MOVIE REVIEW: Miss Saigon 25th Anniversary Performance (2016)

To mark the silver anniversary of Miss Saigon’s, Cameron Mackintosh brings the musical to movie theaters in select countries, including the Philippines. It is an immersive experience that, despite the musical’s flaws, remains an enjoyable and energetic musical that appeals to mass audiences all over the world.

On the final days of the Vietnam War, the orphan Kim starts her first night at work at the girlie show operated by the pimp Tran Van Dinh (who likes to call himself “The Engineer”),. There she meets, and spends the night, with Chris, an American marine who was already disillusioned with the War. After they make love, Kim asks Chris to take her with him to America, which he agrees to. A few days, the city of Saigon falls, and as the entire American contingent flees the city, Kim is left behind. The rest of the musical tells about how Kim sets out to find Chris and hoping (in vain) to experience a better life in America and to start a new life with Chris, which mirrors the story of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (one of the inspirations for Miss Saigon‘s plot).

Before continuing, let me be clear on one thing: despite its popularity (even to this day), Miss Saigon has not always received universal acclaim. Its 1989 production was hounded with controversy over the casting of caucasian actors for Asian roles (Jonathan Pryce for the Engineer; Keith Burns for Thuy), as well as concerns that Miss Saigon borders on exploitative theater. But more importantly, the original version of its songs were regarded as being inferior to its creator’s more acclaimed work, Les Miserables. It may be a case of something being lost in the translation–the book was written in French, and was translated into English by Richard Maltby–but even so the original English lyrics for some of the songs were corny and unremarkable at the least, unsubtle and awful at its worst, especially considering that they were written by the same team who wrote On My Own, I Have a Dream and One More Day.

Consider one of the first big moments of the musical, The Movie in My Mind (sung in the first few minutes of Act 1 by Gigi, the bar girl played by Rachelle Ann Go). In the original 1989 production, part of Gigi’s lyrics went like this:

The movie plays and plays;
the screen before me fills.
He takes me to New York,
he gives me dollar bills.
Our children laugh all day
and eat too much ice cream,
and life is like a dream….

which, given the melancholic mood of the song’s music, borders on the comical, naive even. It also did not reflect the intentions of Gigi’s monologue, which was supposed to be the desperate lament of a prostitute who got tired of being used by men over and over (hence, “plays and plays”).

To their credit, the creative team of Miss Saigon revised most of the lyric in subsequent productions. Some of the shallow lyrics have been written out, and even a few songs were replaced by new compositions (e.g. the lyrics of 1989’s It’s Her Or Me were rewritten into Now That I’ve Seen Her in the Broadway production, but has been completely eliminated and replaced by Maybe. With new music.)  More focus was also given to tighter characterizations of the main roles. So in the present version, Gigi’s monologue has become more wistful and resigned:

The movie plays and plays.
I’ll find my true romance.
He takes me to a place
Where I don’t have to dance.
Our children laugh all day…
But all that I’ve been through
Can’t make my dream come true….

Therefore, those who will be watching the 25th Anniversary Performance film will enjoy seeing an improved musical, a slightly better version than the original version (although not one that I would consider great). Some of the new words and dialogues also use stronger language; as mentioned in the previous article, this film is rated R-13 and is definitely not recommended for very young audiences. (There are also a good number of suggestive scenes and skimpy clothing on select scenes, which justifies the rating.)

One question that viewers might want to ask is how does watching this film compare to watching it in a theater. I have seen Miss Saigon at the Cultural Center of the Philippines in December 2000 (which, at the time, also featured Jon-jon Briones as the Engineer) and I can say that, as always, watching a theatrical production in person is better than watching it on film, much less on a video taken with a mobile phone. A lot of nuances are lost when movie audiences can only see parts of what’s going on stage (e.g. the sex tourists’ transactions in the Bangkok/What a Waste sequence). So while this film reintroduces Miss Saigon to Philippine viewers, it does not–and will not be able to–reproduce the same effect it had on the audiences who were seeing the musical in person. Laughing at punchlines with a live audience feels warmer and more organic than laughing along with a recording of theater goers laughing at the same scene

However, the Miss Saigon 25th Anniversary Performance film compensates for this lack of warmth with cinematic devices that give a deeper color to each actors’ expressions, showing details which theater goers turn may miss in turn. (There is even a better view of Chris and his fellow passengers from inside the helicopter at the famous Fall of Saigon sequence; in the theatrical production, audiences may not even see any passengers at all.) The solos and duets feel more intimate (you can notice the exact moment when Kim starts to tear up), and the expressions of every actor look more candid. The film, therefore, can be enjoyed regardless of where a person is sitting in the movie theater. Tighter editing has also eliminated any noticeable gaps during set changes (including the interval between Acts 1 and 2), which provides for a more immersive experience (except for the end credits, which do not come with additional scoring).

There are also plenty of strong performances from the main cast. Eva Noblezada’s Kim is tender and delicate, yet vulnerable to the machinations of the Engineer, despondent even from the revelations that unfolded in Act 2 instead of bitter. Alistair Brammer as Chris is earnest and sincere, whose light voice register resemble that of Simon Bowman’s in 1989. Jon-jon Briones is a cunning, calculating and manipulative Engineer, and therefore loathsome (which earned praises from Jonathan Pryce during the surprise appearance at the curtain call). Tamsin Carroll gives an empathic protrayal of Ellen, while Hugh Maynard’s John is frank and direct. Although they appear for shorter times than their fellow leading cast members, Kwang-ho Hong and Rachelle Ann Go delivered distinctive performances as the haughty, vindictive Thuy and the bitter, jaded Gigi (respectively). As a whole, the cast members have delivered very good performances, nailing subtle interpretations down to every single word. These performances, for me, are more important than any other aspect of the entire show, and would probably be the single reason why I would buy the DVD should it become available in our local record bars.

Miss Saigon 25th Anniversary live recording screens in cinemas on Nov 12 & 13

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.