Behind the White Curtain: A Look into Racial Representation in Miss Saigon.

Dialogue between Gabe Robles-Nieles and George Zhu.

GZ: Today Gabe and I are going to be talking about one of the musicals that we watched in class titled Miss Saigon. The rendition that we watched was the 2014 West End Revival version which featured a more demographically appropriate casting of characters, addressing a few racist aspects of the original. In this discussion, we’re going to try and center our conversation around Miss Saigon’s depictions of how the framework of whiteness impacted the non-white characters in this musical. Before we begin, let’s both tell everybody a little bit about ourselves just so they can better understand the perspectives that we’ll be speaking from. To start, I am a Chinese American male who grew up in the States. So culturally, I’ve grown up in an environment shaped by American mass media which is predominantly shaped by white America. Having been indoctrinated into white society, there was definitely a disconnect in my mind when watching this musical. I saw and identified with certain tropes that Chris displayed but found it difficult to reconcile the other parts that painted Asians in a lesser light.

GRN: As for me, I am Latino, and I grew up here in the States, just a little out of Nashville, so I’ve got a pretty similar media upbringing in terms of a white standard with minorities set as others.

GZ: Now that we’ve taken a second to understand where we as individuals stand, let’s begin to explore some of racial tension within this musical. First and foremost, there is the relationship between American soldiers, representing a white society, and the native Vietnamese population. Immediately from the beginning of the musical, a sharp distinction is drawn between the portrayal of the American soldiers versus the Vietnamese “bar girls”. If we break down this opening scene a little, what we find is that the American soldiers are characterized as better than the overtly sexualized Vietnamese women working in Dreamland. Seemingly desperate for a way to get to America, these Vietnamese characters were never given a chance to be equally respected. Beyond this, while John, an African American soldier, wanted to engage sexually with these bar girls, Chris, the White American Soldier, seizes the moral high ground and refuses to get with Kim, a young innocent bar girl, perpetuating the idea that white morality is superior.

GRN: Yeah, exactly.  They’re treating them as though that’s what their purpose was in being there.  They’ve basically gone in and set themselves as the standard, and even though this is their country and their home, the soldiers treat the locals as though they are there to serve their desires and their wishes.

GZ: This really seems like the classic colonialist vision where white individuals go to a foreign space, do what they deem is right, and take what they feel like they deserve. Oftentimes like this musical portrays, after these individuals take action, they fail to take responsibility for those actions. We see in the Fall of Saigon, many Vietnamese people who were relying on American protection from the Vietcong get inhumanely left as US soldiers quickly retreated in the face of a defeat. Kim is also abandoned by Chris during this time but of course Chris does not leave without first placing a huge burden on Kim. Chris and Kim’s son, Tam, offers an avenue to continued explication of their relationship. Even though Chris left, Tam serves as a continual reminder of the impacts that one individual can make on another’s life.  

GRN: It’s almost as though, in writing this, they were trying to embody these consequences that we see after Chris leaving.  In the grander scheme of things, it’s as though Tam were personifying the foreign impact in Vietnam. Yeah, because Kim is there, and she raises Tam and is dealing with this every day.  On the other hand, Chris goes home and has no clue: it doesn’t cross his mind, and it doesn’t bother or matter to him.  And I think that this is very reminiscent of the position that we take as a foreign power—and when I say “we,” I mean the United States.  We go in, and we do what we decide is best, and then when the situation is not as beneficial for us, we pull out and leave the people that were already there to deal with whatever situation that we’ve just left them in. 

GZ: Yeah I think in positions like this, it’s especially interesting to consider the burden that’s placed on different races. I’m not saying Chris didn’t go through any hardships while fighting the Vietnam War. Chris definitely experienced trauma to a certain degree but it’s a stark contrast from the physical representations of burden that had been left to Kim. And because she had a child with Chris, her well-being became challenged by Thuy who wanted to kill her son and get with her, and also the Engineer who wanted to turn her over to Thuy.  While I’m unsure if I can say that Chris is responsible for all these bad things happening to Kim, the framework of whiteness allows for Chris to leave Kim in Vietnam with all these burdens. This kind of plot paints an image where white people are able to be detached from the consequences of their actions, but even when they attempt to remedy those consequences, this musical doesn’t distribute the repercussion in an equitable way. The musical was scripted in a way where Kim had to die at the end even though she didn’t do anything too wrong throughout the entire musical. She risked her life to save her son, she saw her parents get massacred, the tragedies and hardships that Kim had to endure were arguably greater than what Chris had to go through.

GRN: Even then, having gone through all of that, Kim doesn’t deflect her responsibility with Tam and with what we’ve sort of personified as the consequences of the situation; she remains a devoted mother all the way until the end.  On the other hand, we have Chris and Ellen, who are initially very interested in doing what’s best for Tam, until suddenly they realize that what’s best for Tam would require some sacrifice on their part, and so they slowly start to distance themselves from their responsibility to Tam.  Especially on Chris’s part, as he realizes what bringing Tam to the United States would entail and how it would involve Kim and the strain that this would put on their relationship; he creates all of these reasons why he can’t step up and accept his responsibility when in reality, it’s fully within his power to give them his support.

GZ: A really interesting aspect here is that even though all these problems center around a white man’s decision, I really felt that the entire musical was still rooting for Chris. We saw that Kim wanted to get to America and find Chris throughout the entire musical, that John was a secondary character who was in support of Chris the entire time, and that Ellen was also supportive of Chris the entire time despite not knowing about Chris’ relationship with Kim. It seemed like whatever Chris did, regardless of the impact toward other people, the majority of the characters were always on the side of the main white character.

GRN: I think you have a really good point about how the avenue for the story is based around Chris’s decision and then ultimately his lack of follow through with the consequences.  Even the way that they portray him and Ellen, as opposed to Vietnamese majority that there is in the story: Chris and then Ellen are portrayed as the “saving grace.”  They approach these situations as though it’s their responsibility to make everything better.  Well, the way that I saw it, anyways, especially as we’re going through this last little bit of the musical where there is this meeting and this reckoning between Kim and Ellen, is that Americans and the white folk are meant to be seen as this “bastion of goodness,” as though they were sent into the world to do good and to save others and lift them up from their circumstances, and I thought this was really ironic, because if you look at the cast, Ellen and Chris are very much the minority in terms of race, and you would think that it would follow the standard for these majority versus minority situations, whereby within this binary we see the majority portrayed as the one to root for and as that bastion of goodness.  I thought it was really interesting to see that even with this role reversed, where Chris and Ellen are the minority, they’re still meant to be seen as better than or the purifying force.

GZ: Yeah I think that’s a really interesting observation. Despite the fact that white is the minority in this musical, white American culture is still definitely championed especially through the American Dream. Even among the Vietnamese characters, taking the Engineer as an example, the white way of life in America was his greatest dream.

GRN: Yes, and the whole song!  I, personally, thought it was a really funny song: it played to this idea of the “American Dream” and how great that it’s meant to be while at the same time satirizing the whole thing.  There was one line that really stuck with me as relates to this and I think it was “Cocaine, shotguns, and prayer: the American Dream!”  And he’s not wrong!

GZ: The aspect of having to pimp his own mother out definitely contributed to that satire-ization. While the song described the American dream perfectly, it also helped the audience to understand how twisted the outcome of the American Dream could turn out, you know? Not everything is as clean as glamorous as it appears and the things people have to do to achieve those dreams aren’t always the most wholesome either.

GRN: Also, I know that we discussed previously in the course, representation and the familiarity bias, and I thought that this was really important to discuss in terms of representations of race within Miss Saigon. If we think about it, the only two Vietnamese male characters that we see are the Engineer—who is clearly not meant to be a role model—and Thuy—who is the very traditional, very domineering male.  In terms of female representations, it consists almost entirely of the girls in the club—all competing for this spot of Miss Saigon, competing for the top spot.  They’re all meant to be objects of desire for the GIs, especially, and they are all meant to submit to the will of the men that surround them.  I thought that there was a major issue in terms of the fact that these are the only representations of the Vietnamese that we see, as opposed to a character like Chris, who is instantly meant to be viewed as the moral standpoint, especially in the beginning: he identifies an issue with what’s happening and their acceptance of the situation.  We later see a similar thing from Ellen, who claims that she wants the best for Tam, and, again, I thought it was very interesting to see this dynamic whereby this idea of majority/minority are flip-flopped to still fit the context of the American standpoint.

GZ: I definitely agree with that analysis. From what I saw, the white perspective was the right perspective. Despite having been put on this moral pedestal, ironically enough, Chris still gets with 17 year old Kim and actually impregnates her despite his “moral superiority.” Chris has sex with an underage girl and the entire remainder of the musical romanticizes this relationship. Ultimately, I think this musical can only serve as an artifact of a contribution to the dialogue of race. It really offers no comprehensive picture of how race should be understood and addressed. Because of this, it can only offer a glimpse of what past ideologies on race looked like and what decisions were made. It’s nice that producers aren’t using slant eye prosthetics anymore to depict Asian characters but this musical inherently contains a lot of themes and overall plot lines are racially problematic. I don’t think any amount of superficial change in costume or performer can rectify the backwards aspects of this musical.

GRN: 100%.  This storyline is just inherently problematic, like you said.  It’s good to be appreciated within the context of it being a product of its time and its viewpoints being antiquated, and definitely as a conversation-starter and as a means for discussing and learning and getting people to think about the way that their thought processes can harm and be harmful. 

GZ: That’s a really good point, I think if anything, this musical can serve as a good start point for dialogue and conversation is a tremendously important aspect for understanding each other.  

GRN: Exactly. It’s really important to have these conversations and to ask ourselves why we accepted this as the standard and why, even today, we allow this standard to pervade our media and our own views.  As a global community, we are definitely in the midst of sea change among public perception toward race. It’s because of these conversations that topics of race can be continually challenged and be made more just. Will Miss Saigon ever be revised again? And more importantly, can there be enough change in the musical to uphold contemporary ideals? 

Miss Saigon: Asian Representation Manufactured by American Entertainment

A Dialogue between Tinah Le and Ella Smith:

TL (Tinah Le): In this conversation, we will be discussing the 2017 Revival of Miss Saigon, starring Eva Noblezada and Alistair Brammer as Kim and Chris. The show was originally written by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil. Mainly, we will focus on the representation of Vietnamese culture, or Asian cultures as a whole, and how these portrayals of race and ethnicity reinforce existing narratives.

TL: Before we dive into the musical, I want to give a brief background on my perspective. Both of my grandfathers fought in the Vietnam War. When the war ended, my grandpas were sent to concentration camps, because they allied with American troops– meaning that my parents grew up without their fathers for years. My family has always shared with me stories about the hardships they endured post-war. Additionally, I also grew up listening to a lot of songs about the war era. A tremendous amount of Vietnamese “entertainment” was inspired by the war.

ES (Ella Smith): I have personally not much knowledge in the Vietnam War. Going into Miss Saigon, I have less background knowledge than you which could explain differences of opinion in the play and how we notice different representations throughout the course of the play.  

