Broadway musicals have a knack for hiding things in plain sight. Hadestown’s entire plot seamlessly blends into the onstage set, and Hamilton conceals Lin-Manuel Miranda’s suspect vocals in harmonies with Leslie Odom Jr. and company. For Miss Saigon, the camouflage is much more sinister and pervasive. Despite the original production receiving 11 Tony nominations and widespread praise for the hit musical, Miss Saigon is filled with problematic American ideals. There is a whole number dedicated to American exceptionalism that toes the line of satire a little too closely for comfort. The American soldiers act as white saviors for their Vietnamese counterparts, serving as the keys to America and exacerbating the already unbalanced power dynamics between the two groups. You can expect these issues from a musical written in 1989, produced, and directed by all white men, and the men certainly make their mark in the last enduring American ideal. Sexism oozes out of this musical; it’s unavoidable. At every beat, every number, in every character, traditional gender roles and expectations are palpable, and as disappointing as it is to recognize, the original and continued success of Miss Saigon relies on the perpetuation of these stereotypes.
The most obnoxiously obvious example of sexism as a plot device is between Chris and Kim. The romance of Miss Saigon is a Disney princess movie with a Vietnam War veneer. Kim waits in her dismal circumstances, helpless to change her downward trajectory, until her knight in shining armor shows up, except this knight is a soldier fighting a meaningless war that directly causes Kim’s unfortunate situation. There is plenty to unpack in that tumultuous relationship, but Chris and Kim’s romance is mired with racism and nationalism that diminishes the severity of gender expectations. However, there is one character who can empathize Kim’s experiences with a xenophobic and authoritarian power structure: The Engineer.
The Engineer and Kim share almost no personality traits, but that is exactly what makes this comparison fascinating. The Engineer is rash, excessively ambitious, determined, and on the wrong side of God’s naughty or nice list while Kim is reserved, a prisoner of her situation, and passive unless compelled to act otherwise. They are not nuanced characters; they are caricatures with moments of nuance. They are written to emphasize the extremes of masculinity and femininity, or at least the expectations of the extremes. The only times they abandon these forced norms are in moments of desperation. These uncharacteristic scenes are glimpses at the power each character possesses beyond the shackles of gender stereotypes, and the establishment of Kim and the Engineer’s conflicting characters early on makes these moments that much more powerful and noticeable.
One strength of Miss Saigon’s writing is it does not waste time. From a character’s first few songs, you know his or her background, personality, and ultimate desires. “The Heat Is On” does an excellent job introducing Kim and the Engineer, but it more importantly establishes the difference between the men and women of Miss Saigon through the stark contrast of lyrics and music. The number opens with blaring brasses and a rock-and-roll drumline. The first characters to speak over the orchestra are the men that often reserve their conversations for women and sex, but ever so often one of the women is allowed to speak to the audience of men. The first two sex workers talk dirty to the barbaric applause of the soldiers, but Kim is “so much more than she seems.” For her introduction, the ensemble softens, the blasting brass is replaced with the soft whistle of winds, and the lights focus on the naive and clearly nervous Kim. Instead of seducing her customers, she sings of how young and inexperienced she is. Despite her soft tone, her words scream to the audience of the club and theatre, “I am a woman in a scary situation that needs saving!” and reminds any possible savior that she is more than an object. Of course, her eventual rescuer Chris ignores this reminder and immediately sleeps with her. While their relationship seems like all sunshine and roses at first, there is the looming possibility of Chris leaving and abandoning Kim to fend for herself, and inevitably Chris is evacuated without Kim (surprise, surprise), and a noble transition from her dependence on Chris would be Kim surviving and thriving without her husband that may have been more of a detriment to her life. Instead, the writers lean into the very American idea of a woman needing a man and his income to survive. The following scene, Kim is homeless, dirtier, and loses that glint of youthful hope in her eyes she had when the American military occupied Vietnam.
