Miss Saigon is back on stage – and people are angry

Published in The i on July 6, 2023

The heat is on Miss Saigon: Sheffield Crucible is mounting the first all-new production of the mega-hit musical since its premiere in 1989 – and in doing so, has made many people angry.

Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s musical has attracted controversy almost since its inception: an update of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly set during the Vietnam war, it tells the story of an American GI, Chris, who falls in love with a Vietnamese sex worker, Kim, who eventually kills herself so that he will take their child to live a “better life” in the US.

The show, with its bombastic, lushly romantic score and infamously lavish staging including a real helicopter, has enjoyed lengthy, money-spinning runs in the West End, on Broadway and around the world. But every time it’s remounted, more voices add to a chorus criticising its imperialist, white saviour narrative, its negative and stereotyped presentation of Vietnam, and its fetishistic depiction of passive yet sexualised Asian women.

We may be far from the days when a white actor – Jonathan Pryce – wore make-up and latex prosthetics to play the Engineer, a French-Vietnamese brothel-keeper, and some of the most wince-inducing aspects have already been changed: a song with gobbledegook fake Vietnamese lyrics was re-written for the 2017 revival. And Sheffield Theatres are making big promises that their version will be a radically “reimagined” Miss Saigon, created with a majority East and South East Asian cast.

But the decision to stage it has still caused dismay. British East and South East Asian (BESEA) company New Earth cancelled their play, Worth, at Sheffield Theatres this summer in response. When their artistic director, Kumiko Mendl, heard about Miss Saigon from a colleague, she was so shocked she actually didn’t believe them at first.

“For us the musical perpetuates deeply held notions of Asian inferiority and employs harmful racist and misogynistic stereotypes and tropes that continue to go unnoticed,” she explains. “The fact we have to still draw attention to this in 2023 is itself a depressing reality. The piece completely contradicts our values and beliefs and the work we do as a company to centre stories from a BESEA perspective.”

Meanwhile, in a stunning programming coincidence, Manchester’s Royal Exchange is simultaneously staging American playwright Kimber Lee’s untitled f**k m*ss s**gon play, a show that caustically parodies the Orientalising stereotyping she sees in the musical. Her Kim is trapped in endless repetitions of the same old story – “Here we are again at the busted-ass specifically vaguely Asian hut” – taking aim at Madame Butterfly, South Pacific and MASH as well.

Mendl calls the play, which transfers to London’s Young Vic in September, a “perfect, fiery antidote” to Miss Saigon: “With the timing of the two productions, it’s certainly going to generate a conversation in the wider industry, which can be counted as something positive to have come out of all of this.”

The furore did not take Miss Saigon’s co-directors, Robert Hastie and Anthony Lau, unawares. “I don’t think either of us were under the illusion that it wasn’t a controversial or complicated show to put on,” acknowledges Lau when I meet them during rehearsals. They point out that they did seek advice from their peers – and consulted BESEA artists – before deciding to go ahead.

The idea was always that this would be a brand-new take on Miss Saigon – an impetus that came from the original creative team, in fact. Super-producer Cameron Mackintosh wanted to work with an artistically led, rather than commercial, theatre, and approached Sheffield three years ago. Their shared aim is to uncover “a new perspective, from a new set of artists, in a new context”, says Hastie.

This feels “quite high stakes”, he acknowledges, but he thinks it is worth trying. “A piece that is this popular, that is this impactful, that does take up so much space in musical theatre culture… we want to see what is possible, how you can do work within that.”

And they have the blessing to change it, down to working with Schönberg in rehearsals to re-write lines and lyrics that now jar. “We’ve never had a blanket no – it’s always been a discussion,” says Hastie. While wary of giving concrete examples – the script was still being finalised when we met – one can only hope that lines like the Engineer’s lament “why was I born of a race that thinks only of rice?” or Chris’s promise to Kim that “on the other side of the earth/ There’s a place where life still has worth” may be for the chop…

But it isn’t just about language – it’s about wider questions of how you tell this story, and from whose perspective, insists Lau. “How do you reframe? How do you reimagine?”

The most headline-grabbing solution they’ve deployed is in casting: their Engineer is played by a woman, Joanna Ampil – a Kim in the original West End run – which may help shake up the show’s gender roles. And Chris and his American wife Ellen are played by black actors, adding a new dimension to a show often criticised for the whiteness of its storytelling lens.

Of course, inserting an extra woman or person of colour isn’t, in itself, a magic wand that solves the play – as Hastie hurries to point out. “This definitely isn’t an attempt to fix that which is deemed problematic about the show with a simple piece of casting. That’s always the starting point, never the complete picture.”

Still, they believe such choices can help complicate these archetypal characters, and encourage fresh examination of the power dynamics at play. “We’re constantly talking about how we can make this more complicated, more nuanced, more three-dimensional,” says Hastie.

One of the clearest complaints about Miss Saigon is that Kim is both hyper-sexualised and a passive victim. Imbuing her with more agency has been key: from making sure her self-sacrifice is seen as a choice, not a doomy necessity, to exploring the canniness and complicity between her and the Engineer.

Elsewhere, they’re trying to find space within the “incredible momentum of the music” to give “dignity and individuality” to minor characters, says Hastie – from the choruses of prostitutes and their GI customers, to underwritten characters like Thuy, Kim’s shunned Vietnamese fiancé, or Ellen, Chris’s American wife. The aim is to shift away from crude, flattened East/West archetypes, towards messy human beings navigating impossibly difficult situations.

“Part of the challenge is to go, ‘How do you make it so that no group becomes representative of a nationality or a race or a culture?’” says Hastie. “The show is about a clash of cultures – but in the middle are real people caught up in the gears of history. That’s one of the ways we are trying to pull it apart.”

Another way is in the visual language of the play. Ben Stones’ set takes inspiration from documentary photos from the 1970s, with the design aiming to reflect the fact that Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) is a major metropolis: think colonial architecture and plenty of concrete, not bamboo huts…

All of which strikes me as thoughtful, and well-intentioned – whether it will be enough to transform a show that has, at its core, a white supremacist narrative remains to be seen.

But one stubborn question remains: why work so hard to rehabilitate a musical that so many people – over several generations, now – have so clearly condemned as racist and sexist? Why stage this show, when people have specifically said “please don’t”? Their argument boils down to: it is so popular, it will be done anyway – why not do it better?

“Of course there are pieces of art that cannot be done – but pragmatically, this is not one those,” says Hastie. “There are productions all over the world right now. And while there are a lot of people who say it shouldn’t be done, there are many, many more who demonstrate with their ticket-buying that they think it should.

“We have a really complex responsibility as artists: sometimes that’s to change from the outside, sometimes that’s to create change from the inside. We really respect those voices that disagree – but we do believe it’s possible to create that change with the work that we’re making.”

New Earth’s Mendl is wary of how much change can be found within this divisive show, however. “I trust they are now hyper mindful of the material they are playing with. But I do have reservations as to what they will be able to shift or change to those baked in elements of cultural imperialism and misogyny, in any significant way.”

And let’s be honest, it’s not just the appetite of audiences driving the decision to keep staging Miss Saigon – it’s also the potential box office receipts. “I’ve been told it’s one of Mackintosh’s highest earners,” Mendl says. “So no doubt it’s going to keep going, whether we like it or not.”

Where next?