TL: Right, I definitely think that our different perspectives will allow us to splice out where the gaps of representation are, and how something I view as harmful or inaccurate may not be to a different audience. I will say that going into Miss Saigon, I did have some biases. I was doubtful about how the musical’s authors, artists, and actors would showcase the struggles. I wondered if the production would have realistic grit or just there for entertainment value. 

TL: Ella, I know you said you did not have much knowledge about the Vietnam War, but did you have any expectations, regarding the storyline, the characters, or even about Asian culture?

ES: Prior to viewing Miss Saigon, I naturally had some preconceived notions of how the storyline may play out, and how conceptions of Asian culture might influence the way gender roles and ethnicity are depicted in the show. I assumed there would be notions of traditionalism regarding gender and sexuality, which was primarily a projection of a preconceived notion that I had of Asian culture being dominated by conservatism, modesty, and respect.

TL: Moving into the musical itself, I would like to touch upon the accuracy of the use of Vietnamese language. Several times throughout, there would be dialogues or lyrics in Vietnamese, however I could not clearly make out the words. In production, “The Wedding Ceremony,” the other women of the brothel are wishing Kim and Chris congratulations. Although there have been corrections to change the words to real Vietnamese in the revival, the intonations of the words are still off. 

ES:  I certainly think that Broadway is walking a tightrope any time it attempts to depict a specific culture, especially when the show is being performed for a predominantly white audience. That being said, language is a seemingly easy thing to depict accurately, so to know that the original producers would skimp on such a thing is disheartening.

TL: The other place where pronunciation bugged me was in the musical number “Bui Doi.” Although the translation was accurate– bụi đời means dust of life or life of dust– the whole entire song the words were pronounced incorrectly. Moreover, there were parts where Kim calls out Thuy’s name, and it would again be said wrong. To me, I feel strongly that a Broadway musical about the Vietnam War should strive to portray Vietnamese language, culture, etc as accurately as possible. 

ES:  I agree that Broadway should strive for accuracy when depicting Vietnamese language, especially in a show where Vietnamese culture is central to the narrative. As a critical observer analyzing the show, I think it’s natural to hone in on the less overt displays of cultural ignorance and feel as though they’re some monstrous exhibition of chauvinism. I’m not sure that condemning the producers for this misstep is worthwhile. Nonetheless, the revision of the language accuracy is worthy of celebration – as all progressive images on stage should be. 

TL: In the New York Times article we read for Miss Saigon, it says that a cast member named Christopher Vo helped with the revisions in the lyrics for “The Wedding Ceremony.” It makes me wonder why none of the original musical authors were Vietnamese, particularly why none of the writers and lyricists Vietnamese. 

ES: It’s a compelling question, for sure. My first thought as to why none of the original musical authors were Vietnamese would simply be that the theater industry in America, like most industries, was dominated by white writers and lyricists. This is part of a greater conversation of discrimination and prejudice in theater, that is a dialogue within itself. Our understanding, or at least mine, in this situation, is that the lack of Vietnamese contribution to this Vietnamese-centered performance is the result of a multitude of intersectional factors (primarily surrounding things like race and socioeconomic status) that deprived Vietnamese writers and lyricists a seat at the table. 

TL: I would argue that the disregard for an accurate portrayal stems from the fact that this is a production geared towards a white audience. In the 2018-2019 Broadway season, out of nearly 15 million attendees, only about 4 million were non-white (The Broadway League). The overwhelming majority of the audiences that come to the shows are not Vietnamese, so is there even worth in fiddling with the details? 

ES: Of course there is worth in fine tuning the details. As much as theater is an art form, and art inherently suggests subjectivity and blurred lines of normalcy, there are certain aspects of depicting culture where obscuring those lines is inappropriate and problematic. Regardless of the demographic of an audience, culture accuracies should be maintained in an effort to provide respect for the culture being performed, in addition to educating the audience members. 

TL: Broadway shows garner their success from their viewers. It makes sense that the musical’s authors would try to cater towards audiences. That being said, I think there is a huge concern about how much they cater to the audience. Speaking upon the history of Miss Saigon, the revival is the third or so version of the same story. We can look back to see that this musical was based on a play called Madama Butterfly, which was based on a story, which was based on another book! 

ES: In this sense, we have to understand Broadway’s commercial aspect as just another function of capitalism. The product of the show caters towards the audiences because that’s what will bring Broadway the most money. As disappointing as it is, Broadway is not immune to the ills of capitalism and this guise that productivity exceeds quality. 

TL: American entertainment has recycled this tragic love story between a sorry Asian woman/girl and a white man many times, and for whatever reason this trope is still popular and successful. Not only do we have the white savior trope, we also have this whole sexualization and submission stereotyping of Asian women. 

ES: I think plenty of spectators see Kim as powerless throughout the show. I think that Kim has power, though she exhibits it in subtle ways. What Kim truly falls victim to is helplessness and the fact that she doesn’t understand the value of her being or feel a sense of self-worth. To that end, what was the “worth” of a woman in 1975 Saigon? It’s fitting that Kim felt an absence of self worth. How else was she to feel? This is not the story of a liberated woman. It is certainly not the story of a feminist. Even in “The Last Night of the World”  Chris sings to her “On the other side of the earth. There’s a place where life still has worth. I will take you.” The entire song appeared to me as Kim submitting to Chris as he performed as a kind of white savior to her misfortune.

TL: Just taking a look at the first couple of scenes, the costumes alone signal to us a distinction between Kim and Chris, the East and the West. While Kim wears traditional Vietnamese clothing (the Áo dài), Chris dresses neatly in his uniform. Whether the musical’s production artists (wardrobe designers) meant for this to be intentional or not, the clothing sends a message. We already know that Chris represents the masculine West and Kim the feminine East. However, this takes it a step further, reminding us that Kim is the uncivilized East, while Chris is the civilized West. 

ES:  Costuming is one of the most overt depictions of culture and gender in the show. Considering the meticulous thought that I assume goes into costume design, it shocks me that so few people were able to recognize the dissonance here. Then again, it’s very possible that this depiction was intentional – to suggest (like you said) the uncivilized nature of the East versus the civilized nature of the West. It may not be an intentional racist depiction; it’s possible that they’re simply using these characters and their appearance as a suggestion of the relationship between the United States and Vietnam during the war.

TL: I really think it’s important to consider what kind of representation is shown in the musicals. I’m not just referring to the minute details of getting the language or the body movements in the ceremonies right. I am talking about the overarching stereotypes pushed across, the hypersexualization that occurs during the brothel scenes, the submissiveness of Kim, the feminization of Asian men (the Engineer). 

ES: I agree, wholeheartedly. As much as I think that there is room for error in theater, there is a certain sense of urgency when it comes to rejecting stereotypes. Miss Saigon ultimately does a very poor job of rejecting said stereotypes, and I think that’s what makes the show so problematic. Where there were chances to squash ill notions of Asian culture, the show decided to play into them instead to enhance the dramatic narrative. 


TL: One could argue that Miss Saigon does not completely perpetuate these narratives, and that Kim is a force of change. Even in devastating circumstances, Noblezada embodies Kim with fierce determination. There is emotion and strength in her eyes, her movements, and her voice. However, I would counter that one strong, independent Asian woman in the musical does not erase the sexualization of the bargirls– more generally Asian women. 

ES: Kim absolutely has moments of power in the show. They’re not conventional moments of power, and they’re not so much afforded to her by the producers as they are by critical viewers like ourselves. The greatest moment of power she has comes as she makes the decision to take her own life, her power being the ability to save the life of her child. Generally, though, the women in the show are characterized by objectification and submissiveness. This moment of power for Kim becomes almost meaningless among the show’s general theme of sexism. 

TL: In the musical production, “The Heat is on in Saigon,” all of the women are scantily clad. The lights are dimmed to this reddish, purple haze. The choreography is initially aggressive but slows down as the men settle with their ladies. It is impossible to not notice how every aspect of the scene enhances the sensuality and sexuality of the women or how these poor desperate women will do anything to come to the United States.

ES: “The Heat is on in Saigon,” as a viewer, is a jarring opening. It’s chaotic and intimidating, which feels accurate to what the conditions were probably like for the women involved in the sex-working industry in Saigon. The choreography, paired with the echoing of the lyrics and the numerous tones, reflects this chaos and aids the general disorientation that viewers feel when they see the situation on stage. Ultimately, I think that this serves to alienate the image of saigon itself in the eyes of a predominantly white audience. It makes Saigon seem like a lawless place – one Americans wouldn’t recognize and could easily condemn as being “uncivilized.” 

TL: Even though I am not satisfied with the portrayal of Vietnamese culture, I would like to prioritize addressing the harmful stereotypes of Asians first. On one hand, we have musical authors and production artists who care about the enjoyment of their audiences. On the other hand, we have viewers who may not even be aware of what they are consuming. There is a disconnect between these two parties and who is supposed to be represented on stage. It seems ironic that the ethnicity displayed is not even represented by its own people.

ES: Overall, I think that there is both value to be drawn from viewing Miss Saigon, as are there immense revisions that need to be made to the original show. The bottom line remains: the show is problematic due to its inaccurate representation of Vietnamese culture, and its crude performances of gender and sexuality. It’s not a show that needs to be scrapped entirely, however there needs to be far more cultural awareness employed. Broadway must grapple with the fact that accuracy should not be compromised for profit or dramatization; while they’re performing art, they’re also performing history, and to misrepresent a history that was immensely painful for Vietnamese people and women in particular, is to perpetuate harmful stereotypes. In doing so, the producers run the risk of having white audiences with preconceived notions of minority populations further internalize racist stereotypes of Asian culture. 

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) 

Miss Saigon: Why We’re More Obsessed with America than Anything Else

A dialogue between Sophie Cohen and Lexi Blakes

Sophie: The 2014 West End production of Miss Saigon, originally composed by Claude-Michel Schönberg and written by Schönberg and Alain Boublil, was a successful revival of a well-known classic. However, the musical takes a more narrowed approach in describing Vietnamese life and culture than it should have. In Miss Saigon, there is an American tendency to shape the narrative of the Vietnamese characters through an American cultural perspective. In doing so, the musical puts forth female, Asian stereotypes while catering to American nationalism. So let’s get started!

Lexi: In Kim’s character, many of the stereotypes forced upon Asian women can be observed. She is young and in a desperate situation, one that forces her to live at the will of other people. What sets her apart from the other women in the brothel is her timidity, purity and her status as a virgin. The costume designer opted for a white dress when introducing Kim for the first time, to emphasize how central this trait is to her character. This is ultimately why her love interest, a young American soldier named Chris, falls in love with her and wants her as his wife. At first glance, the story seems sweet; it seems like the birth of love amid war and uncertainty. However, once more attention is put into why Chris was drawn to Kim, it becomes clear that the musical is subtly supporting certain views on the ideal women, and even more in this case, the ideal Asian women.

Sophie: I completely agree. While watching the musical, I noticed how Kim is such a stark contrast to the other women in the brothel because of her status as a virgin (which, by the way, should not be a defining characteristic to introduce a character, but here we are). We then see women like Gigi, who use their more seductive sides–hinted at by her use of red lipstick and significantly less clothing–to make money and try to find someone who will take them to America. Side note, America being part of these women’s dreams emphasizes America’s “greatness”, but we’ll discuss that later. Both Gigi and Kim are Vietnamese, so what separates them in this movie and makes Chris more attracted to Kim? Kim’s a young virgin from a foreign land who does not know what she’s doing, while Gigi knows exactly what she wants and actively tries to escape her current situation. 

