Originally debuting in 1989, Miss Saigon tells the tragic story of two star-crossed lovers, a 17 year-old Vietnamese girl and an American soldier, who meet in the midst of the deadly Vietnam War. Think of it like Romeo & Juliet meets the Viet Cong, but with racist undertones and a storyline crafted to intentionally assert white superiority. Much of the diversity conversations regarding Miss Saigon revolve around the initial casting controversy of Jonathan Pryce using yellow-face, but the recent 2016 West End revival shows that the racism in Miss Saigon goes far beyond that.
In classic American imperialistic fashion, Miss Saigon is rooted in our belief that Vietnamese people need and want saving. It perpetuates the narrative that the Vietnamese are victimized, and this begins the process of stripping the Asian characters of any agency. The entire second act revolves around Kim’s failure to evacuate Bangkok and her efforts to have her child avoid the same fate. However, the audience never gets to hear Kim talk with another Asian character about why she feels it’s necessary to give up her child. It’s just an unstated fact that as audience members we’re already supposed to believe that America is superior to any country in the Eastern world. This choice by the creative team further emphasizes that Miss Saigon is a musical designed through an imperialistic lens. Even though the story heavily features minorities, it’s clear that didn’t happen because the creative team was actually interested in elevating minority voices. Instead, Miss Saigon uses Asian characters and countries because they’re a unique commodity for consumers to derive entertainment from.
The stark divide white privilege provides is prominent in the late act II song “Room 317” that features Ellen and Kim meeting for the first time. The lyrics primarily work to move the plot about Chris and Kim reuniting forward, yet the story is told almost entirely through Ellen’s (white) eyes. Ellen, as a white American, can never understand the pain and trauma Kim has experienced as a native Vietnamese living in a warzone. The intentional choice to have Ellen be the one who delivers this pivotal, crushing blow to Kim’s optimistic expectations exemplifies the fact that Miss Saigon was created for white consumption. Despite being a secondary character for the majority of the show, Ellen’s role becomes elevated and “Room 317” becomes about showcasing her own feelings.
All the while, “Room 317” strips Kim, arguably the story’s most central character, of her agency. From the moment she enters Chris and Ellen’s hotel room, Kim is thrown into the unexpected. Her role becomes about responding to comments Ellen has already initiated, and therefore her role becomes mostly reactive in nature. Near the beginning of the song, Ellen wonders, “I don’t know how I’d feel if our roles were reversed.” It’s a fair question, and certainly something audiences must be keen to explore as well. Perhaps Kim would practice more empathy if she finally found herself in a position that wields power? We’ll never know.
Alas, much like the rest of the musical, the song continues without exploring much of Kim’s perspective and concludes with her fleeing the hotel room in an emotional haste. Audience members are never given the chance to hear Kim genuinely answer some of Ellen’s questions, and are instead only able to debrief the moment through Ellen’s lens. Even the songs there were written to further Kim’s narrative arc manage to completely block her from achieving any agency.
The costuming choices also accentuate the role race plays in creating agency. In anticipation of seeing Chris again, “Sun and Moon (Reprise)” shows Kim gracefully unpacking her wedding dress. The outfit is oriental, and the delicacy she unpacks and dresses with suggests to the audience that this is a valuable possession of hers. However, when Kim enters Chris’ hotel room wearing this outfit, Ellen immediately mistakes her for the maid. The comment is subtle and more of a disrespectful microaggression than a deliberate jab, yet it embodies the racism that plagues Miss Saigon throughout. It helps show the audience that Kim, even when wearing her finest outfits, will always be perceived as lesser than Chris’ American (read: white) wife.
Several blocking choices in Miss Saigon also work to further the white supremacy communicated throughout the musical. Towards the end of Act I, Ellen is introduced to the audience for the first time during the song “I Still Believe” that shows her laying in bed with Chris as he struggles to sleep through a nightmare. The bedroom is staged in a way that it appears raised over Kim in Vietnam. The sets appearing concurrently shows the audience the totem-pole rankings of Chris’ lovers. It also communicates to the audience how Chris would be perceived in society if he had stayed in Bangkok with Kim. He would still be on the ground level, probably wearing tattered clothes with dirt on his face just as Kim was. Instead, the audience sees how coming home has already benefited him. His new wife wears clean pajamas, and they sleep in a fancy bed. “I Still Believe” puts in little effort to characterize Ellen beyond the fact she’s Chris’ American wife, but it perfectly communicates all the ways Kim pales in comparison to an American (read: white) bride.
In terms of staging, “Room 317” also acts as a prime example for the musical’s themes. Towards the end of the number, Kim recognizes that she’s fighting a losing battle with Ellen. Laurence Connor, the director, could have reworked this key moment in the revival to show Kim empowered by knowing the choice she now needs to make. Instead, the audience sees Kim continue her submissive ways. Noblezada lowers herself to her knees and bends over in a way that communicates how desperate Kim has become. This staging choice frames Ellen in a position of power (which she, of course, possesses) and accentuates Kim’s weakness. Noblezada’s positioning also vaguely resembles someone praying, which serves as subtle commentary on the overall plot that a white family (Chris and Ellen) can serve as literal “savior” to a non-white child (Tam).
As a white spectator, consuming Miss Saigon in 2020 and excusing its blatant racial misgivings because “the music is catchy” and “the story is so good” is a privilege. Even though the musical is technically diverse in nature and employs a large number of minority actors, it’s evident that the narrative conjured in the main story is full of harmful microaggressions. Continuing to revive this musical and consume it as theatre-goers makes us complicit in perpetuating the harmful, racial narratives associated with it. Miss Saigon commoditizes Asian culture and insists on telling this tragic, diverse story through a white-only lens, oftentimes unabashedly roping the audience into accepting the superiority of white culture.
Miss Saigon has a crucial role to play in musical theatre history, but we’ve reached the point where it’s time to move on and retire the harmful narrative the story perpetuates. The music, book, and staging (hello, helicopter!) are theatre triumphs that deserved to be celebrated at one point in time. But we can acknowledge these once remarkable accomplishments while still admitting that the musical provides little to no cultural benefit in 2020.
This all being said, the continued fanfare for Miss Saigon and consistently sold out engagements proves that there is an active and eager market for more Asian-led stories. There is an entirely new generation of extremely talented Asian performers looking for their big break, just how the original production boosted Lea Salonga into the mainstream with opportunities they previously might not have had before. Asian stories are marketable, and it’s time for Broadway to retire its outdated tropes and start producing new, diverse stories featuring people of color.