“They drafted me and shipped me out to wind up in that senseless fight. There, in a shambles of a war, I found what I was looking for”.

Chris, the hero of Schönberg and Boublil’s critically acclaimed musical Miss Saigon, is a young, disillusioned American GI serving in the Vietnam War. A reimagining of the opera Madame Butterfly, Miss Saigon takes place against the backdrop of the final days of the conflict. The tragic love story premiered in London in 1989, and after a period of closure was “revived” in 2014. In the words of Cameron MacKintosh, the show’s producer, “the world is a different place now than it was in 1989”,[2] and it was therefore decided that Miss Saigon had to be adapted accordingly. An actor from the original production described the remake as “not a museum piece, but a Miss Saigon for 21st-century audiences”.[3] So, what did a twenty-first century Miss Saigon look like to the production team, and why does it matter? How artistic representations of real events are modified over the years offers a valuable insight into how they have been remembered more broadly, and there is possibly no event in recent American – or even Western – history that has been pored over as much as the Vietnam war. In the case of Miss Saigon, adaptations to how the war is presented tie in to the evolution of public memory of the musical’s central events.

Interestingly, none of the initial Miss Saigon production team were American. The music and first libretto were written (in French) by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, and the show’s producer, Cameron MacKintosh, was British. The first American to join the principal production team was Richard Maltby Jr, who was brought in as a co-lyricist to assist with translating the libretto into English. Upon reading initial drafts of the script Maltby was surprised to find that none of the team “really understood how devastating the Vietnam War was to the American psyche”.[4] When he brought it up with the Schönberg he remarked, “I didn’t mind [France’s loss of Vietnam] at all. After all, we French are always losing wars”.[5] Schönberg also said that this wasn’t supposed to be a story “about the Vietnam War”, but rather that they wanted to use the Vietnam War as a backdrop for the love story they wanted to tell.

Maltby argued that Vietnam was an unconventional war, primarily because it did not result in an American victory. If the producers wanted to use Vietnam as the show’s backdrop, then they had to deal with the fact that America lost the war. On the first day of rehearsals, Maltby told the cast,

“America had never lost a war. We still thought John Wayne was going to come over the hill and save the day. There was something dying for America, much bigger than just the end of an event or a war they had officially pulled out of two years before. This was the end of a vision of America, of a dream of America, of its invincibility and of the perfect morality that we clothe ourselves in. It came to an end brutally on that day. So this moment in time, that’s part of the background of this love story has a reverberation in American history that just needs to be pointed out from time to time.”[6]

Maltby is talking about what we might call “Vietnam Syndrome”,[7] and the enduring legacy of Vietnam. These themes of lost morale and disillusionment were common features of films, books and other art forms that engaged with the American experience in the war, and Miss Saigon was to be no exception to this trend.[8] So, Maltby and the team started working these issues of war guilt and damaged pride into the script. Scholar Peter C Rollins argues that there is a sub-genre of cultural material about the Vietnam War which features the motif of a “corruption of innocence”,[9] and Miss Saigon certainly has echoes of other well-known works of this genre, such as Grahame Greene’s The Quiet American (1955), with a young, idealistic protagonist embodying the well-intentioned if naïve American GI.

There appears to be a concerted effort made to shift any blame for the war off the GIs, to present them either as young and naïve or as very morally good but ultimately conflicted. As the plot flashes forward to 1978, the audience witness glimpses of Chris trying to deal with his war guilt, and he’s shown to be suffering from PTSD. The producers also consciously tried to cast the actors playing Chris as quite young, ideally to look around the age of nineteen to twenty-three. This both adds to this youthful naivety and reflects the reality that most American GIs were extremely young. Towards the end of Miss Saigon, when Chris reflects on his experiences of the war, he states:

“Christ, I’m American, how could I fail to do good?
All I made was a mess, just like everyone else
In a place full of mystery that I never once understood!
I wanted back a world I knew…”[10]

The attempts to engage with this notion of war guilt are clear, and Chris’s sense of self is shown to be closely bound up with his identity as an American. Chris becomes emblematic of the United States as a whole, embroiled in a war he does not understand and cannot win. Despite a conviction that entering the war was the ‘right’ thing to do, the superpower’s inability to defeat what should have been an easy opponent left an indelible mark on people’s perceptions of American morality and power. The dawning realisation that America may have lost the war because they failed to understand the conflict is hinted at here, and is just one explanation that was offered as to why the US failed so dramatically in Vietnam.

When Miss Saigon reopened in 2014, it was “revived” rather than “remade”, but the revived musical was not identical to its predecessor. Around a tenth of the show’s script was rewritten for the revival, and the staging was adapted as well. Though there has been a lack of explicit discussion regarding why certain changes were made to the script and staging, producer Cameron MacKintosh stated that he did not believe in making changes for the sake of it, and that all changes which were made to the original were made for a purpose.[11] With all this in mind, it is interesting to analyse the lyrical changes that were made to Miss Saigon for its revival, and suggest how these might fit into evolving trends in how the Vietnam War has been remembered more broadly.

In terms of lyric changes, some are as subtle as giving dialogue from one character to another, or slightly changing a word to fit the rhythm of the music more smoothly. However, some, such as,

“that feeling locked behind a dam, that kept me there in Vietnam”[12]

changing to,

“they drafted me and shipped me out, to wind up in that senseless fight”[13]

appear to serve a more meaningful purpose. In this case, the lyric change allows the song to convey an additional detail about Chris’s wartime experience, namely that he was drafted rather than enlisting voluntarily. In a different scene, a Vietnamese woman’s line is changed from,

“he’ll [referring to an American GI] take me to New York and give me dollar bills”[14]

to,

“he’ll take me to a place where I don’t have to dance”.[15]

In this instance, the woman’s primary goal shifts from financial gain as a result of marrying a GI, to seeing marriage as a means to escape her suffering because of the war. The second version gives the Vietnamese woman a little more agency, and places the emphasis on her suffering rather than on her imagined husband’s wealth and status. Giving agency to Vietnamese voices is a growing element of the scholarship surrounding the American involvement in Vietnam, so it could be argued that these subtle lyric changes in part help the show to fit more broadly into an evolving way in which the world remembers America’s “senseless fight”.

