'Miss Saigon' is Coming Back and So Are My Insecurities

Chris Peterson

OnStage Founder & Editor-in-Chief


Next spring, the epic Alain Boublil & Claude-Michel Schönberg musical, Miss Saigon, will be making its way back to Broadway. The show, which ran for 10 years until 2001, will feature members of the cast from the recent London production.

 Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

 Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

And while I'm certainly elated that Asian performers will have more job opportunities on Broadway, I can't help but admit that many of my insecurities and reservations about the show are being resurrected with its announced return. While I would never say I hate the show, I'll be the first to admit that I'm not 100% thrilled with its depictions with the Asian roles.

If you're not familiar with the show. According to its press release: 

Set in 1975 during the final days of the American occupation of Saigon, Miss Saigon is an epic love story about the relationship between an American GI and a young Vietnamese woman. Orphaned by war, 17-year-old Kim is forced to work as a bar girl in a sleazy Saigon nightclub, owned by a notorious wheeler-dealer known as "The Engineer." John, an American GI, buys his friend Chris the services of Kim for the night—a night that will change their lives forever.

To be fair, the show features a fantastic score and lyric work. However, it's also fair to say that while I wouldn't necessarily call the show "racist", it does perpetuate numerous Asian stereotypes which might have been excusable in 1989(when it premiered in London), but seem a bit narrow-minded for 2016. 

Columnist Naomi Ko put it best, 

"Simply—there are just a lot of issues with “Miss Saigon.” It perpetuates the stereotype of weak Asian women ready to be saved by western men (i.e. “The Last Samurai,” “Memoirs of a Geisha,” etc.). It affirms the emasculation of Asian men as weak and/or sexless (i.e. “Two Broke Girls,” “Sixteen Candles,” or “Romeo Must Die”). It celebrates western colonialism and falsely portrays the Vietnamese during the war. And lastly, “Miss Saigon” romanticizes transnational adoption, reaffirming the belief that children from the east can only be properly raised by white Americans."

While I can't comment on the last part of that because, I myself, am an adopted South Korean to white parents, I can certainly see where she's coming from. 

Jonathan Pryce in Miss Saigon

Jonathan Pryce in Miss Saigon

With Miss Saigon's return to New York, it also brings back memories of its casting controversies, which left more than a bad taste in the mouths of many in the Asian acting community. You may remember that in the original West End production, Caucasian actors Jonathan Pryce and Keith Burns played the roles of The Engineer and Thuy respectively. Since these characters were of Asian dissent, Pryce and Burns used bronzing cream and wore eye prostheses to appear more Asian. If that's not "Yellowface", I don't what is. 

When the original production was set to open in New York, Actors Equity ruled that Pryce could not play the role because they felt having a white person play an Asian role is an affront to Asian performers(how right they were). However, because of this, Cameron Mackintosh threatened to cancel the show. Producers even went as far to explain that the Engineer was Eurasian (French-Vietnamese), and that Pryce was being discriminated because he was Caucasian.

Yes, Mackintosh and Co. claimed it was discriminating towards Jonathan Pryce to prevent him from playing a role in "Yellowface".....

So please excuse us if we're not exactly over the moon to see it coming back. 

Now some of the haters(especially the white ones) out there will tell me to stop whining(which I'm not) or that there isn't anything offensive about Miss Saigon. I'm always relieved when white people tell me what I should be offended by. 

Alistair Brammer (Chris) and Eva Noblezada (Kim) in Miss Saigon at the Prince Edward theatre. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

Alistair Brammer (Chris) and Eva Noblezada (Kim) in Miss Saigon at the Prince Edward theatre. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

To them, I should be thrilled that Asians are getting more roles on Broadway and never mind what kinds of roles they are. Just go about my day like "ah good ah-Chinese peepur".

But consider this for a moment, it has been a monumental year for Asian performers on Broadway. Two of the top selling shows feature Asian performers(Hamilton , The King & I)Allegiance, which featured a majority Asian cast, beat every odd to make it to Broadway. The reigning Tony winner for Best Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical is Asian-American(Ruthie-Ann Miles). And one of the most iconic female roles of this generation, Elizabeth Schuyler, is being played by Phillipa Soo, who is Chinese-American. 

With all the progress that has been made this year, the return of a show where Asian performers go back to playing prostitutes and Viet-Cong soldiers, just feels like a momentum killer and a step backwards.