Lexi: For the sake of assuming the best, let’s assume that what took place between Chris and Kim really was true love. Regardless, the characterization of Kim after their time together is still problematic. Once she meets Chris, her identity is framed as an extension of him. She had no real interest in moving to America before, but suddenly, she is completely okay with leaving her home with a man she met only nights before. The internal struggle she must have experienced when having to decide to move to a new place, even if her home was deep in war, is not portrayed, and instead, the writers opted for a more simplified version of Kim who now revolves her life only around Chris. For her situation, this is understandable, but what is not understandable is the almost reduction of the aspects of her own culture, compared to the other girls in the brothel. She becomes entirely obedient, and almost pliable to Chris’s beliefs. 

Sophie: So, what does this have to do with race? This scene shows that America is more attracted to the gentle, foreign Vietnamese woman rather than the more independent and headstrong one. Asian women are objectified by the Americans in this show: one who is pure is much more acceptable than the Asian woman who is not pure. In Miss Saigon, being a virgin from a foreign land is objectively “better” because it’s more malleable in the eyes of America.

Lexi: Let’s transition to the other main character: Chris. I think we can both agree that we share a great indifference toward Chris. Personally, I didn’t exactly hate his character, but I didn’t necessarily like him either. Throughout the entire musical, there was a constant nagging feeling in the back of my mind that was whispering “are we supposed to feel sorry for him the entire time?”. I felt empathy when he was forced to leave Kim behind, but after that, it faded in every passing scene. 

Sophie: Absolutely. My sympathy for him really faded when Kim’s agency of power became more about furthering Chris’s plotline. Here’s what I don’t understand: Kim’s suicide is supposed to be a powerful moment for Kim. I mean, she takes her own life so that her child can live a better one in America. That takes unconditional love, bravery, and a huge acceptance of fate. So why is her death so focused on Chris’s cries and sadness? Why does she have to die in his arms, the arms of a man who is partially responsible for her death? It’s because under the American narrative that this story is told, the writers want the audience to feel sympathetic for him. 

Lexi: I think, if anything, I have a real issue with what Chris represented. In terms of the narrative that is being presented, it seems as though it is done without neutral delivery. It caters toward the American perspective, instead of maintaining neutrality. 

Sophie: Exactly, more attention is paid to the American who lost his love rather than the suicide of the Vietnamese main character; “Oh, he lost the love of his life from three years ago who he has nightmares about”; “Oh, now he’ll be reminded about her every time he looks at their child back in America”. No! Not enough attention is directed towards the struggles Kim had to go through for three years without any support. Therefore, her suicide should be about her and her ability to fully exercise her agency and save her son. Kim’s life, and especially her suicide, is shaped by other people (ahem… Chris) who have the ability to control her fate. Instead of her death being an agent of power and determination, as assumed in “I’d Give My Life For You”, she is instead an agent of sympathy for Americans and the narrative is transformed into “Oh no, Kim died!, what does this mean for Chris?”. The tragedies that took place in Vietnam at the time are being used to convince the audience that we should feel bad for these poor Americans.

Lexi: I think the portrayal of Kim’s suicide reinforces how much the musical caters to the American perspective, and the Ameircan characters, more often than not. The musical definitely does a good job in portraying the struggle that took place in Vietnam–the scene with the citizens banging on the gate to the U.S Embassy really showcases this pain–but I think the fact that this is primarily due to American action should be mentioned. Many of the character’s primary drive is to go to America, but I think the complexity behind this is ignored. They want to move to America because they want to escape war, not because moving to America is a dream they have always had. Once again the idea that the white man always deserves our sympathy is suggested. I think the fact that Chris had a home to return to, while the Vietnamese people’s home remained war-torn, is a significant difference that warrants thought and recognition. 

Sophie: Moving on from our least favorite character, the Engineer was my favorite character in Miss Saigon. He has a complex backstory and an interesting perspective. But neither of these defines him, as the musical glosses over this complexity to instead focus on his obsession with America. His whole character and personality is defined by his strong desire to go to America. 

Lexi: I felt the same about the problematic-ness of the Engineer’s characterization. Does every American production need to scream “I’m proud to be an American and a part of the American dream?”. In his big song “The American Dream”, an inaccurate portrayal of the American dream is created. The stage gets filled with showgirls, a fancy car and money. In regards to how much race and ethnicity affects one’s opportunities within this country, the American dream is a fallacy to a certain extent and isn’t achieved by everyone. It is a winning lottery ticket that not everyone can get, no matter how smart you are or how hard you work. Honestly, while having this in mind while watching this number, it really made me sad. The Engineer is so hopeful for a bright future and the lyrics glaze over the hard work it takes to make a life for oneself in a new place. The lyrics don’t inspire pride within me, as the Engineer sings about learning that “you can sell sh*t and get thanks”, which he “learned from the Yanks”, and how greed is a large part of American business culture.

Sophie: And even despite knowing about issues in American culture, the song still implies that America is the best. He is the main messenger of the idea that American is better than Asian. I mean, he’s completely disconnected from any Asian identity. We only know him as the Engineer, and though his Vietnamese name was mentioned by Thuy, it is pretty easily forgotten. Is this his way of disconnecting himself from any Asian identity because he wants to embrace a “better” American one instead? Yes, yes it is. And let’s not forget about his defining moment and return to the 11 O’clock number all about “The American Dream”. The showstopper number is pretty much a Vietnamese man singing about leaving behind his Vietnamese identity to move to America and adopt a new one. 

Lexi: If anything, this song feels like a social commentary, and a satire of die-hard Americans who are blind to the destruction we as a nation have caused in the past. Going from scenes of great sadness and despair in Vietnam to this huge 11 O’Clock number centered around American greatness is a far way away from the emotional, thought provoking ballads that took place earlier in the musical.

Sophie: This reminds me of the song “If You Wanna Die in Bed”, which is sung earlier in the musical, which highlights the economic and racial differences between Vietnam and America. One lyric states “why was I born of a race that thinks only of rice and hates entrepreneurs?”. This is a derogatory oversimplification of Vietnamese culture that I am not in favor of. The assumption that anything not valued in American culture is seen as “primitive”, like agriculture or growing rice for instance, and “undeserving of appreciation”. On a global racial front, this suggests that anything besides American or European is “inferior”, thus connecting to a wider issue of racism especially toward Asian countries.

Lexi:  In the end, I think what both songs missed is that the Engineer doesn’t want to be American. He just wants to be free from his burdens and be given opportunities; if he could do that as a Vietnamese man in Vietnam, I think he would choose that over Americanization.

Sophie: Miss Saigon is a complex piece of American theater that people love to hate. In it, many complexities surrounding race and ethnicity are explored in a way that negates Vietnamese culture and makes America more important. Through the unique characters and difficult subject matter, audience members get the opportunity to empathize, reflect, and witness the aftermath of war, and the pain and suffering it causes. Regardless of whether it is a personal favorite, over the course of this discussion, we have proven that it is still worth analysis and deep thought. The issues this musical brings up are contemporary and pressing. More discussion about diversity between cultures and the interactions between them should be known. Miss Saigon provides its viewers the opportunity to witness the interaction of two different cultures, while getting a better understanding of how shared experiences create even more similarities and differences between them, and in this case, how one culture overpowers another.

“You Wouldn’t Stab a Child!”: A Discussion on Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Miss Saigon

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.

Rachelle Ann Go as Gigi and Hugh Maynard as John during “The Heat is On In Saigon”

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.

Kim, played by Eva Noblezada, during “The Heat is On In Saigon”

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.

A terrible screencap of “The Fall of Saigon”

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.

Another terrible screencap in which Chris is the camera (and audience’s) focus during Kim’s death

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.

Jon Jon Briones as The Engineer during Miss Saigon’s production number, “The American Dream”

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?

Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist- and Broadway a Little Bit More

BY: Cheyenne Figaro

The Broadway stage is often heralded as a center of creativity, a celebration of culture; however, it is just the opposite. For decades, the very stages that had brought to life Upper West Side in West Side Story and Vietnam in Miss Saigon have also perpetuated racist stereotypes, sometimes as apparent as blackface or yellowface, and other times through the much more subliminal use of lyrics, choreography, and dialogue. The importance of racial distinctions is only built upon when other identities such as gender and class are also interpolated into musicals. For proof of this, look no further than Kim in Miss Saigon and Miss Anna in The King and I. While both women face obstacles because of misogyny, Kim’s race and class cost her much of her autonomy and opportunity while Anna’s whiteness and “civility” gives her the upper hand throughout the production despite often contesting with a monarch.

It would be remiss to venture into the racism and sexism of Miss Saigon, without first touching on the fact that those were fundamental principles of the production. The show is based on Madame Butterfly, a one-act play which follows the same storyline of a fallen Asian woman desperate to meet her white savior, and going to extreme lengths for him to take their child back to America. The show was widely popular, and turned into an opera that was just as successful, before receiving the modern updates that made it Miss Saigon. However, the production wasn’t a celebration of Asian culture as it should have been, instead choosing to go the more American route, making a mockery of an “exotic culture”, and presenting it in a way that made Americans feel like they had to save the China Doll from the woes of her broken down country. These ideals remain ingrained in the modern version, where Kim is presented as an innocent, lost girl needing a strong, patriotic, white army man to come sweep her up. Kim’s entire identity is formed around inferiority but also around her need to be controlled and guided. She is a seventeen year old virgin, and instead of paying for her and setting her free, Chris actually proceeds to have sex with her. Yet, this sordid act is made out to be one of romance, and one of the only times in which Kim is able to voice her opinions, she decides that she wants Chris to buy her, despite the fact that she doesn’t know him from a hole in the wall. This scene heavily conveys the idea that the white patriot is inherently positive for the lost Asian girl, who wants to go with him and be obedient and give him what he wants. Hence, despite prostituting herself, Kim is happy with the outcome of her tryst with Chris and quickly falls in love with him. They sing of staying together even if this is the “Last Night of the World”, because they see themselves as soulmates. Of course, this dream comes crashing down not even fifteen minutes later with Chris leaving Kim behind, but it was good while it lasted, right?

