As problematic as some believe Miss Saigon is, the crowd-pleasing Vietnam War-set musical is the only current big-ticket production to showcase Asian talent. By Chantal Nguyen.
In some quarters, admitting you like Miss Saigon might raise a few eyebrows. Opera Australia’s decision to stage the Vietnam War musical is attracting new waves of criticism, and a quick scan of the media landscape indicates in some quarters it’s almost de rigueur to hate it.
The criticisms themselves aren’t particularly new – they have plagued the musical since its 1989 premiere. Namely, that Miss Saigon’s tragic story of the doomed romance between a Saigon bar girl and an American soldier is neo-colonialism at its orientalist, misogynistic finest: sexualising Asian women, emasculating Asian men and portraying Asians as desperate to Westernise. Miss Saigon is further tainted by its origins in the slick corporate stable of Cameron Mackintosh, the theatre juggernaut that gave the world the compellingly glitzy cash cows of Cats and The Phantom of the Opera.
In the lead-up to the premiere, colleagues tell me with a mix of sympathy and woke indignation that they’ve read the media criticism. I’m unsure how to respond. Although I’m an arts critic and from a Saigon military family, like many Vietnamese Australians I’d paid little attention to Miss Saigon. Any Vietnam War entertainment – from Francis Ford Coppola’s infamous film Apocalypse Now to Viet Thanh Nguyen’s recent Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Sympathizer – triggers intergenerational trauma I’d rather avoid.
But I wryly observe that the critics claiming Miss Saigon doesn’t represent “Asians” or “women” are either non-Vietnamese and somewhat naive about the Vietnam War’s horrifically unique complexities or the kind of Western-naturalised, educated, mover-and-shaker-type Vietnamese in the position to write opinion pieces for the Western media. Both are a far cry from your average wartime Saigon sex worker. I can’t find any commentary by the bar girls themselves, who – for all our 21st-century protests that Miss Saigon is non-representative – were a very real phenomenon of the Vietnam War, as was the terrible desperation to flee the war zone for the West.
By opening night I’m exhausted from well-meaning voices telling me I should be more offended. I step over the trains of influencer gowns and avoid the slipstream surrounding Malcolm Turnbull and other celebrities to take my seat. Opera Australia is marketing this as a glitzy public spectacle, complete with red carpet and VIP guest list. Despite the criticisms, Miss Saigon is an audience favourite that in the pandemic’s aftermath can boost much-needed ticket sales.
Then it starts – with a bang – the round of gunfire in “Overture”, and a buzz – the Saigon bar girls in “Backstage Dreamland”.There’s no denying this musical is extremely entertaining. It’s full of theatrical wizardry, the most famous being the real-life helicopter rising like an ominous, metallic moth during “Kim’s Nightmare (The Fall of Saigon)”. It’s visually striking and fast-paced, with each scene adding to the narrative momentum as the story hurtles to its tragic conclusion. And the music is luscious. Listening to the duet for bamboo flute and cello (“I Still Believe”), it suddenly strikes me that for all the complaints Miss Saigon is too Western, it might be the first time many audience members encounter the sound of live Asian instruments.
This Miss Saigon features outstanding Asian–Australian talent too. It’s worth seeing just for pop singer Seann Miley Moore, who plays The Engineer. Burning with the frenetic energy of a thousand brazen suns, Miley Moore’s performance is triumphant. Their Engineer is flamboyantly queer, for the first time in Miss Saigon’s history, and uproariously witty, driven by a complex mix of ambition, tragedy and a morally ruthless will to survive. Miley Moore’s star power is so luminous that their final solo, “The American Dream” – which sees them leading a chorus line of dancing girls, satirising Marilyn Monroe and sniffing coke from a car bonnet – upstages the actual ending as the true dark emotional heart of the show.
The impressive Abigail Adriano debuts as Kim. This character is almost inseparable from its originator, the crystal-voiced Lea Salonga, but Adriano holds her own. In a role requiring enormous stamina, her voice remains effortless, with a shimmering upper register brimming with Kim’s innocence and darkly rich lower tones speaking of a pain beyond her years. Given how difficult it is for Asians to find lead roles in the Australian entertainment industry – Miley Moore had to move to the United Kingdom to have a career at all – Miss Saigon is worth seeing for the incredible Asian–Australian talent on display.
Nigel Huckle is vocally and theatrically less compelling as the American soldier Chris, but the lovers’ duet “Sun and Moon” is still fresh. Nick Afoa brings a likeable humanity and powerful baritone to the stage as John. Laurence Mossman sings the role of Thuy in a classically polished tenor, although I wonder if his operatic sound is suited to Thuy’s country boy origins. Kerrie Anne Greenland is wonderful as the often overlooked Ellen. Her duet with Kim (“I Still Believe”), threaded with tragic legato lines and aching key changes, is the musical’s most striking song.
Ironically, it’s the much-criticised bar girl and brothel scenes that strike me as the most visually accurate, down to the sickly plastic sheen on those sex worker platform shoes. Anyone who says otherwise has either never been to South-East Asia during the Vietnam War or recently, or is living in a sanitised alternative universe. Enormous energy flows from the female ensemble, the bar girls changing from sassy (“The Heat Is on in Saigon”) to dark (“The Movie in My Mind”) with heady swiftness. Kimberley Hodgson’s powerful lower vocal range makes her a stand-out in these scenes as Gigi.
As I watch the cast dancing and singing, I can’t help reflecting that a musical is not a medium well-suited to exploring complex sociopolitical histories. Miss Saigon is about as accurate to the Vietnam War as Les Misérables – also made by Miss Saigon’s creators – realistically portrays 19th-century Paris. And if Miss Saigon didn’t bear the burden of being the only enduringly popular representation of recent Asian history on the musical stage, we would probably let the criticisms slide and just enjoy the music, as audiences do with Les Mis.
All the well-intentioned criticism in the world can’t change the fact that if Miss Saigon is cancelled, there are no representative and empowering musicals of its scale waiting in the wings to showcase Asian talent and stories. Until such productions are common in Australia, cancelling Miss Saigon is a bit like throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The simplistic idea that we have nothing to lose and everything to gain by doing so tastes awfully – to paraphrase The Engineer in “The American Dream” – like white privilege.
Miss Saigon is playing at the Sydney Opera House until October 13 and Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, from October 29 until December 3.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 9, 2023 as "Conflict of interest".
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