In terms of staging and choreography adaptations, there appears to have been an attempt to shift away from the “corruption of innocence” narrative which permeated the original production. One of the original cast members stated in an interview that he felt “The American GIs are angrier and meaner than we were, using and abusing Vietnam’s women, culture and politics”.[16] The choreography also includes a lot more physical contact, and the fight scenes are more violent. The production team kept the original choreographer from 1989 for the 2014 production, and he has said that he felt his job was to “[make] it grittier, [make] it darker, enhance what I did originally”.[17]

In addition to this, the casting of Miss Saigon’s revival was not without controversy. By the nature of the show’s setting and content, one would expect the cast to be quite ethnically diverse. But, the show’s producers came under a lot of scrutiny when it opened for casting white actors to play Vietnamese characters, especially when they’d gone to great lengths – and great expense – to find an Asian actress,(then unknown Lea Salonga) to play Kim. The most obvious example of this was casting Johnathan Pryce as the main male Vietnamese character: the Engineer. In fact, when they tried to take the show to the US the main actor’s union in New York refused to let them cast Pryce as this character without auditioning Asian actors first, because they, understandably, disapproved of the attempt to tell a story about Vietnam while casting white British actors to do so.[18] Nowadays the casting stipulates that any actor auditioning for the roles of the Engineer and John, one of the more prominent American GIs, should be of non-Caucasian descent.[19]

While this discussion has only scratched the surface of the changes that were made to the show during the process of remaking it, it has hopefully highlighted that these small differences hold interesting keys to understanding cultural attempts to come to terms with the deep wounds left by the Vietnam War. Artistic depictions of historical events are perhaps at their most useful when used to track changes in public opinion over time: studying these closely allow us to examine which memories and myths last longer than others, and which ones evolve as time elapses. It’s worth noting that the revival of Miss Saigon took place in the UK where it originated, as opposed to in the United States. Though the legacy of the Vietnam war is arguably a primarily American concern, its aftershocks have repercussions around the world, and particularly in the West. This version succeeds in holding up a mirror both to America and to the world, and while the Vietnam War continues to represent a fracture in the American psyche which will surely continue to be explored through art and culture for many years to come.

In our current cultural mode, these explorations – and revisions of them – concerning Vietnam will be crucial to helping us deal with the war’s legacy; a task which itself is unlikely to have an end, but be more of a process we must go through. Taking the narrative of Miss Saigon, is a story which calls Western supremacy into question, but, fundamentally, it is also a story about personal sacrifice. The long-term consequences of the war are perhaps most poignantly illustrated by one of the returning soldiers, who laments:

“Like all survivors, I once thought

When I’m home I won’t give a damn

But now I know I’m caught

I’ll never leave Vietnam.”[20]

 

[1] The Company, 1991. The Confrontation. In: Miss Saigon [CD]. Polydor Group

[2] The Heat is Back On: The Remaking of Miss Saigon (2015). DVD

[3] Ray Shell, “Miss Saigon: our old show is back – fresh and angry for the 21st century”, The Guardian 12th June 2014. https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2014/jun/12/miss-saigon-new-production-ray-shell-orginal-cast-member

[4] Tzu-I Chung, “The Transnational Vision of Miss Saigon: Performing the Orient in a Globalized World”,

 MELUS, Vol. 36, No. 4 (2011), 61-86: 69

[5] Ibid.

[6] The Heat is On: The Making of Miss Saigon (1988), accessible here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZWtmG5jQTTg

[7] https://thevietnamwar.info/vietnam-syndrome/

[8] For instance, Apocalypse Now (1979), Platoon (1986), Born on the 4th of July (1989), among many others.

[9] Peter C. Rollins, “The Vietnam War: Perceptions through Literature, Film, and Television”, American Quarterly Vol. 36, No. 3 (1984), 419-432: 422

[10] The Company, 1991. The Confrontation. In: Miss Saigon [CD]. Polydor Group

[11] The Heat is Back On: The Remaking of Miss Saigon (2015). DVD

[12] The Company, 1991. The Confrontation. In: Miss Saigon [CD]. Polydor Group

[13] The Company, 2014. The Confrontation. In: Miss Saigon- 25th anniversary edition [CD]

[14] The Company, 1991. The Movie in My Mind. In: Miss Saigon [CD]. Polydor Group

[15] The Company, 2014. The Movie in My Mind. In: Miss Saigon- 25th anniversary edition [CD]

[16] Ray Shell, “Miss Saigon: our old show is back – fresh and angry for the 21st century”, The Guardian 12th June 2014. https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2014/jun/12/miss-saigon-new-production-ray-shell-orginal-cast-member

[17] The Heat is Back On: The Remaking of Miss Saigon (2015). DVD

[18] Tzu-I Chung, 68-69

[19] Miss Saigon casting call, accessible here: https://www.backstage.com/casting/miss-saigon-98685/ (last accessed October 3rd 2017)

[20] The Company, 1991. I’d Give My Life for You. In: Miss Saigon [CD]. Polydor Group

[If possible, I’d quite like to either link to the trailer, or embed the trailer at this point? Here’s a link to one version of the trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V2u3dT5wV3w ]

 

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