Further into the story, the race and power dynamics between Kim and Chris become more relevant and apparent in the story. Chris leaves Vietnam and one year later gets a new wife. Correction: he gets a new, white wife. In the biggest slap in the face to Kim, he decides that the only way to forget her is to get someone who is the opposite of her. The fact that white, blonde, and affluent just happens to check those boxes is a coincidence, right? No. Although Kim and Chris were married in a non-traditional way, they were still in fact married. His new marriage is a statement of what a real wife should look like: white, clean, and American. She can’t be a lowly prostitute and she isn’t just a fetish for white men as women of other cultures often are. Hence, Chris being bound to Kim through nightmares is supposed to evoke pity from the audience, as we are made to feel bad for this man who is now being “burdened” by his past. Of course, the audience feels bad for Kim’s minor inconveniences too– left with no job, no house, a three year old, and an obsessed army general searching for her– but still Chris. Kim’s being a burden is reiterated when Chris finds out he has a son and instead of beaming with joy is filled with sadness. His son is another burden, and as soon as Ellen realizes Kim is in love, they make a joint decision to leave Chris’s family, Kim and Tam, in Bangkok because that would be the most comfortable to their lifestyle. Thus, Kim has to beg on her knees, sing on her knees, and literally pull out all the stops until her suicide just to get a white man to listen to her, to consider her opinion. Kim, an Asian woman, only experienced freedom throughout her story when she was living in poverty with Tam, and even then she was singing “I Still Believe” and thinking of her white knight in shining armor, because the musical is an endless cycle of American praise. Her autonomy is limited in every way, and yet all of Kim’s decisions revolve around Chris- from having sex instead of running away, remaining in poverty instead of going with Thuy (even if he is her cousin), and lastly taking her own life so that Chris can acknowledge and help their son. Kim’s story is one of fallen glory, of giving your everything to your love (even if they try actively to forget about you for three years and only come back for their son). Yet, Kim is portrayed as a victim of her circumstances, but not as a victim to the racism and misogyny that placed her in those circumstances to begin with. 

Anna’s story juxtaposes Kim’s in so many ways you would think that Broadway is trying to say that white women are inherently better in the face of conflict. Oh wait, that’s precisely what they’re saying. When first introduced to Anna, the words WHITE-WHITE-WHITE flash before the eyes, because she could not stick out more as an embodiment of whiteness. “Whistle a Happy Tune” is all about keeping a poker face when one is afraid, a skill that Anna’s son needs because apparently he is afraid of anyone who dresses differently than him- in this case differently meaning in rags or you know- like they’re poor. Throughout the number, Anna’s class is amplified as she walks with her nose turned high above the common people, as they grovel and run around for the coins that she throws on the floor like they’re pigeons. Her costume, a blue, flowy skirt, white gloves, and a tilted hat, emphasizes her wealth in comparison to the people of Siam dressed in brown and red rags. This wardrobe decision is once again emphasized when Anna speaks to the prime minister. She is nicely dressed whereas he is “half-naked”, already tilting the conversation in her favor as she seems to be more put together (read: ideally Western) than him. If anyone else were to talk back to the Prime Minister they’d surely be punished, but Anna, a white woman, is accepted by the audience as being right in this situation. She’s allowed and expected to talk back, breaking the Siamese way of doing things, because she must invade the space with her whiteness in order to correct their barbaric way of doing things. Thus, the show automatically sets up the dynamic of a fine and proper white woman having to deal with “savage” and poor Asians.

Her relationship with the King is the most apparent example of how Anna’s whiteness makes her superior in positions where women like Kim would be at the bottom of the totem pole. When the King calls her a servant in front of the Royal Children and Wives, Anna responds no, she is not a servant, and she doesn’t have to be in Siam teaching. She is doing him the favor, and reminds him of that loudly, scolding him in front of a large audience and making a fool of him. Anna’s insistence that she is not a servant despite the fact that she is being paid for is a clear contrast from Kim’s role as a prostitute in Miss Saigon. Anna holds strong to the fact that her time and obedience can’t be bought, the opposite of Kim whose virginity is purchased and is sold by the Engineer for an entire day to Chris. Anna also has the autonomy to leave whenever she would like, something that she fully intends to do until the King’s wife has to beg her to stay because the King needed her help. The musical establishes Anna as the person in power in all of her scenes, giving her the same type of white savior storyline as Chris but adding in her femininity as a way of saying that white womanhood trumps even the highest status of foreigners, despite white women being the lowest of white Americans. This idea is reinforced time and time again throughout the musical, most notably when Anna is allowed to have her head at equal height with the King whilst everyone else must bow into tiny “toads” on the floor when he walks in a room. Anna’s equal height, and thus equal importance, to the King is a stark contrast to Kim who spends the majority of Miss Saigon on her knees and staring at the ground. This physical distinction conveys everything that needs to be known about their status and role in their worlds, but also the way that these characters, a white woman and an Asian woman are viewed by American society. Thus, it isn’t peculiar that the entire last scene of The King and I is centered around Siam becoming more westernized instead of the children losing their father, and the wives losing their husband. The King is dying, yet the headlights focus on the Prince reversing every “savage” rule the kingdom has, and the children bowing to Anna in a Western fashion. The lights and dialogue in this scene are meant to move the audience to praise Anna for essentially colonizing Siam without them even knowing. Because while Kim struggled the entire show to get someone to listen to her, Anna was given that privilege the moment she stepped off the dock as a white woman. She is the American that Siam has been waiting for. She teaches them out of their ignorance, she guides them out of their “barbaric” views on love, and she overall uplifts Siam into a more progressive (Western) position.

Both The King and I and Miss Saigon bring color to the Broadway stage as it had never seen before. Full ensembles of Asians and Asian-Americans were revolutionary, and the productions opened up roles for these underrepresented groups in vast amounts. Yet, all representation isn’t positive representation, and both productions painted the picture of Asians- usually poor and uncivilized- needing to be saved by their whiter, more Western counterparts. Though completely unrelated, juxtaposing the roles of Anna and Kim reveals the twisted stereotypes that are perpetuated by the shows, as Anna is given the upper hand throughout her entire show, whilst Kim continues to experience loss and disaster at any moment that she isn’t with Chris. Hence, both roles serve to establish white supremacy in the eyes of misogyny, for Anna’s being a woman never derailed her as much as Kim’s being Asian did throughout their stories.

I’m Too Sexy: A Woman’s Guide to Being Perceived

by Maggie Mershon

A stage, showgirls, and sex appeal-the only three things you need for a successful show. Well, at least that’s the way it usually goes unless you live in the perfect conditions to combat it. Those who produce radical change can only do so if they are in the favor of those who are in power. In the musicals Funny Girl and Miss Saigon, it becomes easy to see how something as simple as culture or racial context can affect how one is expected to perform gender and sexuality and how easily they can manipulate that vision. Looking at the way they practically perform their genders on stage and how that affects their relationships with those in power, the white men in their lives, gives a nuanced look at how a woman understands their sexuality. Though Fanny Brice from Funny Girl and Kim from Miss Saigon outwardly perform the same gender, their different cultures and backgrounds mean that only one is given the choice of sexuality, which expresses itself in their performances and relationships outside of the theatrical space.

Both Fanny Brice and Kim are expected to perform for audiences, however, the way they are expected to perform is entirely different. Fanny Brice from the very beginning of Funny Girl is very much aware that because of the way she looks and is upset by how little she receives because of the way she looks. She repeatedly tells people that attractive girls won’t be in fashion forever and one day she will be a desired asset. Technically, Fanny is at the disposal of her audience in terms of being sexualized. Since she doesn’t receive this sexualization she is denied entry to the world of performance. In her first musical number, she performs gender in a joking manner, pretending to be pregnant and making fun of the traditional concept of what it looks like to be pregnant, doing various sight gags with her fake belly. In this performance, Fanny is permitted to be something other than a sexual object, aiming for a humorous take on gender. This is the basis of the rest of Fanny’s performances. She chooses to be a funny, laughable character, an opportunity afforded to her by, to be perfectly blunt, the color of her skin. Were she not a white character, the “exoticism” and “foreign interest” applied to her, would turn into a sexual other no matter what she wanted. We see this very explicitly in the character of Kim from Miss Saigon.

Can you guess which one is anti-traditional feminine looks?

from Twitter @FunnyGirl_UK

The first time the audience is introduced to Kim is as a conservatively dressed “virgin” girl in a brothel. The moment she appears on stage, she is a sexual object. This connects the audience to the soldiers who are attending the brothel who see the women there as exotic sexual items and nothing more. Outside of that context, they are nothing. After a few minutes, Kim quickly realizes that she is going to be sexualized no matter what and the Engineer encourages her to use that to her advantage. Kim continues to appear conservative and watches as the girls around her throw themselves at men to try and get a chance to better their lives, which for many of them means getting the opportunity to move to America. Kim’s only chance at survival is predicated on the fact that she accept her inherent sexuality and weaponize it. As the show moves on, she does that, dissociating her mental faculties from how she capitalizes on her sexuality which becomes crucial to her survival as it applies to her sex work. While Fanny Brice can perform a whole host of other perceptions and personalities onstage, Kim is not afforded the same luxury due to what her audience expects of her.

As is typical for a musical, both stories include love interests. And while they both compliment two strong leads, these love interests aren’t necessarily great, giving, feminist icons. In Funny Girl, Fanny Brice becomes entangled with a rich, fancy man named Nick Arnstein. At the beginning of the show, Fanny is unable to believe that Nick would be interested in someone like her because she has always been told by her mother and the people around her that she is not beautiful enough. When Nick approaches her about a relationship, it is very much up to her whether or not she wants to continue a relationship with him. He defers to her decision about whether or not she wants to move forward sexually. This occurs rather explicitly in the song “You Are Woman, I Am Man,” where Nick continually asks Fanny to get together with him and only does so once she accepts. Her sexuality can be conditional on her consent, which is not something of which non-white women are afforded the luxury. Following this romantic involvement, Nick and Fanny become married, sharing everything with one another, including money, something with which Fanny is very well-endowed. As a man culturally engrained with toxic masculinity, Nick feels emasculated and begins to pull away from Fanny as she becomes the breadwinner of the family. Nick feels belittled by Fanny earning money by going to work, a scenario that makes her appear more masculine and less feminine, and by virtue of the latter, sexualized. In the early 20th century this kind of opportunity would only be available to a white woman, due to persisting stereotypes about those of other races that oppress them to otherness. As a member of the majority race class in America, Fanny would have been the woman to receive such an ability.

In Miss Saigon, the plot of the story is built upon the relationship between Kim and an American soldier named Chris. Beginning in Dreamland, a brothel filled with American soldiers and Vietnamese women trying desperately to appeal to men with their sexuality, Chris takes notice of Kim. She is the only girl who isn’t actively trying to sell her sexuality and as a result, Chris is immediately interested in her. Kim is sold to Chris for the night and they sleep together. When we see him the next morning, Chris is completely in love with Kim. Yes, that’s right, in love. The only things he knows about her is that she doesn’t want to be sexualized like the other women of the club, and he rewards her for that by sexualizing and sleeping with her. Think of it this way, Chris wants to celebrate Kim not actively performing her sexuality and to do so he engages with her sexually. There is no context in which Chris’s perspective of Kim isn’t dominant, not only because he is an American soldier and she is Vietnamese, it is because she is only a woman and in that perspective is a sexual object. Every encounter between Chris and Kim is sexually charged with them passionately kissing every time they are united, him leaving her wrapped in a bedsheet, asking she be in bed when he return, and him, even in death, needing to wrap her in his arms and kiss her one last time. Even though Kim becomes a murderer, mother, and martyr, she is still defined only by her sexuality whether she likes it or not.

