“Miss Saigon” at 25

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Jon Jon Briones as the Engineer in the current West End revival of Miss Saigon. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy.
Jon Jon Briones as the Engineer in the current West End revival of Miss Saigon. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy.
Jon Jon Briones as the Engineer in the current West End revival of Miss Saigon. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy.

The term “mega-musical” is often bandied about indiscriminately, but traditionally it meant a quartet of long-running 1980s and ’90s Broadway hits that crossed the Atlantic after achieving groundbreaking success in London. They comprised, in sequential order (on Broadway): Cats (1982), Les Misérables (1987), The Phantom of the Opera (1988), and the most controversial one, Miss Saigon (1991). All four were produced (or co-produced) by that smash-spawning English impresario Cameron Mackintosh; while Cats and Phantom were birthed by Andrew Lloyd Webber (with lyrical assists from T.S. Eliot and Charles Hart, respectively), Lez Miz and Miss Saigon were composed by French songwriters Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil (with lyrical assists in English from Herbert Kretzmer and Richard E. Maltby, Jr., respectively). For better or worse, these lavishly mounted shows arguably transformed if not necessarily the form of the musical, then the audience’s expectation of its breadth and scope. To that end, Miss Saigon, which reimagined Puccini’s 1904 opera Madame Butterfly in war-ravaged Saigon rather than Nagasaki, deployed a helicopter as a coup de theatre in similar fashion to the the collapsing chandelier of Phantom, the rotating turntable in Les Miz, and the ride to the Heaviside Layer of Grizabella:

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Twenty-five years after its British premiere, Miss Saigon has returned — to the Prince Edward Theatre in London — with its populist appeal, if not its theatrical voltage, still firmly intact. (Advance sales are reportedly around £10 million, the equivalent of roughly $17 million.) Despite its a nearly decade-long run in New York (not to mention its 10-year stay in the West End, where it opened in 1989), it’s worth remembering that the Broadway iteration of Miss Saigon almost didn’t happen.

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Mackintosh initially canceled the New York production when Actor’s Equity Association, the union for professional U.S. actors and stage managers, prohibited Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce from recreating his critically lauded performance in Miss Saigon as the Eurasian pimp called the Engineer. His depiction of the Engineer was that of a sly hustler, an entrancingly salacious character equal parts wry observer and double-dealer. A Tony-winner for Trevor Griffith’s 1975 play Comedians, Pryce was (and is) a splendid classical actor who made a benchmark musical debut with Miss Saigon in the West End; he was perceived as both vital to the show’s success and an authentic corrective to the show’s unchecked schmaltz and runaway melodrama. But Equity found Pryce’s casting offensive; it’s then-president, the late actress Colleen Dewhurst, pugnaciously labeled it “a minstrel show” for a Caucasian actor to play an Asian character.

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The cultural acid test that emerged was rancorous and inevitable. For many years prior, America had been battle-scarred by a fusillade of political correctness and reactionary Puritanism. Artistic freedom became a juicy target for foot soldiers in the Reagan revolution, most of whom were crusading to defund, and ideally to abolish, the National Endowment for the Arts. Such photographers as the late Robert Mapplethorpe, who sensuously shot nude muscle-bound men, and Andres Serrano, who famously submerged a Christ figure in a jar of urine, were especially radioactive to the sanctimonious right. Those on the left, including most of the theatre community, were unsurprisingly sensitive to, and later enraged by, artistic censorship. Color-blind casting was certainly a noble idea at the time Miss Saigon came along, and it was even a manifesto of sorts until Equity’s addle-brained charade showed the concept of multicultural casting to be concerned less with race-free connotations than with grievances.

As it happened, the Chinese-American playwright David Henry Hwang launched his own salvo into this cultural crucible. Hwang, who won the 1988 Tony for Best Play for, ironically, M. Butterfly, invoked the term “yellow face” and protested Pryce’s casting as shameful since the part, in his view, had been conceived for an Asian actor. (He later wrote an excellent play about this episode.) Equity piled on, noting a shortage of work for Asian actors.

