Musical Review: Miss Saigon

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The second musical I saw was of a very different vein. For one thing, it was set (primarily) several thousand miles away, in Saigon, Vietnam. For another, it was set around 20 years earlier. And for another, far from being lighthearted and comic with subtle cultural messages, it was dark and harrowing, and the cultural conflict took a much more deeply frightening form (if anything can be more frightening than your Indian mother brandishing a rolling pin at you and yelling about how you’re a disgrace to your family). The plot, of course, was the famous story of the country girl from Vietnam who began a passionate romance with an American soldier during the war, lost him when he was evacuated, still believed that he would come back for her, and was finally broken three years later – after meeting his new wife.

This short summary cannot even begin to do justice to the utter grief and anguish conveyed by the musical. Some musicals make the audience pity the character, and maybe sniffle a little. This was the first musical I’ve seen that didn’t just induce a little bit of sorrow and sympathy and sniffling; it induced a complete outpour of empathy, of emotion, of despair on behalf of the protagonist, who had lost everything she had. It takes extremely effective characterisation and worldbuilding to make the audience feel so connected to a character, especially when the character in question is not in a circumstance to which most people in the audience can relate, in this new, post-Cold War millenium. Apart from the brilliantly realistic and poignant acting, there were two main factors which I thought contributed to making the musical so easy to relate to. The first of these was the appeal to basic human emotion through the use of “motifs” of what people seem to instinctively pity. In particular, this was done using children. Kim’s (the main character’s) son served as a projection screen for much of her emotion: he represented her lust for her lover Chris, her absolute certainty that she was married to him despite the lack of legal documentation, her total conviction that she and he had to be together and that they had to find each other again and that she had to leave the real life dystopia that was Communist Vietnam. Since we are all aware of that deep, intimate bond between mother and child, this made her emotion even more real and painful than it already was.

The second factor is something to which I would like to devote a fair amount of discussion: the set of the musical. It was spectacular. I am not the slightest bit familiar with the technicalities of staging and set design, but the versatility of the set, the way in which it could transform from strip club to barracks to traditional village to hotel suite and back again, showed a really smart design. There were two scenes in particular which I felt used staging to capture emotion perfectly. Firstly, there was a scene near the beginning of the play showing some sort of Communist military parade, which I think was to display the brutality of the war and the conviction with which the Communists executed this brutality “for the greater good.” The sides of the stage were lined with Vietnamese Communist flags – red with a gold star in the centre – and soldiers clad in identical military uniforms embossed with a red star marched across the stage, forming a shapeshifting block of khaki, as a large golden bust of Ho Chi Minh’s head watched over the scene. The lighting was harsh, the music thumped and periodic bursts of smoke provided regular “jolt-up-in-seat” moments. It was an “all-out” show of military splendour and the glories of collectivism, and even with knowledge of the atrocities of Ho Chi Minh’s regime one couldn’t help but admire and anticipate the revolution.

In contrast to the brash, upbeat strength of this scene, the other scene which particularly stood out was the one during which the American soldiers were evacuated. This scene was particularly hard to set, since there were many emotions and senses which all had to be conveyed at once – the rush of the evacuation, the desperation of the soldiers, the roaring chaos of the surrounding war, and the slow breaking of Chris and Kim’s hearts as they found out that they wouldn’t be able to reach each other. This was accomplished by a riot of loud bangs, shouts, flashes and, ringing out above all this, the two lovers calling to each other in vain. The scene was complete with a genuine helicopter dangling above it, whose sounds filled the room.

In terms of the music, I didn’t find that the songs from this musical were anything special; I thought that the dialogue and scenery were a lot more powerful in terms of conveying the emotion of the story than the songs were. The one song which I did really enjoy was, incidentally, one which I sang two-and-a-bit years ago at the Performing Arts Workshop at my school: the Wedding Song. I’ve yet to find out what the Vietnamese words in it actually mean, but it was wonderfully delicate, with beautiful harmonies: a musical monument to love at its purest. Perhaps this is my obsession with foreign music speaking, but I wish there had been more music in Vietnamese: from what little I have heard of the language outside of this musical, it really is quite beautiful and romantic.

Although Miss Saigon is, for the most part, a love story rather than an insight into sociocultural contrasts, I was pleased to note that there were a good few cultural phenomena on which to comment. The main cultural conflict here was classic Cold War stuff: a counterposition of American, capitalist values and the Communist – and, paradoxically, more traditional – values of Vietnam. There was one song by the strip club owner, who was a born capitalist (and who got too much screentime, in my opinion), which was a huge, showy dance number with feathers, stilettos and money-throwing and epitomised capitalist culture, contrasting sharply with the military parade: an epitome of Communist culture. In Vietnam, falling in love with someone from the West was being “a traitor to your country”; in the US, men deliberately went to Asian countries to meet women. And a considerable part of the central plot stemmed from a cultural misunderstanding: Kim thought she was married to Chris after a traditional Vietnamese ceremony, while Chris, being American, viewed marriage as primarily a legal matter and proceeded to legally marry someone else back in the States two years later. Another interesting thing to note is the idealisation of the United States – throughout the musical, despite having just lost a war, the United States remained the stuff of particularly good dreams for every Vietnamese character in the play. All the Communist, anti-Western propaganda seemed to be futile. Interestingly, in today’s world such propaganda is much less prevalent than during the Cold War, but America is the world’s most hated country according to ABCnews.

So overall, I did really enjoy Miss Saigon; it was poignant, raw and cleverly put together, and contrasted well with the other pieces of art which I’m reviewing for this project.

(I hope y’all enjoyed the lack of political bias.)

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