Both the actors who play Kim and Fanny Brice seem as though they have a strong conceptualization of what it means to be a woman in their given scenarios. Sheridan Smith’s Fanny Brice is, while a little shy in her movements with Nick, closing her body language off from him, she also projects a confidence in non-feminine movements. She capitalizes on moments like “Rat-tat-tat-tat,” fully committing to forego her femininity and create oafish character movements, an opportunity Fanny Brice would have accurately relished in. The caricature in the way she speaks separates her even further from traditional femininity. In the same way, Eva Noblezada’s Kim is not unaware of the position she’s in. At the beginning of the show, when she needs to appear a virgin, she gives an air of quietness, moving in slow, subdued movements. As she becomes more empowered by Chris’s validation, she is charged with energy, giving to him all of the power he is giving her. As the show progresses, she becomes stronger, striking power poses and gripping her son with strength. Even in her singing voice, Eva gives it her full power, but only in contexts outside of Chris, in songs like “You Will Not Touch Him” and “I’d Give My Life For You,” restraining herself in songs like “Sun and Moon.” She remains strong and steadfast for the entirety of the second act, returning only to quietness when she and Chris and reunited as she dies.

Grip that kid, Eva!

from: Playbill.com, Photo by Matthew Murphy

There’s an opportunity in every piece of work to represent your characters in a way that reflects the audience in a way that empowers or hurts them. Addressing how sexuality is a vital counterpart of what it means to be a woman is incredibly necessary. It could not be more important to think about how those who are a part of multiple intersecting minority groups, are not offered the opportunity to define what that identity looks like. Funny Girl gives the audience a peek of what that choice could look like, but Miss Saigon presents an unfortunate reality for several women. This representation is valuable for those who can’t comprehend what that lack of choice looks like and provides a space for reflection on behalf of those who are perpetuating it and validation to those who are victimized by it. So, no, the world isn’t totally equal and fair for every individual, but it’s through performance and theatre that we are able to enable active discussion and empower choice and change until it is.

Women and their Destinies: Agency (or Lack Thereof) for Women on the Broadway Stage

by Ilana Cohen

Broadway musicals use stereotypes understood by audiences to shed light or comment on truths within society. One stereotype that the American musical utilizes is the stereotype of womanhood and femininity. American women were expected to be graceful, pure, beautiful, and domestic. They were supposed to act demure and dignified at all times and to only concern themselves with domestic issues like being wives and mothers. Anything outside of that was seen as masculine and therefore negative for women. This stereotype, however, is specific to white women, who were held to different standards and expectations than women of other races. Another group stereotyped and fetishized on the American stage was East Asian women. These women were intriguing because they are exotic and mysterious to the Western world as Americentrism makes white the norm and anything else unfamiliar. East Asian women also are expected to behave even more submissively and passively than white women, who were all expected to submit to the dominance of their man. Two musicals that highlight the American musicals use of these stereotypes are Funny Girl and Miss Saigon. While Funny Girl highlights Fanny Brice, a woman who defies all stereotypes of femininity, Miss Saigon focuses on Kim, a traditional East Asian woman who upholds all the stereotypes associated with that. Despite the contrast in Fanny breaking the norms and Kim embracing and upholding them, both of these characters’ relationships end tragically, suggesting the idea that women do not have control over their fates whether or not they conform to stereotypes.

Both Fanny and Kim are starkly contrasted with the other female characters around them to highlight their defiance against and confirmation of stereotypes, respectively, held against these women. The directors intentionally place Fanny on stage with the Ziegfeld girls, the embodiments of American beauty, in order to illustrate the contrast between her femininity and beauty and that of the American ideal.  The Ziegfeld girls were made to create the pinnacle of beauty, most likely to appeal to the masses of men who desire to see something easy on the eyes when they come to the theatre. The directors recreated the Ziegfeld Girl in both their choreography and costuming to embody the ideal American beauty. The ensemble women were all dressed in white, like brides, which symbolizes purity– a societal expectation at the time– while at the same time the costumes were provocative, as they were made to highlight the female figure. The women were also doing very simple choreography, making them seem meek and not pulling focus– another expectation for women at the time. The synchronous nature of their movement also made the women lack uniqueness, promoting a uniformity. The Ziegfeld girls look demure and beautiful on stage in order to promote an ideal standard of beauty that people would pay to look at. Fanny immediately contrasts with the other women on stage in both her mannerisms and appearance. Fanny wears a less revealing wedding gown and she moves more hunched with a wide stance, both of which make Fanny seem less feminine in comparison to the Ziegfeld girls. Fanny went further than just not upholding these ideals of femininity; she wanted to mock them. Being uncomfortable singing about being the ideal of beauty as the bride, Fanny instead parodies the ideal wedding by coming on stage as a pregnant bride. This choice was bold as weddings were a custom important to American society, that highlights a woman’s purity and beauty, and it would be taboo and completely inappropriate for a bride to be pregnant at her wedding. Fanny’s character lacks the grace and beauty to be the ideal American woman and the purity to be the ideal bride. Her choices purposefully emphasize how far from the stereotype of American femininity she is, and she is proud of that. 

On the other hand, Kim is contrasted with the Engineer’s other prostitutes in order to demonstrate how much she does uphold stereotypes held about East Asian women. The other prostitutes both look and act promiscuous. Similar to the Ziegfeld girls, the prostitutes’ costumes highlight their figure, but their costumes are more like lingerie, making them look more trashy, while the Ziegfeld girls’ costumes were made to make them look beautiful and desirable. While the other prostitutes paraded around in bras and short shorts, Kim wore a traditional, white dress that went up to her neck and down to her knees. The costume designer intentionally used the white dress contrasted against the colorful lingerie to highlight Kim’s innocence and purity. Her conservative dress made Kim seem more mysterious, a stereotype of East Asian women, as it left more up to the imagination in terms of what her body looked like. The other prostitutes also moved around the stage and danced with bold, sexual movements to draw attention towards themselves and promote their wildness while Kim was more stoic to make her seem more dignified. The Engineer uses Kim’s disparity from the other girls for his own financial gain, as he is aware that her exotic, mysterious aura combined with her purity would make her very desirable to the American soldiers. 

Though Fanny spends most of the musical defying all stereotypes of femininity, both Fanny and Kim perform songs about the sacrifices they are willing to make for men and for love– which is an action consistent with stereotypes of women as accommodating to the man always.  “I’d Give My Life for You” gives insight into Kim’s character as it expresses her deep devotion and love for Chris and to her son, Tam, while also perpetuating the stereotypes of East Asian women as passive and subservient. The lyrics of the song express Kim’s loyalty and willingness to make sacrifices for her love. She is overly trusting, believing that Chris will come back to her, which gives Chris all the power in the relationship, as Kim is completely dependent on Chris’s decision. Kim admits how intimately and deeply she feels for Chris through the lyrics which state how she thinks about him all the time. While the melody and the lyrics of the song show Kim’s feelings as pure and true, the lyrics also present Kim as subservient and passive in her relationship with Chris, which is problematic because it reinforces stereotypes of East Asian women as desirable because they are submissive to their men. As an audience member, one might wish she was less open about how deeply she loves Chris and how willing she is to make sacrifices for their love because it emphasizes the stereotype of East Asian women as subservient. However, the audience still roots for Kim to succeed in love because the lyrics expose how genuine her feelings are and can relate to her willingness to sacrifice for her child– as the feeling of motherly care and protection is universal. While Fanny’s willingness to give up her career opportunity in the theatre to pursue Nick Arnstein goes against the rest of what the audience knows about her character, a woman who does not conform to the actions of the ideal American female, the way in which she performs the song “Don’t Rain on my Parade” can be seen as consistent with her persona as a defiant woman, breaking stereotypes. From the beginning of the song, Fanny refuses to listen to the reasoning or concerns of any of the other men and women on stage. She knows what she wants and is going to go after it despite what anyone thinks, this ambition and stubbornness is more of a masculine trait because women were not supposed to have great ambitions beyond being wives and mothers at the time, and women especially would not refuse to listen to the advice of a man. As the song progresses Fanny is alone on stage, making it clear to the audience that Fanny is the only one making decisions for her and that she is solely and completely in control of her destiny. Unlike Kim, Fanny is making the decisions in her relationship, chasing Nick instead of waiting and hoping he will come back to her. While both Fanny and Kim have faith and trust in their relationships, truly believing that they will work out in the end, Fanny performs with much more confidence because she is the one making the decisions in the relationship, so she can be more sure of the outcome. 

Despite the audiences wanting Fanny and Kim to succeed, as they are both sympathetic, relatable characters, both of these musicals end tragically, with failed relationships. The writers of these shows may be conveying a message that whether you defy stereotypes or not, it is very difficult for women at this time to be happy and fulfilled, as society allows men to do what they want and women must deal with their choices. Both Fanny and Kim were fiercely loyal and loving partners, but that did not guarantee them happily ever after. Fanny’s lack of stereotypical femininity may have been what intrigued Nick initially, but her ambition and success were too much for Nick to handle. Feeling emasculated by Fanny’s lack of femininity, Nick gets involved in illegal business dealings in order to find some of his own success, and he ends up in prison. Similarly, Kim’s conformity to the stereotypes of Eastern Asian women was what drew Chris to her in the first place, but her passivity makes it so she will not fight for her love once she finds out Chris had moved on and remarried. The harsh and problematic lesson learned by seeing the tragic endings for both of these women is that even if women attempt to control their own destinies or not, at least in terms of relationships, men still have the power to choose the fate for them, their relationship, and their women.

American Man Discovers a Vietnamese Woman is a Human (Not Clickbait)

By Kacy J

She’s your (manic pixie) dream girl: hot, young, innocent, full of deep trauma, the physical embodiment of moonlight and warmth, in dire need of protection, unconditionally in love with you despite your many flaws, and across the sea, making her easy to leave once she’s served her purpose of helping you realize you’re capable of feelings. And, sadly, your love is doomed. That should have been obvious from the start for Miss Saigon’s protagonist Chris Scott and his love for seventeen year old Kim. After all, he is a sensible white American GI and she is a mysterious Vietnamese teenager he could never possibly hope to understand. In this tragic “love story,” musical writers Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil, and Richard Maltby Jr make it clear that since Chris cannot save Kim with his Western influence, she is condemned to spend the rest of her life in Asia alone, rendering her life worthless.

Chris first sees Kim in a house full of prostitutes, but while the other women are experienced and older, Kim is only seventeen and a virgin. Her untouched virtue and wary eyes prompt Chris to want to protect her from being corrupted by The Engineer and the other more morally bankrupt GIs. Every sex worker in the club wants to escape Vietnam through marrying one of the soldiers, but the direction of Miss Saigon shows us that every woman except for Kim is already a firmly rooted stereotype of the East – sensual in a way American girls can never be. These women could never leave Vietnam, as they are too far gone to be assimilated to Western culture. Kim, on the other hand, is innocent and untouched, leagues separated from the women around her. She wears a long dress that is ripped without her consent, but, in Eva Noblezada’s interpretation of the character, holds herself tightly guarded even after, as if she longs to become invisible. She is not a paradigm of Asian stereotypes, like the others, though she is also not just an American character with a Vietnamese face. Kim still is a representative of some stereotypes as her youth plays into the way the West infantilizes Asia. She is only seventeen, how could she know what is good for her without an older mentor showing her the ropes? Since the women around her are all hopeless and the Asian men are heartless and unfeeling, wanting her to be more like the others in the club, good guy Chris is all Kim has. If Chris is a representation of the West, Kim is “the ideal” East – not overtly sexual, but still subservient and in need of protection.

