Miss Saigon was a huge hit musical on Broadway in the 1990s, running for about ten years from 1991 to 2001. Adapted from the storyline of Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly and set during the Vietnam War, this love story about the 17-year old Vietnamese girl Kim and the young American G.I. Chris captured audiences’ hearts. This March, a new production of Miss Saigon premiered on Broadway with many Asian cast members. Chopsticks NY delves into this revival musical with the help of Ms. Minami Yusui, a Japanese actress and one of the cast members of the current Miss Saigon production.
Asian Actors Empowered
The backdrop of Miss Saigon is mainly in Vietnam and Thailand, and the story involves local people. So one of the exciting elements of this new production, particularly for Chopsticks NY readers, is that there are many Asian actors. “It is one of the first musicals to feature Asian actors,” says Ms. Yusui. In the past, Asian characters were often played by Caucasian or Hispanic actors, not only in theater, but also in films and TV. This was also the case for the original production of Miss Saigon—the lead role of The Engineer was played by the British actor Jonathan Pryce. But today a growing number of talented Asian actors are active in show business, cast as Asians and sometimes even non-Asian characters. In this revival version of Miss Saigon, the two main characters are portrayed by Filipino actors—Jon Jon Briones as The Engineer and Eva Noblezada as Kim—and many other Asian actors contribute to this realistic depiction and enrich the 2017 version of Miss Saigon.
The classic musical The King and I also features many Asian actors. “Miss Saigon is 180 degrees different from The King and I, which is graceful,” explains Ms. Yusui who was also in the cast of the Broadway production of The King and I last year. “Miss Saigon is livelier. This is the hustle bustle of Vietnam during crazy wartime. Scenes change quickly and there are a lot of set pieces, so it’s really different.” Another musical that cast many Asian actors Allegiance (directed by and starring Star Trek icon George Takei) was short-lived, but these recent Broadway productions show how varied and deep Asian actors are in show business.
The famous helicopter scene reproducing “Operation Frequent Wind” is one of Miss Saigon‘s highlights.
Drama that Challenges Humanity
Brought to life by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil, the creative team behind Les Miserables, Miss Saigon depicts the dynamic social and political shifts from 1975 to 1978, at the end of the Vietnam War. There are many controversial issues behind the main plot of this epic musical. Although it is almost 40 years since the withdrawal of the U.S. from the war, there are many people who still remember or lived through those difficult times. Ms. Yusui points out that these issues in Miss Saigon are not really in the past, and that makes the production value of Miss Saigon more significant. “I guess it’s an ongoing theme, as wars and refugee issues are still going on. This makes the theme of this musical very relevant and current. There are a lot of strong messages in this production.”
But at the same time, what happens in the musical is a love story. “That’s universal, and it’s easier for the audience to relate to or sympathize with the characters,” she continues. “What is the theme? It really depends on the person. Some people care about Kim’s journey. Some veterans have had similar experiences to Chris’s suffering. But humanity is the strongest theme, I think. No matter your race and how hard your circumstances are, you have to live and endure. Love, survival and the courage to persevere—these things that all humans have to cope with are depicted.”
Tony Award nominee Eva Noblezada was originally chosen for the role of Kim when she was seventeen years old.
More Life Stories in the 2017 Production
Casting is one of the big differences from the original production, but other things have also been updated. “The director, Laurence Connor, puts an emphasis on the storyline. He wants the words in the songs to be heard and make it look almost like a straight play, so it’s less operatic,” explains Ms. Yusui. “He also wanted every cast members, even the ensemble, to have an individual story going on in each scene. When I play one of the prostitutes in the ensemble, I try really hard to convince a G.I. to get me out of my hell. The director really pushed us to go for it, so the look of the musical is more real and grittier than the original.” This epic is told at a fast-pace, and its 2 hour and 40 minute running time passes by in a flash. Whether you are new to musicals, already enjoyed The King and I or already saw the original Miss Saigon, you will find this revival production more multi-layered, more modern and more alive.
Jon Jon Briones’s portrayal of The Engineer is outstanding—evil, greedy, loving, and human at the same time.
*All photos from the Miss Saigon production by Matthew Murphy.
Japanese actress, dancer, and singer in theater performing arts. She appeared in numerous international/touring productions including Wicked, Mary Poppins, Chicago, and Beauty & The Beast as well as Broadway productions of The King and I and Miss Saigon. She was also an assistant director/translator for the Japanese production of Spring Awakening.