Reflections on Boublil and Schonberg's "Miss Saigon"
My wife and I saw "Miss Saigon" only fairly recently (October 2005), a mere sixteen years after its premiere in London! Why wait so long? Well, we bought the CD of the show shortly after seeing "Les Miserables" and I have to admit that we never really took to it. However, when a national tour was announced we thought it would be worth going to see, and I am delighted to report that seeing it on stage was an entirely different and far more affecting experience. We found we were gripped from start to finish. I should say the acting and singing were quite superb, and the staging was terrific - that all helps, but the very fact of seeing it brought to life on stage rather than just listening to the CD made all the difference. I should have known - I felt much the same about the "Les Miserables" 10th anniversary concert, and was then blown away by the stage production!
It really brought home to me what superb story tellers Boublil and Schonberg are. Unlike so many other musicals, their work engages the heart and the mind, and this is a beautifully structured tale told through the medium of music - the modern operatic style of musical they have done so much to advance is the perfect medium for recounting a tale of humanity and emotion.
So, having established the fact that I thought it was a great musical, what is it about, exactly?
There are several themes, but these include:
Conflict leads to tragedy and the destruction of lifestyle and culture. There is no real political discussion of the pros and cons of the reasons behind the conflict in Vietnam - there is simply the observation that both the Americans and the North Vietnamese (and come to that the French before both of them) have exercised vast cultural and political interference on the people of South Vietnam whose lives are changed beyond all recognition as a result of the political and military conflict it was decided to fight on their land.
Conflict clearly leads to personal tragedy with the death and destruction of family and personal property. War is a tool used by a tiny minority to further political ambition or perhaps even ideology. However, it also creates innocent victims who have to bear the brunt of the consequences of war, and who ultimately pay the price of others' actions and ambitions. Kim has lost her village and family, destroyed and brutally killed in an attack (though who instituted the attack remains unclear) - a simple village inhabited by farmers who fell victim to broader political machinations.
War can also reveal human nature in all its variations - from the idealistic and the innocent (and I include both the Vietnamese and the young G.I.s whose lives were changed forever by the experience), to the amoral who do what they feel is necessary in order to survive (such as Tran, the Engineer). This is the ideal setting to explore the existential themes of helping one another in times of crisis, and accepting responsibility for one's actions and influence. Clearly Chris and Kim help one another survive and discover hope for the future through the love they feel for one another. The Engineer is also willing to help, but at a price - his own survival. He acts out of self preservation rather than commitment to either principle or another human being (though he can be charming and amusing).
This theme of accepting responsibility for one's actions and influence is also illustrated by John's desire to help the offspring of American soldiers ("bui-doi") who have been rejected by their own countrymen. Children (and therefore the future) are another element essential to "Miss Saigon".
Of course Kim also displays love and utter devotion to her son Tam, to the point of self sacrifice in order to ensure his safety and well-being. Love is indeed a crucial theme in "Miss Saigon", from Kim and Chris's initial falling in love, Kim's love for her son, Ellen's love for Chris, Thuy's respect and love for Kim and tradition, to the lack of love and self respect among the girls at the Saigon bar at the start of the show. Love, then, is seen as the major motivating force for the action (on a personal level) of the piece.
The place of women in society is investigated to some extent also. Kim has fled a man to whom she was promised by her father (Thuy) - she seeks freedom, but finds she must compromise her self respect in order to maintain that freedom. The girls in the bar also do what they have to do in order to survive and have a chance of gaining freedom. When offered marriage to Thuy the second time, Thuy cannot accept the existence of Kim's son and she is expected to accept Tam's death as a price for the respectability of becoming his wife.
Although this is a far more personal and narrower tale with less obviously universal themes, there are nevertheless several similarities between this story and "Les Miserables" both in terms of theme and style. Boublil and Schonberg could hardly help but be influenced by the mighty work they had done in the musical of "Les Mis".
Let us look at some of the common themes:
The position and degradation of women in society (Fantine's treatment by society and eventual turning to prostitution)
Maternal love and devotion (Fantine's self sacrifice for Cosette)
Children and their education are seen as essential for the betterment of society
Amorality in the shape of the self-serving Thenardier
Idealism in the form of the students and Marius
Love is seen as the principal source of change and betterment
The whole takes place in a setting of revolution and conflict
The characters are presented in such a way as to allow understanding and sympathy
Of course, there are significant differences. In "Miss Saigon" there is no Valjean-like hero to act as a role model or inspiration, and there are no real solutions offered to the problems it presents. Conflict creates tragedy. Perhaps Boublil and Schonberg hoped that by producing this beautifully crafted, touching and thought-provoking piece they could increase awareness of the consequences of such action, and thus encourage its avoidance.
My thanks for taking the time to read this page. I hope you found it of some interest. I would be delighted to discuss the content of this page or "Miss Saigon" itself - I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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