Chris is clearly a good man because he is an American who is able to love a Vietnamese girl. He falls in love with her under completely normal circumstances – by having a friend pay so that Chris can take her virginity because he can’t stand to see someone else do it and then discovering Kim’s inner worth when he finds out she is an orphan (as her village was burned in the unnecessary war he is fighting) and therefore more of an “April moon” than a whore. Kim is not unlike the other sex-workers at the club who have had equally hard lives, but her virginity (pre-Chris) paired with her willingness to speak on her pain makes her easy for Chris to save. He is an American, how could he fail to do good? But just as America couldn’t “save” Vietnam, Chris cannot save Kim, so he chooses to leave her and move on with his life.

While Saigon was “a place full of mystery that [Chris] never once understood,” America is the one place where Chris thinks things make sense. Asia is a land of mystery with mysterious women, like Kim, but once Chris starts treating Kim like a human with a history and an inner life beyond her prostitution, he realizes there is more than he has been told. Chris sings that Vietnam is bearable “just as long as you don’t believe anything,” but that through her suffering, he learned to believe in her. This knowledge that Saigon contained at least one real human being in the form of Kim sticks with Chris and tortures his soul when he is back in America. He does not understand, even three years later, how an indescribable place could hold someone so authentic. Instead of working on humanizing the others he met in his head or going back to find Kim, Chris chooses to forget her and move on. He marries Ellen, a blonde white woman who makes complete sense because of her American citizenship. He thinks that with Ellen his life will make sense and he will avoid having to answer the questions of his past. Questions like: Were the Vietnamese actually human? Do their lives have worth? And although Chris never grapples with these, the musical sure makes their answers known.

Kim, still in love with Chris after three years, does not want to raise her son Tam alone for many reasons. However, when it becomes clear that she cannot have the happy family with Chris that she dreamed of, Kim decides that having a white American father in her son’s life is more important than having a mother. Although Chris tells Ellen they can send Tam to American schools in Bangkok and support him from afar, this is not the Western influence Kim wants for her son. After all, with racist men like Thuy who despise the white genetics of her son, what is there for him in Asia? Rather, he should go to America where no one is racist and his life can have worth. The promise of America is so big and bright and beautiful that is supersedes the influence Kim could have as the boy’s mother. The musical makes no attempt to hide its distaste for Vietnam and Bangkok. No opportunities can lie there and it is such a terrible place that growing up there would be worse than seeing your mother kill herself in front of your eyes and being forced to live with a father who was ready to abandon you just a song earlier. Even Kim, the representation of the ideal East, is nothing when compared to Chris’s American machismo.

The ending, though, is not a tragedy because she feels her life is so worthless that her only course of action is to kill herself. Rather, the audience is meant to cry because of how worthy she was of being saved by Chris and the American Dream. She was pure and only worked as a bargirl and dancer because she had to, unlike the other women who obviously were sex-workers for fun. Kim possessed a strong motherly instinct, just as we hear Ellen does. Kim is also the only Asian character to have any semblance of backstory or feelings beyond being upset about living in Vietnam. She feels love and is something special in the eyes of the Americans. Thus, she should have had worth. Kim could have had worth, if only she had been taken to America to be more fully assimilated. We as the audience are meant to cry because she was a hopeless case solely because she was born in Vietnam. If she had been American, she would have been a perfect woman without a tragic end. But it ends with her death, a sure sign that the East and West can never truly blend, except in this child Tam, though he will only be okay if he is fully Americanized.

The plot of Miss Saigon is not the racist idea that someone from Asia and someone from America can fall in love but perhaps are ill-fated from the start. Rather, by ending the musical with Tam going to join Chris in America, the musical is suggesting that love between an Asian woman and an American man can work, but only if the Asian woman becomes fully subservient to the man and the ideals of the Western nation. It’s important to note, however, that this cannot happen with just any Asian woman. She has to have pain incomprehensible to any man and yet still has to be naïve and not world-weary. She cannot turn to her sexuality willingly and must be tender to men who treat her like an object to pay for. The man, also, cannot be any man. He must be willing to see her as a human being. That is about the end of the list for the man, as long as he is a white American who knows that his job as an American is to “do good” by protecting those poor Asians who need to be saved. Composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyricists Alain Boublil and Richard Maltby Jr want you to know by watching Miss Saigon that some lives have immense worth and perhaps more lives should be more valued, though it’s a shame these authentic human beings were not born in America.

Miss Saigon – An Epic Story of Stereotypes

One of the great effects of well-written theatrical characters is the ambiguity of interpretation for audience members that complex and layered writing provides. Part of what makes esteemed theatrical pieces compelling is the space they give to audiences to formulate their own opinions and feelings about the piece and its characters, without being essentially told how to feel by a show’s creators – we don’t appreciate good art because it spoon-feeds us answers, but because it challenges us to think and reflect on our own beliefs, experiences, and biases. Based on this criterion, please allow me to explain why Miss Saigon and its characters are far from original, complex, or layered. On the contrary, the characters in Miss Saigon are quite unilaterally one-dimensional, stereotypical representations that drive a very specific and dogmatic interpretation of the piece endorsed fully by almost all aspects of the show’s performance text. Since dissecting every moment of this show would take quite a long time, I’m going to focus on the representations of two of the show’s leading characters – Kim and Chris – to demonstrate how Miss Saigon advances an extremely narrow-minded and culturally insensitive narrative. 

I’ll begin with Kim, the show’s 17-year-old Vietnamese female lead, played by Eva Noblezada in this 2016 filmed production. On the surface, Kim’s character arc leaves one with the impression that she is a strong-willed fighter, willing to do anything for a better life for her child, continuously fueled by her love for Chris. This is how the show intends for the audience to view her, as a tragic but independent and strong female hero. But is this actually how the text presents her? It’s difficult to argue against the contention that Kim is “strong” – indeed, when the audience is re-acquainted with her after the three-year time jump, we see just how much of a fighter she is, caring for Tam and struggling to survive while living on the streets. The text seems to assert that this fighting nature within Kim is a manifestation of her independent spirit and strong self-concept. To which I’d respond that Kim’s agency is in fact almost entirely illusory and lacks fundamental support from the text. 

Let’s consider the opening sequence of the show and the first interactions between Kim and Chris. Kim – along with every other female seen on stage – is bound to a life of sex-work, all with no choice but to obey the commands of the Engineer and serve the desires of male patrons. All of the women see their only means of escape from this life as dependent on convincing a visiting American male to take them back to America with her as his wife. In other words, these women believe they have no capacities within themselves to attain their freedom, and feel they have to be entirely dependent on the will of a man to be their savior, Kim included. So, would you consider her independent? A free agent? I’d be more inclined to say something like, “Kim is enslaved to the wills of men.” That feels more accurate. So, when she and Chris spend one night together and then decide that they’re in love, what do you think motivates Kim to come to the conclusion that she has fallen for Chris? I think it’s because she knows that “love” with an American soldier equals escape, even if it means binding herself to the soldier as his wife, which is exactly what she does. And on top of that, the only means of exerting her agency in such a situation is with her sexuality – she is only set apart from the rest of the women because of her virginity, and is made to be seen as more desirable to the patrons because so. Oh, and it’s also literally all Chris knows about her before he takes her to a room to have sex with her because his buddy paid for it. The buds of true romance, apparently.  

So, three years later after one night with Chris and she’s still in love but he has a new American wife. So she makes it her objective to have Chris take Tam with him back to America to give him the life she wants for him, and kills herself once she accomplishes this. The text would like you to interpret this as her tragic yet heroic ending. And it is tragic, but not because she shares one last kiss with Chris (we’ll talk about this later) and then dies in his arms. It’s tragic because Kim perceives her role as Vietnamese mother as inherently less valuable than that of American father. It’s tragic because she thinks Tam will have a better life if his mother is dead but he gets to live with his American father. She sees herself as fundamentally less valuable a life than that of Chris. She is not a tragic hero, but a sad mother who sees herself as incapable of providing the life she desires for her child. Because she is a woman and Chris is a man. And because she is Vietnamese and he is American. 

This is a stance the show advances throughout its duration – that Vietnam is hell and America is heaven. Every common Vietnamese person that the text introduces the audience to wants to get right out Vietnam, without presenting any internal character conflicts about leaving their home or bothering to suggest that there may be any aspects of Vietnamese life that could be preferable over life in America. The text suggests that there is no way a reasonable person could desire to stay in Vietnam. The show’s only prominent character who doesn’t pursue leaving is Thuy, who is also portrayed as 100% angry-communist-American-hating-military-man and whom the audience is offered no reason with which to sympathize. Only evil people could want to stay in Vietnam, apparently. 

This brings me to Chris, played by Alistair Brammer. Yes Chris, our All-American, muscular, handsome, moral, caring, and principled American solider…you see where I’m going with this. Just as the text makes every effort to portray Thuy as the force of evil to be despised, there is not a moment when the text does not endorse Chris as the morally superior, white American male savior, the idyllic embodiment of western manhood, above reproach or moral fault. This begins the moment we meet him, when we see him having to be peer pressured to enjoy his time at Dreamland and when we see him attempt to protect Kim from the other men. And after they spend their night together, he decides he’s fallen in love with her after she sings of the death of her family and struggles, which makes him feel a mandate to protect and care for her. His love for her is not based on shared interests or the result of them bonding through shared experiences – he has sex with her, she tells him about her dead parents, and now he is love stricken. The entire basis of him being in love is on the grounds that he feels he must save her. White, savior, complex.

Chris’s actions are never truly brought into serious question at any point in the text. When we find out that he has hidden his history with Kim from Ellen, the audience is not meant to doubt his faithfulness or integrity. Rather, we are expressly meant to sympathize with him for the mental torture that he is enduring. The text emphasizes this in both acts of the play with both Ellen scenes. Even in Ellen’s solo, “Now That I’ve Seen Her/Maybe”, she doesn’t place any blame on Chris for the secrets he’s kept, but rather turns inward to place blame on herself, wondering if now it was her duty to somehow set him free. With this, the text refuses to place any blame or responsibility for the pain Chris has caused others on himself. Rather, he is framed as a victim of circumstance and as man that was simply acting out of the goodness of his heart. When Chris explains himself to Ellen, he even says, “Christ, I’m American, how could I fail to do good?” This line hits the nail right on the head. Miss Saigon refuses to tarnish the goodness of Chris’s character because of his identity as an American man, an ideal to be held up to. Even when Chris kisses Kim before she dies, the text completely ignores the implications of the kiss on Chris’s romantic relationships, as it could be interpreted that his willingness to share in the kiss is indicative of the fact that he is never going to be fully emotionally satisfied with Ellen. But no, the text excuses this as ok because it is the tragic, dramatic conclusion to the tale of two lovers. At this point, I hope I have provided enough evidence to show the flaws with this stance that the performance text takes. 

Miss Saigon is a show of immense scope and scale, and famously so. But unfortunately, the production’s flair for the big and grandiose results in a performance text that quite egregiously presents one-dimensional, stereotypical representations of its characters that deserve much more depth and nuance. The show’s devaluation of Vietnam, its culture, and its people – especially its women – coupled with its glorification of America and the modern American man creates a performance text that fails to appreciate or acknowledge the complexities of the characters presented, and instead settles for outdated and recognizable tropes and stereotypes. 