What choice did Mackintosh have but to call off the show? For one, Equity’s argument that they had any casting power whatsoever was preposterous on its face. A producer’s job is to present the best possible show, and the producer is the final arbiter of what “best” means — not any one member of the creative team, let alone a union. The fact was that Pryce was sublime as the Engineer; the character’s ethnicity was, as a lyric in this show put it, half French and half Vietnamese, so it wasn’t written simply for an Asian actor anyway. Even if it were, the whole argument favoring color-blind casting collapses if it is only a simple game of racial reparations and spoils, one meant to serve a larger political agenda and not the art itself. As Frank Rich of the New York Times put it at the time:

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This is a policy that if applied with an even hand would bar Laurence Olivier’s Othello, Pearl Bailey’s Dolly Levi and the appearances of Morgan Freeman in The Taming of the Shrew and Denzel Washington in Richard III in Central Park…

Although minority actors were and still are woefully underrepresented on Broadway, Equity created its own self-inflicted wound by antagonizing Mackintosh, who was set to employ a company of 30 or more ethnic actors as there were not only Asians but African Americans and Hispanics in the Miss Saigon cast as well. Subjectively speaking, Pryce also remains unsurpassed in the role. Over the years, I’ve seen the Engineer portrayed on numerous occasions, and if the pedestrian revival of Miss Saigon that recently opened here in London makes anything clear, it’s the heightened degree to which Pryce really was the show’s slinky, bedazzling center, a come-hither tour guide through an alluring netherworld of beguiling seduction and playful venality. While not particularly prone to subtlety or clever lyrics (yes, this is a show that rhymes “on” with “John”), the original staging of Miss Saigon did offer up an unabashed sentimentality that could make you cry genuine tears.

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A YouTube capture of Jonathan Pryce, from an interview in the early 1990s on British TV.
A YouTube capture of Jonathan Pryce, from an interview in the early 1990s on British TV.

The new production, which opened May 21 with Jon Jon Briones as the Engineer, trades Nicholas Hytner’s original, grandly metaphorical staging for a more naturalistic approach by director Laurence Connor. The result is mostly two dimensional. What once felt like a compellingly entertaining pop opera that tackled weighty themes like war and the perils of imperialism now registers as a hulking slab of manipulative machinery.

In spite of its European heritage, Miss Saigon is most definitely an American musical. It clearly nods toward musicals like South Pacific and The King and I with its tropes of the longstanding East-West divide, and it also recalls Cabaret, whose disquieting Emcee, like the Engineer, was at once a sinister onlooker and menacing alarm bell set against a toxic historical backdrop.

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Indeed, Great Britain–enervated from World War II and reeling from its shrunken colonial stature in the reconfigured postwar world–smartly avoided America’s bungled misadventure in Vietnam. At the time of Miss Saigon‘s original West End debut, the first Gulf War had drawn to a close and the reality of America having “lost” a war in southeast Asia seemed displaced by a more visceral perceived success. Although it is first and foremost a popular entertainment, Miss Saigon was a post-Vietnam musical — and an indictment of American double standards and imperial hubris. Now, in revival, it’s a post 9/11 musical — which is to say that its message, despite the current clumsy retelling, is still profoundly resonant with war-weary countries on either side of the pond. It comes as no shock that the show has been lovingly embraced by a war-averse British populace who still heap scorn on Tony Blair for colluding with George W. Bush on the Iraq war.

Yet, in watching Miss Saigon again for the first time in about a dozen years, all the politics that surrounded the show onstage and off feel secondary or perhaps besides the point. In our new gilded age, it’s money first, every bit, just as it was for the recession-battered public back in 1991. Even then, a guilt-inducing evening about a disastrous war — from Anglo-French creators, no less — was irresistible to the buying public, especially as the musical’s dollop of old-fashioned showbiz melodrama left you weeping. Paradoxically, Miss Saigon then was an “event” made possible by the very political controversies that people went (and still go) to big spectacle mega-musical-type shows to escape. When it premiered in New York, Miss Saigon set a then-record breaking ticket price of $100, but that threshold still didn’t seem quite acceptable for another decade — until Mel Brooks’ The Producers came along and whipped New York into a whole new frenzy for musical comedy escapism, replete with singing and dancing Nazis. As Woody Allen cleverly quipped, “If ‘show business’ were not a business, it would be called ‘show show.'”