and moving in a way that she seems to make every movement very precise and intentional. And this change-up, along with her fancier outfits and makeup, definitely make her shine more. This overall improvement seems to suggest that Louise was able to become successful because she started being more feminine and pretty-looking. 

This is especially more fun to watch in the audience’s perspective, because Rose, such a stubborn and annoying character, is taken down by her daughter when she pleads to leave her alone—the very nightmare Rose was avoiding. Honestly, this breakdown was a relief—a relief that seems to be there to aid the sexist idea of ‘successful femininity = pretty’ to come through, and support the objectification of women that follows as a consequence.

And that was going to be my whole essay…except I watched the musical again after thinking about that overprotective K-drama mom (long story short, she was mean to her daughter’s boyfriend/potential husband who she thought wasn’t good enough because he lived without parents), and realizing how all she wanted, despite just wrong assumptions, could have been her daughter’s well-being. And then I thought about how it could be the same for Rose—her annoying actions being good intentions paired with unwise assumptions, and how maybe the film is not actually trying to say women should stay at home, pretty, and then I started thinking about Louise again…and here starts the flipside:

Think about Rose’ background. She was abandoned and hurt by her mother at a young age—she probably doesn’t want to repeat that traumatizing event, by doing the exact opposite for her own children: Never leaving their sides. When Gypsy pleads in the waiting room, “Mom, you gotta let go of me!” Rose’s face and voice suddenly softens as she responds with a heavy breath, “Let go?”—Rose never became this low in energy in the film, which shows that she’s truly hurt by the idea of leaving her daughter. Is it possible that Rose is just trying to do her best for her child? Consider the perspective of a mother: She believes that being a star is the best thing in the whole world—her eyes shine bright whenever she even mentions the word “act.” When Herbie suggests June and Louise go to school, Rose refuses by responding: “And be like other girls, cook and clean and sit and die.” This was the reality in the past—especially during the Depression: Not only was the idea of women working not accepted, but with not enough work for men, there was certainly not enough work for women. Being a star instead and being free and rich definitely can seem better for not only Rose in particular, but other women as well. Rose also seems to swallow up her own sadness and vulnerability for her children: For example, when Herbie finally leaves her, she seems truly sad—despite having to urgently prepare her daughter for her first-time stripper performance, she sits down, singing a softer version of “Small World.” She almost cries and pauses her singing after saying “Lucky, I’m a woman”—this seemed to demonstrate how Rose was devastated to no longer being a woman loved by a man (whom she enjoyed being seen..she would always dance with him!); but then still hands over the gloves to her daughter, though with a downed tone and drooping shoulder—despite her lack of energy, she still pushes on her job of making her child a star. She may be annoying, but she cannot help it to ensure the best future for her children. She had good intentions, but the environment shaped her with the wrong behaviors and methods for her to accomplish those intentions.

For Louise—or Gypsy—you can see that what mattered to her was not her becoming pretty and acquiring accepted femininity. I mean, it does matter because she repeatedly looks into the mirror, going “look at me mama, I’m gorgeous and I love it.” But what really lingers is Gypsy’s love and reception of love with her mother. Consider the series of Gypsy’s stripping performances. Interestingly, the film shows her performances after her switch up for quite a long time, while probably that last full performance in the red dress was enough to show how good of a performer she became…then why show several? One thing that really stands out is the fact that “Let me entertain you” is still and repeatedly used for Louis’ strip show number. The number(s) is (are) exciting because it really shows how much Louis changed, but it’s also like she’s mocking her mother, who’s not even her boss anymore, that she can do better off with her…almost. The length seems to give us time to think about the new Gypsy Rose Lee and her unbelievable turnout: Why is she suddenly so good? Why is she repeating “Let Me Entertain You? Perhaps it’s an indicator that she cannot escape her mother—she still loves her and references her—perhaps she’s finally getting her mother’s attention that she has always wanted. And at this point it’s not how attractive and confident Louis seems after her career change up, but how her childhood/internal experiences left her a hole that she needed to fill in…a pretty complex woman character, huh?

I think it took me quite a long time—despite my deliberate be-analytical-for-class view—to find out how the woman lead characters have more to them than submitting to gender roles because of my gender bias: I assumed, because this was a decently old Broadway show, that it would present negative gender roles; also, Rose seemed simply annoying even when showing a wide range emotions and conflicts because I, guiltily, assumed her to be a typical woman with problems controlling her emotions. Only when I started seeing Rose as a person, a mother, I was able to see Rose and Louis’ complexity. The film therefore, by showing how Rose and Louis represent femininity as complexity that can only be identified when escaping gender bias, encourages us to ignore our “educated” mindsets and consciously reflect our own gender biases once again.