It’s the Subtle Racism for Me: How Miss Saigon Fails Minorities

Originally debuting in 1989, Miss Saigon tells the tragic story of two star-crossed lovers, a 17 year-old Vietnamese girl and an American soldier, who meet in the midst of the deadly Vietnam War. Think of it like Romeo & Juliet meets the Viet Cong, but with racist undertones and a storyline crafted to intentionally assert white superiority. Much of the diversity conversations regarding Miss Saigon revolve around the initial casting controversy of Jonathan Pryce using yellow-face, but the recent 2016 West End revival shows that the racism in Miss Saigon goes far beyond that.

In classic American imperialistic fashion, Miss Saigon is rooted in our belief that Vietnamese people need and want saving. It perpetuates the narrative that the Vietnamese are victimized, and this begins the process of stripping the Asian characters of any agency. The entire second act revolves around Kim’s failure to evacuate Bangkok and her efforts to have her child avoid the same fate. However, the audience never gets to hear Kim talk with another Asian character about why she feels it’s necessary to give up her child. It’s just an unstated fact that as audience members we’re already supposed to believe that America is superior to any country in the Eastern world.  This choice by the creative team further emphasizes that Miss Saigon is a musical designed through an imperialistic lens. Even though the story heavily features minorities, it’s clear that didn’t happen because the creative team was actually interested in elevating minority voices. Instead, Miss Saigon uses Asian characters and countries because they’re a unique commodity for consumers to derive entertainment from.

The stark divide white privilege provides is prominent in the late act II song “Room 317” that features Ellen and Kim meeting for the first time. The lyrics primarily work to move the plot about Chris and Kim reuniting forward, yet the story is told almost entirely through Ellen’s (white) eyes. Ellen, as a white American, can never understand the pain and trauma Kim has experienced as a native Vietnamese living in a warzone. The intentional choice to have Ellen be the one who delivers this pivotal, crushing blow to Kim’s optimistic expectations exemplifies the fact that Miss Saigon was created for white consumption. Despite being a secondary character for the majority of the show, Ellen’s role becomes elevated and “Room 317” becomes about showcasing her own feelings. 

All the while, “Room 317” strips Kim, arguably the story’s most central character, of her agency. From the moment she enters Chris and Ellen’s hotel room, Kim is thrown into the unexpected. Her role becomes about responding to comments Ellen has already initiated, and therefore her role becomes mostly reactive in nature. Near the beginning of the song, Ellen wonders, “I don’t know how I’d feel if our roles were reversed.” It’s a fair question, and certainly something audiences must be keen to explore as well. Perhaps Kim would practice more empathy if she finally found herself in a position that wields power? We’ll never know.

Alas, much like the rest of the musical, the song continues without exploring much of Kim’s perspective and concludes with her fleeing the hotel room in an emotional haste. Audience members are never given the chance to hear Kim genuinely answer some of Ellen’s questions, and are instead only able to debrief the moment through Ellen’s lens. Even the songs there were written to further Kim’s narrative arc manage to completely block her from achieving any agency.

The costuming choices also accentuate the role race plays in creating agency. In anticipation of seeing Chris again, “Sun and Moon (Reprise)” shows Kim gracefully unpacking her wedding dress. The outfit is oriental, and the delicacy she unpacks and dresses with suggests to the audience that this is a valuable possession of hers. However, when Kim enters Chris’ hotel room wearing this outfit, Ellen immediately mistakes her for the maid. The comment is subtle and more of a disrespectful microaggression than a deliberate jab, yet it embodies the racism that plagues Miss Saigon throughout. It helps show the audience that Kim, even when wearing her finest outfits, will always be perceived as lesser than Chris’ American (read: white) wife. 

Several blocking choices in Miss Saigon also work to further the white supremacy communicated throughout the musical. Towards the end of Act I, Ellen is introduced to the audience for the first time during the song “I Still Believe” that shows her laying in bed with Chris as he struggles to sleep through a nightmare. The bedroom is staged in a way that it appears raised over Kim in Vietnam. The sets appearing concurrently shows the audience the totem-pole rankings of Chris’ lovers. It also communicates to the audience how Chris would be perceived in society if he had stayed in Bangkok with Kim. He would still be on the ground level, probably wearing tattered clothes with dirt on his face just as Kim was. Instead, the audience sees how coming home has already benefited him. His new wife wears clean pajamas, and they sleep in a fancy bed. “I Still Believe” puts in little effort to characterize Ellen beyond the fact she’s Chris’ American wife, but it perfectly communicates all the ways Kim pales in comparison to an American (read: white) bride.

In terms of staging, “Room 317” also acts as a prime example for the musical’s themes. Towards the end of the number, Kim recognizes that she’s fighting a losing battle with Ellen. Laurence Connor, the director, could have reworked this key moment in the revival to show Kim empowered by knowing the choice she now needs to make. Instead, the audience sees Kim continue her submissive ways. Noblezada lowers herself to her knees and bends over in a way that communicates how desperate Kim has become. This staging choice frames Ellen in a position of power (which she, of course, possesses) and accentuates Kim’s weakness. Noblezada’s positioning also vaguely resembles someone praying, which serves as subtle commentary on the overall plot that a white family (Chris and Ellen) can serve as literal “savior” to a non-white child (Tam).

As a white spectator, consuming Miss Saigon in 2020 and excusing its blatant racial misgivings because “the music is catchy” and “the story is so good” is a privilege. Even though the musical is technically diverse in nature and employs a large number of minority actors, it’s evident that the narrative conjured in the main story is full of harmful microaggressions. Continuing to revive this musical and consume it as theatre-goers makes us complicit in perpetuating the harmful, racial narratives associated with it. Miss Saigon commoditizes Asian culture and insists on telling this tragic, diverse story through a white-only lens, oftentimes unabashedly roping the audience into accepting the superiority of white culture. 

Miss Saigon has a crucial role to play in musical theatre history, but we’ve reached the point where it’s time to move on and retire the harmful narrative the story perpetuates. The music, book, and staging (hello, helicopter!) are theatre triumphs that deserved to be celebrated at one point in time. But we can acknowledge these once remarkable accomplishments while still admitting that the musical provides little to no cultural benefit in 2020.

This all being said, the continued fanfare for Miss Saigon and consistently sold out engagements proves that there is an active and eager market for more Asian-led stories. There is an entirely new generation of extremely talented Asian performers looking for their big break, just how the original production boosted Lea Salonga into the mainstream with opportunities they previously might not have had before. Asian stories are marketable, and it’s time for Broadway to retire its outdated tropes and start producing new, diverse stories featuring people of color.

The Queen and I

By Margie Johnson

Hoop skirts, white gloves, and jeweled necklaces are all  part of Anna Leonowens’ typical attire. Her style of dress has no practical use other than for show, symbolizing the wealth and beauty that is the standard of her position in Western culture. Throughout her journey into Siam, Anna stands tall with her head held high, separating herself from those who do not dress, look, or speak as she does. In Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, Anna’s whiteness is amplified and reinforced by her Western attire and mannerisms which grant her the authority to challenge the expectations for women in Siam. Those who do not possess whiteness, such as Tuptim, are left defenseless, trapped by the confinements of gender and femininity as proscribed by her culture and society. 

Anna’s superior position is revealed in the very first moments of the musical. After taking a position as the school teacher for the royal children of the King of Siam, Anna and her son Louis embark on a journey from Singapore to Bangkok. While still aboard the ship, Louis excitedly exclaims that there is a “naked” man passing by, evoking an eruption of laughter from the audience. In immediately calling attention to traditional attire of Eastern culture in a mocking manner, a sense of “otherness” has been established in favor of Louis and Anna. The actors invite us to join them in their mockery. Further into the scene, Anna and Louis admit that they are afraid of what is to come, calling upon a singing response from Anna to “Whistle a Happy Tune.” There are no tangible dangers present other than the new culture of Siam, however, suggesting that it is the leaving behind of the comforts of their Western culture that they truly fear. When they finally arrive at the shore, the characters must physically lower themselves onto the ground below them, symbolizing their descent from their high lifestyle towards the presumably inferior and foreign Eastern civilization. As soon as they step foot on the ground, they are immediately swarmed by the common people of Siam. While some pull at Anna’s silk skirt and others beg for money, all are dressed in uniformly ragged and filthy clothes, dehumanizing the Siamese people and creating a starkly visual division of class and wealth. As a result, Anna and Louis are firmly positioned  on a pedestal of properness, allowing the Western audience to more comfortably accept their likely preexisting conception of superiority relative to the  presumed inferiority of the Siamese culture. 

In an attempt to impress the British diplomat Sir Edward Ramsey, the King of Siam decides to entertain him in a grand manner with European traditions. One of the traditions includes dressing the King’s wives in European gowns. When attempting to put on the gowns and the makeup, the women shriek that they have to turn themselves “upside down and inside out.” They awkwardly waddle around in the bare hoops of the skirt or in an overly white painted face, alluding to their feelings of ridiculousness as they are not accustomed to any of these traditions and simultaneously making clear the false trappings of social standing and propriety. In one moment, a wife points to a dress and calls it a “costume,” referring to the dress as West and her face as East. Although the women are clearly suffering with their bruised toes and choking collars, Lady Thiang states that they must wear these trappings because Anna told them to do so, reinforcing the influence that Anna holds over them. Thus, it is no longer just the dress or the “costume” of Western traditions that provide Anna with power, but also the authority granted by her whiteness.

In addition to directing the entire event for Sir Ramsey, Anna speaks freely against the King, an action unheard of for a wife or any woman in Siam. Throughout the production, when confronted by the King’s rude remarks, Anna is unafraid to retort, emphasizing the immense amount of comfort and authority that her whiteness has provided her to the extent that she feels equal to a man of great stature. For example, before Anna arrives in Siam, she is promised a house by the King. This house is never delivered, however, causing her great distress. Although she is warned by the prime minister figure The Kralahome not to mention this unfulfilled promise to the King as it would aggravate him, she does so regardless and continues to do so throughout the musical. When teaching a lesson about snow, Anna’s students refuse to believe that snow, more whiteness, exists as they have never seen it themselves. After hearing the commotion, the King storms in and erupts into a fit of rage. He begins his tantrum with the discussion of snow but quickly trails into speaking poorly about the unfamiliar English traditions and revists the argument concerning the promised house. He throws books and shouts at the children, turning into a ruthless monster. While all of the students and wives cower below him in a prayer stance, Anna stands tall, head held high, and refutes him. She reminds him, once again, that the house was a broken promise and denies that she is a servant to his commands. If she does not receive her house, she states, she will return to England. In threatening to leave Siam, she has established herself as someone of value to the King with equal and unwavering opinions. Further, an entire song titled “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?”  is devoted towards Anna sharing her grievances about the King to the audience. In the song, she calls those under his ruling “toads” and pokes fun at their blind obedience. She includes a sexual reference, noting that all of his wives must compliment his sexual behaviors and behave as docile wives. In doing so, Anna has separated herself from the other women trapped under the King’s rule as she has enough power to ridicule him. Her incredible dominance granted by her whiteness has allowed her to supersede the limitations placed on the women in Siam. In a stance that would be humiliating to the King, were she a man, somehow it is accepted because she is a woman and while willing to confront him, still under his rule. Because she exhibits this Western whiteness, shared by the Western audience, it is still the Siamese people that are seen as “other.”

