The ‘racist’ Miss Saigon musical is again on stage – and individuals are indignant

The warmth is on Miss Saigon: Sheffield Crucible is mounting the primary all-new manufacturing of the mega-hit musical since its premiere in 1989 – and in doing so, has made many individuals indignant.

Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s musical has attracted controversy virtually since its inception: an replace of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly set in the course of the Vietnam struggle, it tells the story of an American GI, Chris, who falls in love with a Vietnamese intercourse employee, Kim, who finally kills herself in order that he’ll take their youngster to dwell a “higher life” within the US.

The present, with its bombastic, lushly romantic rating and infamously lavish staging together with an actual helicopter, has loved prolonged, money-spinning runs within the West Finish, on Broadway and world wide. However each time it’s remounted, extra voices add to a refrain criticising its imperialist, white saviour narrative, its damaging and stereotyped presentation of Vietnam, and its fetishistic depiction of passive but sexualised Asian ladies.

Kimber Lee’s untitled f**ok m*ss s**gon play (Photographer: The Different Richard / Richard Dave)

We could also be removed from the times when a white actor – Jonathan Pryce – wore make-up and latex prosthetics to play the Engineer, a French-Vietnamese brothel-keeper, and a number of the most wince-inducing features have already been modified: a music with gobbledegook faux Vietnamese lyrics was re-written for the 2017 revival. And Sheffield Theatres are making large guarantees that their model might be a radically “reimagined” Miss Saigon, created with a majority East and South East Asian solid.

However the resolution to stage it has nonetheless precipitated dismay. British East and South East Asian (BESEA) firm New Earth cancelled their play, Value, at Sheffield Theatres this summer time in response. When their creative director, Kumiko Mendl, heard about Miss Saigon from a colleague, she was so shocked she truly didn’t consider them at first.

“For us the musical perpetuates deeply held notions of Asian inferiority and employs dangerous racist and misogynistic stereotypes and tropes that proceed to go unnoticed,” she explains. “The very fact we have now to nonetheless draw consideration to this in 2023 is itself a miserable actuality. The piece utterly contradicts our values and beliefs and the work we do as an organization to centre tales from a BESEA perspective.”

Rehearsals for the revival of Miss Saigon at Crucible Theatre, (Photographer: Johan Persson)

In the meantime, in a shocking programming coincidence, Manchester’s Royal Trade is concurrently staging American playwright Kimber Lee’s untitled f**ok m*ss s**gon play, a present that caustically parodies the Orientalising stereotyping she sees within the musical. Her Kim is trapped in countless repetitions of the identical outdated story – “Right here we’re once more on the busted-ass particularly vaguely Asian hut” – taking intention at Madame Butterfly, South Pacific and M*A*S*H as properly.

Mendl calls the play, which transfers to London’s Younger Vic in September, a “excellent, fiery antidote” to Miss Saigon: “With the timing of the 2 productions, it’s definitely going to generate a dialog within the wider trade, which could be counted as one thing optimistic to have come out of all of this.”

The furore didn’t take Miss Saigon’s co-directors, Robert Hastie and Anthony Lau, unawares. “I don’t assume both of us had been beneath the phantasm that it wasn’t a controversial or sophisticated present to placed on,” acknowledges Lau after I meet them throughout rehearsals. They level out that they did search recommendation from their friends – and consulted BESEA artists – earlier than deciding to go forward.

The thought was at all times that this might be a brand-new tackle Miss Saigon – an impetus that got here from the unique inventive group, in truth. Tremendous-producer Cameron Waterproof coat needed to work with an artistically led, somewhat than business, theatre, and approached Sheffield three years in the past. Their shared intention is to uncover “a brand new perspective, from a brand new set of artists, in a brand new context”, says Hastie.

RTYDS Affiliate Inventive Director Anthony Lau (Picture: Sam Taylor )

This feels “fairly excessive stakes”, he acknowledges, however he thinks it’s price attempting. “A chunk that’s this fashionable, that’s this impactful, that does take up a lot area in musical theatre tradition… we wish to see what is feasible, how you are able to do work inside that.”

