20 March 2008

A Contrary View of Miss Saigon

“It would be a rather irresponsible critic or reviewer,” wrote Fr. Nicasio Cruz, S.J., in his Reel World on September 17, 1988, “who would analyze, say, Scorpio Nights, Ora Pro Nobis or Private Show solely on aesthetic grounds, praising its undeniable (though limited) artistry, without making a further prudential judgment about the possible moral dangers for the viewers.” As a critic and reviewer, I have no wish to appear irresponsible. I shall, therefore, venture into a moral criticism of the much-publicized Miss Saigon.

There is no question about Lea Salonga’s achievement as the lead singer of this new musical at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane near Covent Garden at the heart of London’s West End. She is brilliant as the Vietnamese prostitute who falls in love with an American customer, bears his child, escapes to Bangkok where she continues to ply her trade, and kills herself when he decides to stay with his American wife. She is clearly the best singer in the whole ensemble, even besting Claire Moore (who plays the wife), who starred in The Phantom of the Opera. Beside her, the male singers in the cast all look like neighborhood favorites who failed to make it to the grand national finals of Ang Bagong Kampeon. Looking particularly inept because he has to sing several songs with her is Simon Bowman (who plays the American customer Chris), who starred in Les Miserables. Only male lead Jonathan Pryce (who plays The Engineer, a Vietnamese pimp) gets the same kind of applause at the curtain call. The night I saw it (September 22, 1988), in fact, the loudest applause was reserved for Lea Salonga, who got a standing ovation.

“What a lovely voice,” I heard the British viewers saying after the show. “She is very good,” echoed others. There were very few Filipinos in the Grand Circle that night (I was forced to buy an expensive ticket because there was no other ticket left). It could not be said, therefore, that patriotic feelings clouded our judgement. The cheering after the show for Lea was genuine aesthetic delight, brought about by her talent for singing and acting. Let is not be said that I am taking away from her achievement, which has made her an international theater star.

What bothers me about the production – and it has also bothered a number of British viewers and reviewers, including our own Paul Woods who wrote his review for another newspaper – is the blatant racism, sexism, and bigotry of the production.

First, the racism. All the Vietnamese and Thai characters in the story, whether played by Filipino, Malaysian, Italian, French, Dutch, Japanese, American, or British performers, were the scum of the earth – pimps, prostitutes, bar habitues, sadistic and mindless soldiers, anti-nationalist visa-hunters at embassies. None of the Asian characters had any redeeming human qualities. Even The Engineer (played ingeniously by Pryce) helps Kim (played by Lea Salonga) only because her child is his “passport to America.” In the well-hyped production number “The American Dream,” where an enormous Cadillac slides into the stage from the back, Pryce even dilutes the apparent satiric intent of the song by making it too subtle for the American tourists in the audience.

In contrast to the bad guys who populate Asia, there are the good guys in the United States. In a scene set in Atlanta, the Americans (played by all the nationalities I’ve cited) are portrayed as genuinely concerned about the human rights of the children they have left behind. (Interestingly enough, they are not concerned about the women the men left behind.) Chris’s friend John (played by Peter Polycarpou) is portrayed as an all-around good guy, trying to find a way out for Chris while protecting his son. After all, the son has American blood, making him “better” than the pure-blooded Vietnamese. Ellen the wife is so kind-hearted that she even takes Kim’s son under her wing at the end of the show. What the writers try to satirize in “The American Dream,” they forcefully lionize in the characterization. You can’t get more racist than that.

Sexism is something else. The first scene, meant aesthetically to establish the milieu, is actually meant to titillate the men in the audience. The director and designers recreate the inside of our Ermita joints. There is the raffle where the unlucky prostitute (“Miss Saigon”) is given to the lucky customer. There is endless kissing and pawing, with our Filipina actresses getting effectively mauled on stage. There is the baring of skin. In short, under the pretext that the prostitutes are sex objects for the customers, the show manages to make the actresses sex objects for the audience.

One particular stage business says it all: an actor shakes a beer can in front of his groin, thus giving the appearance of masturbation. Pornography under the guise of art is still pornography. The scene set in Patpong (Bangkok’s answer to our Mabini) repeats the pornography. The lascivious dancing of the actresses is done every night both in Patpong and in Manila (or Quezon City or Cebu or any other place where poverty forces women to prositution). There is only one difference between Theatre Royal Drury Lane and our neighborhood beer garden: it’s considered respectable for a man to bring his wife to the Theatre Royal.

Finally, there is bigotry. No matter what we think of communism, we cannot deny that the Vietnamese fought a war to get rid of foreigners in their own land. Miss Saigon makes it appear that the Vietnamese fought the Americans simply because of Ho Chi Minh’s ego, symbolized by a gigantic statue hoisted up by mindless communist soldiers. We might as well say that the Americans fought the British because Thomas Jefferson and George Washington wanted memorials built in their honor, or that Filipinos fought both the Spaniards and the Americans because we wanted to have a Rizal Park. Racism and sexism are recognized moral evils all over the world, but bigotry is just as much of an immorality.

It is the most ironic twist of all that a musical meant to appeal to an eventual American audience on Broadway has to distort the American ideal. If democracy offers us anything, it is openness to other people’s ideas. A play that says that Asians, women, and communists are not worth taking seriously betrays a narrowness of mind unworthy of Jefferson, Washington, Rizal, Ho Chi Minh, or even Lea Salonga.

(First published in Starweek, January, 1989.)


Anonymous said...

If Miss Saigon was staged with political correctness in the minds of the writers, producers and director, wouldn't that be an anachronism considering that the musical was set in the 70s?

Filibustered said...

It would only be anachronistic if you believe that either (1) there were no Asians with redeeming qualities in the 1970s, or (2) there were no whites who could see past their bigotry.

Jeremy said...

It takes a truly brave person to leave an "anonymous" response. Rather than search for Asian actors to play Asian roles, the producers selected white actors, who painted their faces yellow and slanted their eyes, in what obviously became a minstrel show. Miss Saigon portrays all non-whites as immoral and without any redeeming qualities. In contrast, it depicts all whites as good. This is a rather absurd notion considering how a bunch of old white men started the Vietnam War and how many of the victims (those killed or, to be more direct, murdered) were actually non-white.

Anonymous said...

Hello. Excuse me just a question. I heard talking about Thailand here. I'm about going on holiday to Asia. I would like some info on Pattaya in Thailand. I would know if It's a good place to go with family or should I choose another place? Thank You so much.

Isagani R. Cruz said...

Sorry, I haven't been to Pattaya (yet).

Anonymous said...

We just need to wait for all the old white men that hold the submissive asian women stereotype to die off before this musical becomes irrelevant and obsolete.