Tuptim, a woman gifted to the King of Siam from the King of Burma, does not experience similar autonomy as she does not possess Anna’s whiteness. Tuptim can speak English very well, and courageously exhibits this skill to the King when defending herself against the accusations that she was sent over as a spy. Instead of appreciating her talent and treating her as scholarly as he does Anna, the King pulls her away off stage to have her become another wife. In a plot twist, as suspected by Lady Thiang, Tuptim has fallen in love with another man. When Anna hears of this news, she feels sympathy for Tuptim and explains to the wives in a song about the great joys of falling in love. During the song, Anna stands tall above the women who are sitting equally far apart, grouping them into an obedient mass of women without any uniqueness or individually. Similar to the other women, however, Lady Thiang feels no emotion for Tuptim. Lady Thiang reflects the engrained sexist limitations of women in Siam and argues that it is foolish to love another man when she has the King. Due to the freedom and power granted by her whiteness, Anna has had the autonomy to fall in love naturally in contrast to the wives who must display constant obedience to the King. Tuptim, as a result, is forced to meet her lover in secret. In “We Kiss in a Shadow,” Tuptim and lover Lun Tha express the depths of their love for one another. They chase one another between pillar to pillar, playfully alluding to their constant hide-and-seek to see one another. Although a romantic song, they sing solemnly to express their sorrow that they will never be able to safely experience their love to the fullest as Tuptim has become a wife to the King. During the middle of the song, Lady Thiang strides in the background under a cool dark blue shadow, reinforcing the constant fear between Tuptim and Lun Tha of being punished for pursuing their love. A panic ensues between Tuptim and Lun Tha, causing Lun Tha to run away and leave Tuptim alone to finish the remainder of the song. Unlike Anna who can sing her love songs to an entire audience, Tuptim can only sing of romance in private, reinforcing Tuptim’s limitations as a new wife who cannot choose to be with the one she truly loves.

In an act of rebellion, however, Tuptim bravely attempts to defy her confinements and run away with Lun Tha. She gathers strength from the performance of Small House of Uncle Thomas, a version of the American classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Tuptim performs as the narrator of the play, speaking directly to the King as she speaks from her own heart. She announces the characters by describing them as happy people with the exception of slave Eliza. When it is time to announce Eliza, Tuptim stands directly next to her and bows in the same manner, making a clear reference towards herself that she is the unhappy slave to the King. Tuptim understands that it would be forbidden to clearly reveal her misery in the palace as she is expected to be grateful as a wife to the King. She acknowledges that she achieved the highest honor for a woman in Siam even though completely imprisoned. In order to fight for herself, she cleverly calls attention to the similarity between her story and Eliza’s. Eliza is separated from her lover George, just as she has with Lun Tha. Eliza runs away from her slave owner Simon, just as she will shortly after the play. Additionally, Eliza can only escape hidden behind snow, a concept associated with Anna’s teachings and defiance as seen from moments earlier in the musical. Tuptim alludes to Anna’s freedom which she so desperately wishes to obtain through this connection. Anna’s freedom, however, is only granted by her whiteness. As a result, despite Tuptim’s efforts, she will never be freed from the expectations for a woman under the King’s rule. After the production, Tuptim’s escape is brought to the attention of the King, and she is given a physical punishment of whipping. Once finding out that her lover has been killed, she reveals that she will soon kill herself to be with him. Tuptim’s only chance of happiness has been stripped from her as she was not given the agency of whiteness to stand up for herself without severe punishment. She could not bear to behave in complete obedience as demanded of her for a woman in Siam, ultimately driving her to death as a final resort. The King and I utilizes the extreme contrast between Anna and Tuptim in order to illustrate the severity of race and gender confinements. In evoking raw emotion in the form of sadness and rage from the troubled life of Tuptim, the audience is able to question the unjust privileges granted to Anna. At the same time, Tuptim’s passion comes across as more authentic and not circumscribed by social class and social mores. The actors are masterfully able to portray their characters in a manner which is playful and highly entertaining while calling the audience to question their own notions of race and gender, power and place in society. If one is not white and proper as defined by Western culture, are they obstructed in their ability to obtain freedom and happiness? And at that same time, are the King in his maleness and Anna in her whiteness truly free?

Anna and Chris: Feminizing the East, and the White Savior Complex

When I watched The King and I and Miss Saigon, I was confused. People were acting as though the racially accurate casting somehow erased the stereotypically written Asian characters. The shows particularly reminded me of the black actors that broke into the early Broadway scene by wearing blackface and making fun of themselves. I’m all for oppressed groups reclaiming the terms of their oppression, like myself and the LGBTQ+ community reappropriating the term “queer” or the black community with the n-word, but these shows feature no Asian empowerment; only Asian actors playing disempowered, victimized, or otherwise unflatteringly written characters. With that, I noted how racially accurate casting highlighted the problematic nature of the few white characters- The characters of Anna and Chris, from The King and I and Miss Saigon, respectively, perpetuate stereotypes of Asian characters and fulfill the inherently racist role of the “civilizing” Westerner.

Despite being opposite genders, Anna and Chris each serve the same gender-focused purpose in their show——they each feminize their Asian cast-mates by comparison. At the beginning of The King and I, Anna is an English governess with a flare for aggressive behavior, as demonstrated in her reprimanding of the king’s advisor. When she enters Siam, she finds herself surrounded by hyper-masculinity and femininity. King Mongkut is aggressive and impulsive, his wives are beautiful and quiet, and his children are obedient. Rather than become emasculated herself, Anna “tames” the masculinity of the King, modeling his new character after the docility of an Englishman (but more on that later). In her own right, Anna brings a positive and empowering air, akin to Mary Poppins’ decisive and rigidly sophisticated nature. Chris takes a similarly masculine role in Miss Saigon, and through him the character of Kim is further feminized. By the beginning of the show, Kim is already a victim of war, and her autonomy is stripped of her when she is forced to turn to prostitution. She plays an obedient and extremely submissive role in her own story, and that fact is exacerbated by the active and assertive role that the muscle-bound Chris plays. He takes power from her particularly when he sleeps with her, not as a lover, but as a buyer. And why is it that Chris falls in love with her, anyway? He explains in the show that his trauma from the war turned him to despair, and that she was one good thing in that hell. It’s a sweet sentiment, but a little less sweet when we consider why exactly she caught his eye. Kim was “not like the other girls” because she was a pure, teenaged, virgin. She was made docile through her trauma and was taken advantage of by her supposed lover. This moment of equating Kim’s purity and worthiness to her virginity and naivety was demeaning and objectifying then, and by today’s standards it is downright sexist. Ultimately, the actions of both Anna and Chris serve to take masculinized power away from the Asians in their lives, furthering the disempowerment of Asian cultures through feminization. 

These characters also exist to perpetuate stereotypes of Asian characters through comparison, and to display the White Man’s Burden on stage. Anna is the clearest example of this cultural violence; her purpose in Siam is to educate and civilize. It was clear in her wiseacre demeanor and assertive behavior that she initially regarded the Siamese as less sophisticated than the English, and she never came to truly respect Siam as its own nation. Through the show, her only genuine respect seemed to come when King Mongkut acted European or was dying. She becomes open to understanding the people of Siam in the song “Getting To Know You,” but even in that, she only concedes that the people of Siam aren’t all that bad- she never celebrates, appreciates, or even recognizes their traditional culture as legitimate. Her only respect arrives in achieving her goal of “civilizing” and bringing European values and cultural pieces (clothing, dances, phrases, etc) to Siam. And the moment the King moves to discipline the deserting Tuptim, Anna jumps right back to calling him a barbarian. Interestingly enough, Victorian England carried the same penalty of death for desertion, whether it be for love or not. Soon after, when the King is dying, Anna’s respect for him comes out of a place of pity and guilt, yet never from a place of appreciation of legitimization of Siamese culture. Chris, meanwhile, embodies the white savior complex in a more subtle way. His role in the Vietnam war was, most simply, about protecting Western, capitalistic values and stopping the spread of communism. What he ultimately brought to Saigon was an idolization of Westernism and a negative association with the East. The Engineer actually verbalizes this negative sentiment of his own race on a couple occasions, including his lines, “Why was I born of a race that thinks only of rice and hates entrepreneurs,” and “Greasy ch*nks make life so sleazy.” Chris’ whiteness, whether or not he intended it, became a symbol for success and prosperity, and by contrast, non-whites gained the association of the opposite. Theatre critic Diep Tran described in her americantheatre.org article I Am Miss Saigon, And I Hate It how the characters of the show fall into this trap of American imperialism and white savior discourse, particularly “idolizing whiteness to the point of suicide.” Through Chris, America became synonymous with success, and Vietnam with disaster. 

Still, much of this can be chalked up to the (white) men that wrote these shows without our modern respect and understanding for multiculturalism and gender studies. So how did the actors that played these imperfect characters portray them? All in all, I thought they did a pretty good job with how the characters were written. Kelli O’Hara blended traditional masculinity into femininity, yet could only do so much to improve Anna’s questionably written character. Then again, as I said earlier, her blending of gender norms had some consequences regarding the negative feminization of the Siamese characters, but I digress. I also appreciated that she tried to portray a greater respect in the song “Getting To Know You,” even if the song itself lacks celebration of Siamese culture. She could certainly have taken a stricter, more hard-as-nails approach to the character, and I felt her softer side was well developed, making her a more likeable character than she is otherwise written. Alistair Brammer brought Chris to life as a troubled and traumatized G.I. As written, Chris is not condemned by the show for anything he does, for instance paying to sleep with a 17 year old girl with whom he has an obvious power imbalance. Yet the show wants us to regard him as a “good guy” and strives to focus on his giving Kim money in the opening number, or on his (initial) refusal to sleep with her or another prostitute, or even his return to Bangkok to see her. I felt Brammer and his production did an excellent job of adding focus to the questionable things his character did; for instance, by threatening someone that wanted to use a public telephone with a gun. It would have been easy to play Chris as a simple good guy, but Brammer portrayed him as a character with depth, flaws, and regrets. Again, both the characters of Anna and Chris are highly flawed in their writing, but I believe Brammer and O’Hara each did excellent jobs bringing some modern positivity to unavoidably problematic characters and shows. 

But let’s back up. Does any of this actually matter? In short, yes. I said earlier that Anna and Chris perpetuate stereotypes of Asian characters and that their roles are, albeit to varying extents, inherently racist in theory. Anna is a governess meant to bring English “civility” to Siam, and Chris is a drafted G.I. serving in Vietnam to instill Western economic, cultural, and social values. But do I think these reasons should cause the shows to be shunned or retired? Absolutely not. Although the playwrights may have perpetuated some unfortunate stereotypes in their shows, it is up to modern actors and producers to take those shows and perform them respectfully, with dignity, and with a focus on the timeless narratives they aim to tell. Understanding their production’s implications in race, gender, and other social areas is integral to accurately, successfully, and positively performing a piece, and it is for that reason that we as theatre and social critics do what we do.