Better and just as bad: Miss Saigon, a generation on

K. Montinola (The Philippine Star) - July 7, 2014 - 7:41pm

When a West End revival of Miss Saigon was announced, the next most important bit of news was the fact that the producers were searching for some talented Pinays to put into their cast. Everyone was excited, the way we always get excited when we get opportunities like this. To us it feels like an acknowledgement: an international party, recognizing the talent to come out of our country.

In our minds, we are frequently a kind of underdog in the international stage, figurative or not. So any kind of achievement — sports, science, media or anything else — becomes a cause for celebration. And we love celebrating.

We also love singing. We’d all like to sing, and some of us actually can, and those of us who definitely can’t are happy enough to sing along anyway. So the casting of Filipinos in a West End production is a dream come true twice over, even if it has happened before.

The story of the casting, of course, had its happy ending: cast as Kim was the incredibly young but supremely talented Eva Noblezada, a Fil-Am we can comfortably call Filipina; Rachelle Ann Go, the favorite of the speculators, ended up with the role of Gigi; Manila-bred Tanya Manalang also gets her chance to showcase her talent as the alternate Kim; and of course there was Jon Jon Briones reinstalled as the Engineer, and is by all accounts (including my own) a bit of a show-stealer.

It’s not quite like the riveting story that canonized Lea Salonga into the pantheon of Filipino heroes, but it’s inspiring all the same. And it helps that this Miss Saigon revival is a great piece of blockbuster theater.

“Blockbuster” is the operative word. The huge stage is set up spectacularly, with well-controlled effects to heighten the drama. The lighting was ambitious and cinematic, adding to the moody visuals depicting each character’s lament. If Miss Saigon was ever made it into film, you could just imagine the palette and the tones. In fact, the production sometimes felt a lot like a widescreen movie with its deft use of stage effects and musical numbers intended to wrench at the heart.  It does its most famous scene justice, depicting the utter chaos of the US military pulling out of Vietnam through the terror of a helicopter. It’s a great show.

In short, Miss Saigon embraces its blockbuster flair, to definite success. Much like a blockbuster Hollywood film, it will thrill and enthral and make you feel for its stars. Also much like a Hollywood film, it isn’t without its original sins. Twenty-five years later, and the problems haven’t really gone away.

To be fair, its greatest faults are virtually impossible to rectify, because they are rooted in the source material. Puccini’s Madame Butterfly is where the main story is derived, and essentially Miss Saigon was the next century’s version. Much effort is made to make Chris’ abandonment of Kim less heartless and more his control, and Kim’s eventual conviction that her child is better off with his father without her in the picture is more a tragic misunderstanding. Many of the things that make Madame Butterfly somewhat distasteful are “modernized,” or simply made slightly less distasteful: “I’m seventeen,” Kim sings, to introduce herself. That’s not so bad, one supposes, though nobody wants to be caught on record saying that. Cio-cio-san was fifteen.

And so, like Madame Butterfly, the issue is not whether or not it is a good show, but whether such stories should be told more responsibly. There are very few depictions of Asians in mainstream musicals, and even less actually telling stories of East Asians without the orientalizing (and borderline fetishizing) sheen. The white men of the west are very quick to cast Asian women when the production calls for prostitutes or other overtly sexual roles. There’s a reason why Kim’s character has to be kept virginal and virtuous; the audience would have a difficult time setting her apart from the other prostitutes otherwise.

Deciding to set against the backdrop of the Vietnam war hasn’t done it many favors, apart from courting controversy. This latest production puts forward a bit of liberal conscience by striving to show how all are victims of vicious war. That is, all — even and most especially the American soldiers who fathered children and left them in the hellhole their country created in another country. Well, all right. Love conquers all. Except it doesn’t, because look what happens to Kim. Poor Kim.

This revival manages to avoid much racial controversy this time around by actually casting Asians in Asian roles, that is, casting Asian men as well as women where there previously was considerably less enthusiasm for casting Asian men in major roles than there was for Asian women (probably because most of the roles for women in Miss Saigon are for, you guessed it, prostitutes).

The problem last time was, of course, the way in which the white actors played Asian characters, enhancing their already considerable talents with some old-fashioned yellowface: tape to pull their eyes to slits, bronzer, a touch of an accent. There’s none of that nonsense here, and so Miss Saigon can enjoy its success without stepping on toes.

In our case, as Pinoys, the Miss Saigon poses an interesting question that not everyone really wants to think about.

To a previous generation of Pinoys, Miss Saigon is a triumph, because it propelled a very young Lea Salonga into stardom. It proved that we could produce incredible talent, one that could hold its own on the international stage (the old controversy about her citizenship being neither British nor American helped fan the fervent flames of our pride in her, and her ultimate success in the role).

In the end, however, I wonder how much we would have stomached it had we born the brunt of that war. In fact the first few scenes depicting the brothel, where the girls are fed piecemeal to American soldiers, was not unusual years ago on our own shores. How comfortable would we be with this show if the setting had been a Japanese-occupied Philippines in World War II? Would we be able to face the last of the comfort women, who are still fighting the good fight to even get acknowledged for what they were put through?

In the end, we’re not Vietnamese. Perhaps this is why we are recruited into depicting the most horrific scenes of their history. We act as a repellent for the problems of respectability politics by virtue of being Asian. You can’t help but feel there is something amiss.

When this revival launched earlier this year, there were reports that it drew in a lot of advanced ticket sales from a much younger audience. Most of them had never seen the show before, but had heard about it from their parents. I can imagine a generation of Pinoys telling their children about how great Lea Salonga was, building up the legend. The hype is so well preserved that going to watch this Miss Saigon revival felt like an act of loyalty.

And, like all acts of loyalty, we can make ourselves love things wholesale. We love it —the music, the love story, the thrilling special effects. We love that kind of thing. It’s just so sad! So beautiful!

I don’t know what I expected, going into Miss Saigon for the first time. But I came out of it more dejected than not. As a show, it is excellent. As a cast, they are talented. Nobody can deny that (even if some of the purists, maybe rightly, won’t let go of the legendary Lea Salonga and slant-eyed Jonathan Pryce). This West End revival was primed for success from the start, in part because of our unwavering support. And I would not be surprised if another run comes to hit Manila sometime soon.

I’ve seen a few musicals in my life, but this Miss Saigon had the most Pinoys I’ve ever seen at a theater. And the reports were right — it was a young audience, most of whom had never seen the show before. It’s been twenty-five years, practically a generation later. It feels amiss, that this is still the only show we get to see ourselves in. For the next generation, I hope they get to see themselves in better shows.

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