The Engineer suffers a similar collapse, but the contrast between his former self and the post-war him is much more pronounced because of his spirited beginning. Sporting a bright purple jacket and wielding a charismatic smile expertly, the Engineer is noticeably different than Kim from their first meeting. He talks to the soldiers, his customers, like they have known each other forever, and he tries to leverage his rocky friendship with John into a visa to America in “The Transaction.” From this moment forward, the audience knows the Engineer will do anything to achieve his dreams, and because he is a man, this unrelenting ambition is seen as a positive quality. The Engineer is a likable character because everything he does good and (mostly) bad aligns with the audience’s expectations, and they even root for the Engineer because his comedy makes his sins more or less excusable from their perspective (hey, this is theatre, not ethics). Despite his ambition and charm, the Engineer ends up in a re-education camp following the war. Like Kim, he is without a home or a club, his face is covered in dirt, and he has his purple jacket replaced with prisoner rags. This sudden downfall is much more shocking because it seemed impossible when the Engineer admired and believed in the American Dream. Kim does not have this illusion and aura of infallibility surrounding her though. The entire time she is with Chris, she relies on him for financial and emotional support, and everything that Kim depends on is ripped away when he leaves. Kim is supposed to fail without a man, just like Vietnam was supposed to fail with America.
Unlike the Engineer’s temporary demise, Kim’s failure is necessary though. Every stereotype she represents, every scene of fraughtful passiveness is needed to complete her character. Love is a fickle thing that often hurts more than it heals. While the Act 1 duets between Chris and Kim such as the “Sun and Moon” and “The Wedding Ceremony” are tender and evoke butterflies in everyone’s stomach, there isn’t that raw power of emotion and urgency that this show is lauded for in those numbers. No, these qualities show up when Kim’s son is in danger. Similar to the Engineer making it to America, Kim claims she would do anything for her son and certainly puts her money where her mouth is. Kim moves to Bangkok to feed her son, she kills her ex-boyfriend to protect Tam, and she takes her own life to ensure her son has the future she and the other prostitutes always dreamed of. No one recognizes the timid girl from “The Heat Is On” as the person who finally takes back control of her life from the men who unfairly took it years ago. Her suicide is so shocking because it does not align with the audience’s expectations that the show had cultivated for the previous two hours. Everything leading up to the final number reinforces the assumption that a man (Chris) will decide the fate of Kim and Tam, and yet the price she pays for deserved power is much greater than any man ever has to pay. Chris and the Engineer make decisions by virtue of simply being men. There is no hesitation in making choices. There is no price, and there are certainly no consequences if the decision is the wrong. Kim pays her price and gives her life for choice. She isn’t supposed to decide. The whole show Kim is built to be this passive figure that weathers the storm when it hits. If she had not forced Chris’s hand and simply raised her son in Bangkok, she likely would have been fine all things considered, but when does that cycle stop? Would Tam have to spend his whole life “weathering the storm” too? Even though she starts off as a little raindrop, Kim had to become the storm before it washed her and Tam away completely.This show and its writing does not rely on one aspect to make or break it. Regardless of the sexism, the music is incredible and has aged remarkably well over 30 years, the relatively shallow characters play off each other brilliantly and create an illusion of greater depth, and the acting in the revival does enough to support the emotion of the lyrics, but the inherent sexism elevates all of these aspects. Miss Saigon was not nominated for the “Best Book of a Musical” at the Tonys for nothing. Any great writing depends on suspense, which is a product of expectations. The suspense of Miss Saigon is rooted in sexism. All of the questions waiting to be answered like “Will Chris save his child?” and “Will Chris bring Kim to America?” are all focused on Chris acting as a white savior. If he had done the right thing and brought Tam and Kim to America, there would be little emotional payoff for the audience, and Miss Saigon may not be regarded as much more than a good show. But with Kim determining her destiny and taking control of her life and death, the show provides a devastating, memorable ending and reminds the audience that we all have power over lives, no matter how hard society may try to prevent that.