Funny Girl and Miss Saigon are two classic Broadway musicals that I had never seen before. I throughly enjoyed them both, but upon watching them back-to-back, I could not help but notice the similarities, as well as the glaring differences, between Fanny Brice and Kim. Fanny Brice, a young woman living in Manhattan in the early 1900s, is recruited by the theater entrepreneur Florenz (Flo) Ziegfeld to perform in the “Ziegfeld Follies.” Her successful acting career draws the attention of a playboy gambler, Nick Arnstein, who leads her away from the follies to start a family with him. Although their relationship does not work out, Brice’s conclusion is far more lighthearted than Kim’s. Kim, a girl living in Vietnam as a bargirl during the climax of the Vietnam War, falls in love with an American GI named Chris, who promises to bring her back to America. Kim and Chris are separated due to the fall of Saigon, and Kim must endure with the child she and Chris (unknowingly) had together. Though scrounging for survival, she remains hopeful Chris will come back for her. When he eventually does, he is married to another woman, and does not fulfill his promise to take her home to America. In order to save her/their child, Tam, Kim sacrifices her life so that Chris must take Tam home with him.
Now, you may be thinking, “how in the world are these two characters similar at all?” Well, Fanny and Kim are both hardworking young women who grew up poor, hopeful to start a new future for themselves and both depended on a man they loved and were betrayed by. Interestingly, although both shows center around these two female leads, their outcomes are determined by the men in their lives. This is especially true for Kim, but less so for Fanny. Why is this so? The obvious answer would be their circumstances. While it is true that Kim lived in the midst of the Vietnam War, she struggles the most while outside of Vietnam, in Bangkok. So then why is it that Kim and Fanny are so different? Both start as young women from a poor financial background, and yet, therein lies the problem. To view Kim as strictly female (in similarity to Fanny) is to treat a chocolate chip cookie as just chocolate. It is Kim’s intersectional identity as both Vietnamese and female that leads to her hardships and to Fanny Brice’s success.
It is easy to forget that being of Asian heritage, even while in an Asian country, has a negative effect on Kim. Though America at the turn of the 20th century was not a great standard for progressive behavior towards women, it is leagues more progressive than Vietnam and Thailand (even 50 years later). This is not a diss towards either country, I mention this to put in perspective the role Kim played in society as an Asian female. Simply put, Kim’s intense struggle can be explained because women in Asia held less power than women in America. This lack of power takes the form of limitations in occupations, romantic life, and social status. Furthermore, even if Kim were in America, an Asian woman would hold less power than a white woman. Therefore, due to Kim’s Asian and female identities, she has an inherent disadvantage when compared to Fanny Brice, who identifies as white and female. While both identify as female, a societal disadvantage in the 20th century, Fanny fundamentally has more opportunity for success than Kim, simply because she is white.
This distinction in identity has effects present in both the plot of the show, as well as the actor portrayal of the characters. The best example of Fanny’s and Kim’s similarities and differences in power (brought about by intersectionality) is the role of men in their lives. Both characters play stereotypical, pre-progressive women, who are defined by the sexual binary aspect of their lives, the men, and in this case, white men. Both Fanny and Kim make sacrifices for the men in their lives: Fanny gives up the Follies and Kim neglects Thuy, the man she was betrothed to. Identity intersectionality comes into play at the conclusion of each of the women’s stories, as told in their respective shows.
Funny Girl ends with Nick Arnstein saying goodbye to Fanny, abandoning her, and Fanny saying that she is not going to let this break up with Nick determine the outcome of the rest of her life. The show concludes with a reprise of Fanny’s “Don’t Rain on My Parade” as she defiantly goes on to a new chapter in her life as a highly successful actress. This ending conveys that Fanny has options. Though she gave up much of her life to Nick, he was not the controlling, defining factor in her life. She could still support herself and her child, and she chooses not to let Nick stop her from doing so. Miss Saigon ends in a similar outline, but the conclusion is starkly different. Chris tells Kim that he cannot bring her back to America, though he promised to do so. Kim sees that she has no other options, and in order to protect her son, kills herself, forcing Chris to take the child back home with him. Though she had the choice to accept Chris’s “support” and continue living in Bangkok as a bargirl, she knew that that was no life for her son to live. She either had to continue forcing Tam to live through hell or sacrifice herself for his future. In this sense, she had both a choice and no choice at all. These concluding decisions are only examples of motifs that appeared throughout both shows: Fanny paying the investor to hire Nick, Kim fleeing Vietnam for Thailand, etc. Time and time again, Fanny makes choices of her own free will while Kim wrestles with dilemmas. Kim lacks the whiteness that gives Fanny autonomy and power in society. Chris provided her this power, but without him, she once again loses it. When refuses to take her home, she realizes what little she has control of, thus forcing this difficult decision to save Tam.
The difference in power these two characters hold can also be visualized through their portrayal onstage by their respective actors. Sheridan Smith depicts Fanny Brice as a spontaneous and outlandish character. She constantly plays with and taunts others, gives fun facial and bodily expressions, and even mixes the pitch of her voice. Smith’s choices mirror Fanny’s carefree, unpredictable, and explosive personality. Eva Noblezada (whom I absolutely love) depicts Kim as a docile, naïve, yet tough character. She is often standing in a vulnerable stance—arms by the sides, head down—but never shows fear in her facial expressions, usually by blankly staring at those who push her around, as to not give them the satisfaction of agitating her. As with Smith’s choices, Noblezada’s performance mirrors Kim’s desperate and impossibly optimistic personality. Kim is written and performed as one of society’s untouchables, hoping to soon escape the life she finds herself in.
This leads to another example of intersectionality and the differences between Kim and Fanny, which comes in the form of their occupations. Both of these women come from poor backgrounds. Kim recently emigrated, and Fanny’s mother emigrated as well. However, as far as financial background goes, this is where the similarities stop. Never once in the show did Fanny struggle with money. Though her career as a performer seemed, at first, to have little potential, she was never forced to change professions. Fanny chose to stay as an actress throughout her life, only leaving to pursue Nick Arnstein. Money was not something Fanny had to worry about, only life satisfaction. While being both female and Jewish would consider her a minority, her whiteness gave her power. Power to pursue the opportunities of her choosing, without limitations. Kim, on the other hand, did not enjoy such luxuries. Being both Asian and female limited her options for an occupation. It is not mentioned what Kim would like to do, but I think it is safe to assume she would rather do anything else than working as a bargirl. Because of the barriers that faced her, Kim was forced to sell herself or starve.
While some consider Funny Girl and Miss Saigon starkly different shows, I feel as though the main women from both shows, Fanny Brice and Kim, mirror each other in their desires and roles as the stereotypical woman—reliant on their man. Where they differ, however, is at the intersection of their identities—Fanny being a white woman and Kim being an Asian woman—and this intersection of identities is what causes such obvious differences in circumstances and outcomes. Kim is at an inherent disadvantage to Fanny in that whiteness holds power. Kim lacks whiteness, and therefore her power comes from Chris. When she loses Chris, she subsequently loses her power, forced to once again work as a bargirl. She is dependent on Chris, unlike Fanny, who is able to live a life free of Nick Arnstein, as seen at the end of the show. The systemic limitations facing Kim, in contrast to Fanny, due to their differing intersectional identities, inevitably leads to the tragic ending of Miss Saigon, as well as the defiant moment that ends Funny Girl.