And so they have the blessing to vary it, right down to working with Schönberg in rehearsals to re-write strains and lyrics that now jar. “We’ve by no means had a blanket no – it’s at all times been a dialogue,” says Hastie. Whereas cautious of giving concrete examples – the script was nonetheless being finalised after we met – one can solely hope that strains just like the Engineer’s lament “why was I born of a race that thinks solely of rice?” or Chris’s promise to Kim that “on the opposite aspect of the earth/ There’s a spot the place life nonetheless has price” could also be for the chop…

Nevertheless it isn’t nearly language – it’s about wider questions of the way you inform this story, and from whose perspective, insists Lau. “How do you reframe? How do you reimagine?”

Rehearsals for the revival of Miss Saigon at Crucible Theatre, (Photographer: Johan Persson)

Probably the most headline-grabbing answer they’ve deployed is in casting: their Engineer is performed by a lady, Joanna Ampil – a Kim within the unique West Finish run – which can assist shake up the present’s gender roles. And Chris and his American spouse Ellen are performed by black actors, including a brand new dimension to a present typically criticised for the whiteness of its storytelling lens.

After all, inserting an additional lady or individual of color isn’t, in itself, a magic wand that solves the play – as Hastie hurries to level out. “This undoubtedly isn’t an try to repair that which is deemed problematic in regards to the present with a easy piece of casting. That’s at all times the place to begin, by no means the whole image.”

Nonetheless, they consider such decisions will help complicate these archetypal characters, and encourage contemporary examination of the facility dynamics at play. “We’re always speaking about how we will make this extra sophisticated, extra nuanced, extra three-dimensional,” says Hastie.

One of many clearest complaints about Miss Saigon is that Kim is each hyper-sexualised and a passive sufferer. Imbuing her with extra company has been key: from ensuring her self-sacrifice is seen as a alternative, not a doomy necessity, to exploring the canniness and complicity between her and the Engineer.

Rehearsals for the revival of Miss Saigon at Crucible Theatre, (Photographer: Johan Persson)

Elsewhere, they’re looking for area inside the “unbelievable momentum of the music” to present “dignity and individuality” to minor characters, says Hastie – from the choruses of prostitutes and their GI prospects, to underwritten characters like Thuy, Kim’s shunned Vietnamese fiancé, or Ellen, Chris’s American spouse. The intention is to shift away from crude, flattened East/West archetypes, in the direction of messy human beings navigating impossibly troublesome conditions.

“A part of the problem is to go, ‘How do you make it in order that no group turns into consultant of a nationality or a race or a tradition?’” says Hastie. “The present is a couple of conflict of cultures – however within the center are actual folks caught up within the gears of historical past. That’s one of many methods we are attempting to tug it aside.”

One other approach is within the visible language of the play. Ben Stones’ set takes inspiration from documentary images from the Seventies, with the design aiming to replicate the truth that Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh Metropolis) is a serious metropolis: assume colonial structure and loads of concrete, not bamboo huts…

All of which strikes me as considerate, and well-intentioned – whether or not will probably be sufficient to remodel a present that has, at its core, a white supremacist narrative stays to be seen.

However one cussed query stays: why work so onerous to rehabilitate a musical that so many individuals – over a number of generations, now – have so clearly condemned as racist and sexist? Why stage this present, when folks have particularly mentioned “please don’t”? Their argument boils right down to: it’s so fashionable, will probably be completed anyway – why not do it higher?

“After all there are items of artwork that can not be completed – however pragmatically, this isn’t one these,” says Hastie. “There are productions everywhere in the world proper now. And whereas there are lots of people who say it shouldn’t be completed, there are a lot of, many extra who exhibit with their ticket-buying that they assume it ought to.

“Now we have a extremely advanced duty as artists: generally that’s to vary from the surface, generally that’s to create change from the within. We actually respect these voices that disagree – however we do consider it’s doable to create that change with the work that we’re making.”

New Earth’s Mendl is cautious of how a lot change could be discovered inside this divisive present, nonetheless. “I belief they’re now hyper aware of the fabric they’re enjoying with. However I do have reservations as to what they are going to be capable to shift or change to these baked in parts of cultural imperialism and misogyny, in any important approach.”

And let’s be trustworthy, it’s not simply the urge for food of audiences driving the choice to maintain staging Miss Saigon – it’s additionally the potential field workplace receipts. “I’ve been advised it’s one in all Waterproof coat’s highest earners,” Mendl says. “So little question it’s going to maintain going, whether or not we prefer it or not.”

Miss Saigon is at Sheffield Crucible, 8 July – 19 August,; untitled f**ok m*ss s**gon play is at Manchester Royal Trade until 22 July, and on the Younger Vic in London, 18 September – 4 November