Miss Saigon the musical, for some Filipinos, has been a point of national pride.
On November 12 and 13, Miss Saigon 25th Anniversary Performance movie will have a limited release in the Philippines, which will also be a homecoming, at much more accessible venues (including select SM Cinemas in Northern Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao) at an affordable price.
Its leading actress, Lea Salonga, bagged an Olivier and a Tony (both a first for any Filipino) for her role. Many of the musical’s major characters were also created by Filipino cast members and, since then, a long list of Filipinos have been cast to different productions of Miss Saigon in other cities. For years before Miss Saigon‘s Manila production in 2000-2001 (which I had seen at the Cultural Center of the Philippines), cassette tape and CD recordings of the soundtrack sold well in record bars, with Pinoys memorizing the words and music of a musical they have yet to see; its songs can still be found in the playlists of karaoke machines, and TV variety shows do a Miss Saigon tribute from time to time. And 25 years since its premiere at the Drury Lane Theater in London, Miss Saigon still employs Filipinos in its current revival, led by Eva Noblezada (Kim), Rachelle Ann Go (Gigi) and Jon-jon Briones (The Engineer). It’s not an understatement, then, to say that for Filipinos, Miss Saigon is the only Broadway musical that they had only known.
But Miss Saigon is more than just a musical that happens to be intertwined with the careers of its Pinoy casts. It is also a tragic love story, a war story, and also a commentary on race and sexuality (albeit in a manner that some people have found controversial). In this article, we will look back at the origins of Miss Saigon the musical, as well as identify other works that inspired its creation. We will also gloss over major themes from the musical, which may help viewers appreciate Miss Saigon on its own merits and which may also help connect Miss Saigon better with Filipino audiences. (My review of the film itself [and the musical] will be published on November 12, 2016. As a result, I will avoid discussing important plot points, as well as refrain from making a commentary about the musical itself.)
ORIGINS AND INSPIRATIONS
A well-known anecdote about Miss Saigon‘s origins came from its writer, Claude-Michel Schoenberg. One morning, he noticed a magazine picture of a Vietnamese mother sending her daughter away. The daughter was leaving her mother behind, hoping to have a better life with her father in the United States. Schoenberg was struck by what he saw , realizing that mother and daughter may never see each other again. He called that moment “the ultimate sacrifice”, and resolved to use it as the premise for a new musical.
Because the photograph does not contain the complete story, Schoenberg and his collaborator Alain Boublil (music) decided to adapt important plot elements from Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly as the basis of their new musical. (Madama Butterfly‘s libretto was written by Puccini’s collaborators Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, who were also behind Puccini’s La Boheme; both Butterfly and Boheme are tragic love stories that are still staged in theaters and opera houses worldwide.) The opera was adapted from a popular short story by John Luther Long, Madame Chrysantheme (1898); this, in turn, was adapted from Pierre Loti’s memoir-novel with the same title (1885), and was said to be based on real events. (In a testament to the timelessness of Puccini’s operas, La Boheme was adapted by Jonathan Larson years after Miss Saigon and became known as the award-winning musical Rent.) The opera was initially unsuccessful and had been revised four times, with each revision giving Puccini better reviews. Because of its popularity in Europe and in the US, Madama Butterfly helped shape how the Western World has regarded Japan, which had just started to open up during the early years of the Meiji Empire.
Puccini’s Madama Butterfly narrates the love story of Cio-cio-san—the Italianized spelling of cho-cho which means “butterfly”–and Lt. Pinkerton, an American naval officer who married Cio-cio out of convenience. After Pinkerton leaves Japan, Cio-cio gave birth to a child and had hoped to be reunited with her Pinkerton, only to realize that her hopes had been all in vain. Anyone familiar with Madama Butterfly will recognize similarities between Miss Saigon and the Puccini opera. Both Cio-cio-san and Kim fell in love with American military officers; each one bore a son; and both characters met similar struggles in their bids to reunite with their lovers. There are even parallels in the musical numbers: love duets that use images of nature (Butterfly‘s duo near the end of Act 1; Miss Saigon‘s “Sun and Moon” and “Last Night of the World”), a monologue by its lead female characer (“Un bel di vedremo” for Butterfly, parts of “I Still Believe” for Miss Saigon), and even a confrontation with another female character. Even the ending of both works are similar, too.
However, Schoenberg and Boublil introduced some elements in Miss Saigon that were absent in Butterfly. These unique elements are stated early on, during the first thirty minutes of the musical. Miss Saigon is set in the middle of the Vietnam War (vs. the peaceful circumstances of Butterfly). Kim’s family perished in the war (vs. Cio-cio-san’s family losing their fortune), and was forced to work in a brothel by an opportunistic pimp who calls himself The Engineer, until her freedom has been bought by a US Marine officer. Chris the Marine officer encounters a rival, Thuy, a Viet Cong officer who was supposed to have been betrothed to Kim. After her (forced) separation from Chris, Kim, unlike Cio-cio-san, is alone with her son and has to fend for herself and her son. Miss Saigon also brings up some contemporary themes that were either absent or not fully threshed out in Madama Butterfly.
