A blunt assessment: It’s time to move on.
It is time to retire Miss Saigon as the seductive, out-of-touch, museum piece that it is. Miss Saigon has little to say about the sorrows of the Vietnam War. It is such needless cruelty. I am neither prude or trying hard to be politically correct. In fact, I served in the military back then.
With a key backstory missing and in its rush to get to the gaudy stuff, Miss Saigon forgets the many victims of the Vietnam War are invisible. These are the 58,000 Americans who perished in the Vietnam War. These are the 2 million Vietnamese civilians who died and the estimated 1.3 million combatants who died, both South and North Vietnamese.
Why am I so blunt? For one, the current generation of American young adults is too young to remember the Vietnam War, even as we Boomers have vivid memories no matter what side of the political spectrum they fall on. Seeing the current touring company production of Miss Saigon will not give those born after the fall of Saigon in 1975 any sound sense of those chaotic times in Vietnam or the United States. I know, I know, Miss Saigon is entertainment, not history. But jeez, there was more to that war than raunchy bars and clubs and sex.
My intersections with Miss Saigon go back to memories of the Vietnam War that haunt me still. From 1970-1972 I found myself, a US Air Force Intelligence Officer (nope, no bone spurs for me) stationed in the Far East. I feel my own personal complicity with that conflict. For me, Miss Saigon is not Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. Far from it. Miss Saigon brings back the stench and excesses of actual Rolling Thunder missions and of US aircraft dropping napalm with horrible consequences for combatants and civilians alike.
So, let’s start first with my reactions to how Kim is treated in Miss Saigon. Kim is the young Vietnamese mother who becomes pregnant, has a child, and suffers greatly in the course of her relationship with Chris, a young American GI. It is such a ghastly perspective. The Westerners “win” except for this; there is no direct mention of Chris suffering from PTSD (at least as I see it). It is a bizarre sense of Western decency by those who think they are doing “right.” Taking place in 1978 Bangkok, what awaits Kim is not a fictional movie in my mind. In real life, about 75,000 Amerasians and their family members left Vietnam to resettle in the United States after 1982 and then later in 1987 under the provisions of what is commonly called the “Amerasian Homecoming Act.” Others stayed and faced uncertain futures in their homeland.
Then there is Chris, the young GI who bears little resemblance to a real GI. How do I know that? Well, at age 24, I was a young military officer who was in command of about 75 enlisted personnel, many not unlike the “young boys” that the Miss Saigon bar girls laugh at. At times, I had to chat with some of the young fresh-faced enlisted troops about their life off duty. Why?
After a harrowing journey down a one-lane mountain road, a city awaited with bars and clubs along with the thousands of soldiers who poured into the city for R & R on their one-week Holiday from the Hell of the Vietnam War. There were about 50 clubs and bars that military personnel frequented in Taipei. The Taipei bars and clubs were far from the brightly lit “Dreamland” club depicted in Miss Saigon. The bars were in seedier locations without exterior bright lights. Once inside, these clubs became a sort of “Dreamland,” in the sense that they were a place where one could escape the horrors of war. Remember, and not too condone, these were young men whose country had drafted them. Many had witnessed death or heard about death and knew what future missions would bring and just wanted to be away from it.
As for chatting with young enlisted men, well, some said they were in love. Some talked about marriage and bringing their new bride home to America to live often in rural areas far from the big cities. I chatted with the men about the difference between sex and intimacy, likely to no avail. (My senior master sergeant was provided condoms since STD’s were around.)
I could go on and on. But rather, let me do this. I rarely ever compare productions when I review or write. But this time I will. Five years ago, Signature Theatre’s did a small scale, revamped production of the usually massively scaled Miss Saigon. That production did something remarkable. It placed the audience into the midst of the chaos of the long-ago Vietnam War. It brought to life the fresh-faced young soldiers who lived moment to moment trying to get an adrenaline rush before going back in to risk their lives for a cause they were likely drafted into.
The physical closeness to the audience of the Signature production was impactful and nodded to a complexity well beyond blatant sex and visual excess. It was not so much bombastic; not meant to overwhelm the senses. Signature found a way to humanize a story that usually relies on, what is to me, a now stale helicopter sighting on a vast stage.
So, now, just as we Vietnam vets are aging, it is time for Miss Saigon to bid adieu. A controversial show from the start, the decades have made its flaws that much more evident.
How about this instead? Development of new shows about the Vietnam War and its long aftermath (or current conflicts of interest to younger adults) written not from a Westerner’s perspective but by someone from the Vietnamese Diaspora in our midst right now. Vietgone by Qui Nguyen and winningly produced by Studio a few months ago, is one example. I would like to see more.
Let us bid tạm biệt (goodbye) to Miss Saigon, please.
Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes, including one 20-minute intermission.
Note: Recommended for age 12 and up. Please be advised that this production contains strong sexual content.