LIVING REMINDERS OF ALL THE GOOD WE FAILED TO DO
For instance, at the time of its premiere, Miss Saigon has been regarded as a condemnation of the Vietnam War, a US-sponsored war that was widely regarded as a failure even by Americans. But instead of putting a spotlight on the failed ambitions of the American regime, Miss Saigon focuses on the casualties of war: the displaced Vietnamese people who were caught between the crossfires of the US Armed forces and their allies on the one hand, and that of the Soviet-backed North Vietnamese Army. (During the war, Vietnam was divided into the US-backed South Vietnam and its capital Saigon, and communist Northern Vietnam.) Fears of reprisals by the North drove some Vietnamese away from their homeland, resulting in an exodus that brought refugees to places as nearby as Bangkok (the setting of Act II) and as far as Palawan, Philippines.
The Vietnam War also resulted in a number of Amerasian children sired by American servicemen, of which a significant number have been abandoned or neglected by their fathers. Like the Amerasians who were born around the then Subic-Clark US air bases, the Vietnamese Amerasians also experienced discrimination from their fellow countrymen and have received inferior treatment as second-class citizens in their own country. The second act of Miss Saigon begins with a call to help to improve the plight of Amerasians—to help the “bui-doi” by rendering “all the good we failed to do”—and then continues to show Kim’s efforts to give her son Tam a better life.
Miss Saigon also touches on exploitation, and is unrelenting in showing how Kim was passed on as either a piece of merchandise (by the manipulative Engineer) or as a prized property in an arranged marriage’s contract (by her would-be groom Thuy). Kim is looked down by some of the leading male characters as a mere trifle, whose only purpose (it seems) is to provide pleasure in a patriarchy that allows women’s bodies to be exploited for cash and for pleasure. There has been some controversy as to whether Miss Saigon itself is exploitative in how it presented Kim’s story (as well as how the Vietnamese have been portrayed but, if any, Miss Saigon reminds us that exploitation has not gone away, and there is a lot of work that needs to be done to combat it.
In Miss Saigon‘s perspective, then, the greater failure and casualty of the Vietnam War, more than the failed ambitions of greater American military influence in Southeast Asia, is the senseless destruction of Vietnamese lives and the breakdown of families as a result of the War. For all the glamour of its much-talked about “American Dream” sequence, or the brute force of its (in)famous helicopter scene, or the garish neon lights of the brothels of Saigon and Bangkok, Miss Saigon is a bleak work of theater. It is not your feel-good West End or Broadway musical, and despite the tender love duets for which it was known, it is unapologetic for the strong language and themes it use; Miss Saigon, after all, is a drama set during wartime. Nothing here is sugarcoated. (Understandably, the 25th Anniversary Performance film has been rated R-13 by the MTRCB.)
COMING HOME AGAIN
Yet, despite its depressing subject, Miss Saigon remains popular among Filipinos, who have looked forward to watch the performances by its Filipino cast members. For years, Miss Saigon‘s producer Cameron Mackintosh has mentioned how he has been blessed to have worked with Filipinos and how their professionalism has contributed to the musical’s success; as a result, Filipinos are present in many major Miss Saigon productions all over the world. This is why the Manila production of Miss Saigon in 2000-2001 was dubbed as a homecoming; for Miss Saigon as we know it would not have been possible without the Filipinos who gave life to its characters.
Thus, Miss Saigon served as the calling card of the Pinoys who became part of its cast and who later made their own names in show business: among Lea Salonga’s fellow Miss Saigon alumni are Monique Wilson, Isay Alvarez, Robert Sena, Cezarah Campos (the alternate Kim in the 2000-2001 Manila production), Jenine Desiderio, Jamie Rivera, the late Junix Inocian, Casey Francisco, Joanna Ampil, Leo Valdez, Tanya Manalang, Robbie Guevarra and Ima Castro. Even Makati Councilor Jhong Hilario and a few of his fellow Streetboys members count themselves as Miss Saigon alumni (as members of the production’s dancers and acrobats).
And in some respects, the limited release of the Miss Saigon 25th Anniversary Performance movie in the Philippines will also be a homecoming, at much more accessible venues (including select SM Cinemas in Northern Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao). It also comes at an affordable price: at P320 per ticket, it’s cheaper than the P500 tickets for an Upper Balcony Side seat during Miss Saigon’s Manila production (even without accounting for inflation). If the teaser trailer video is any indicator, the 25th Anniversary movie promises to be an immersive experience, as a good number of the scenes were shot at very close distances, something which would not be possible even in a live theater performance. For this price and for the experience alone, this is arguably a good deal that anyone who has long wanted to see Miss Saigon should not miss.