Inside the plainly named Broadway Theater, one of Broadway’s largest houses with 1,765 seats, a wall of wood scaffolding and wood poles obscures the stage in place of the would-be curtain. The screens of wooden slats bleed seamlessly into stairways patched with corrugated metal, extending beyond the proscenium. This apparent slum, which is lit with a smattering of paper lanterns, is immediately reminiscent of the village in Zeffirelli’s famed Met production of “Turandot.” Coincidentally, it is another Puccini opera, “Madama Butterfly,” that Broadway Theater patrons are about to experience in the form of the rock musical “Miss Saigon.”
Few operas have found successful reinvention in the form of musical theater in today’s age. In the nineteenth century, Gilbert and Sullivan contributed a good many operettas based on the works of their classical forefathers, but most other composers’ attempts at operetta spoofs of operas are hardly well-known enough to influence the modern-day repertoire. “Rent” and “Aida,” on the other hand, based on “La Bohème” and Verdi’s “Aida” respectively, have become staples in musical theater (and, in the case of “Rent,” a cult phenomenon). The same can be said of “Miss Saigon,” which is now enjoying its first, limited-run revival since the London premiere in 1989.
Allegedly, “Miss Saigon” was first inspired when composer Claude-Michel Schoenberg beheld an image of a Vietnamese mother sending her child off to America, where it was hoped he’d live a better life with his ex-GI father. Puccini, on the other hand, the original master of this age-old tale, was inspired by yet another iteration: a play he attended based on Pierre Loti’s novel “Madame Chrysanthème.” While both the opera and the musical portray the age-old tragedy of an Asian wife waiting three years for her husband to return home, the exposition of “Miss Saigon” fills in the missing years and moments in a way that tells us what might have happened – unlike “Madama Butterfly,” which focuses the passing of time on Cio-Cio San alone, left with nothing but the murmurings of her mind.
Puccini’s Cio-Cio San, or Butterfly, appears as a tragic, modern-day musical heroine in the form of Schoenberg’s Kim. Right off the bat, as revealed by the title, the musical moves the story from Nagasaki to Vietnam near the end of the war. The 17-year-old Kim makes her entrance in the Dreamland brothel, having taken on prostitution as her only hope for a living because, as she reveals later, her family was killed in the war. With Cio-Cio San, a 15-year-old geisha in Japan, it’s never plainly revealed whether or not she participated in the sexual pleasuring of men, which seems to be mostly outside the role of a geisha, whose jobs are to train in being an entertaining hostess for male company.
Both Kim and Cio-Cio San tie the knot for all to see onstage, marrying the men who will be their greatest grief and who, as we know, will lead them to their suicides at the end. Chris and Pinkerton, on opposite ends of the spectrum, are perhaps the greatest difference in the retelling of these stories.
For Pinkerton, Cio-Cio-San appears never to have been a serious love interest. His right-hand man, Sharpless, finds it necessary to point out to him that Cio-Cio-San has fallen deeply for him, and at 15 years old, her vulnerability comes as no surprise. But B.F. Pinkerton, while admitting that he is well aware of his young wife’s feelings for him, chooses to return home to America, making his decision one of obvious and careless abandonment, unbeknownst to Cio-Cio San.
In stark contrast, Chris is forced to leave Kim abruptly, having fallen deeply in love after their one night in the Dreamland brothel. The US Army is called to evacuate the country at a moment’s notice, which results in a terrifying scene of Vietnamese locals, desperate to flee Vietnam, clamoring outside the US embassy gates. Kim, unable to reach her husband, screams outside the barbed wire and metal bars that she is the wife of a soldier, but it’s too late.
To Pinkerton, Cio-Cio-San was nothing more than a fleeting romance to pass the time in a foreign country until he could start an American family. Chris, on the other hand, torn away from his new wife, sees no option but to start a new family back home, albeit reluctantly, as he continues to think of Kim in his sleep, which doesn’t go unnoticed by his new American wife.
The true love between Chris and Kim is what provides the opportunity for the male lead to shine more in the “Saigon” telling. Chris’s choices offer a chance to dive deeper into his narrative. Pinkerton’s experiences back in the US would make a far less interesting exposition. What else could there be to say about leaving a wife you never intended to hold on to?
The monolithic continent of Asia, though split by a number of national borders, is home to some of the world’s oldest history. Both the settings in Vietnam and Japan reflect a great many long-held traditions and expectations, namely for the female characters, who must carefully follow the rules lest they lose their dignity and respect in their homelands. Adding to the painful three-year wait suffered by Kim and Cio-Cio San is the embarrassment of going against societal norms.
After both happy marriage ceremonies comes a man to slay the heroine’s dreams, throwing her under the bus for all to see. “Cio-Cio San! Cio-Cio San! You are damned!” is heard offstage. The Bonze, her uncle, approaches to ridicule her in front of all the guests directly after the ceremony. By marrying the American Pinkerton, she has chosen to become a Christian and renounce her Buddhist faith. The guests scream in horror and the Bonze orders them out with him. Now exiled from her community, all that Cio-Cio San has to cling to are Pinkerton and her maid Suzuki.
Back in Vietnam, Kim is similarly shamed at her family’s altar. Thuy has come to inform Kim that marriage has already been arranged between the two of them, but Kim’s declares that the agreement is null after the death of her parents. Thuy will go on to become an officer in the new communist regime, and he returns again wielding his newfound power and threatening the life of her son, until she eventually kills him.
“Miss Saigon” and “Madama Butterfly” display obvious differences in style and genre. However, if you go beyond that you will discover that Claude-Michel Schoenberg’s music and Puccini’s have a lot in common.
The first thing audiences will notice in “Miss Saigon” is that the music is continuous, very much like the opera, in which the music never stops and everything is sung.
But what unites both these scores is the constant search for cultural authenticity in the music. Both composers’ intentions have been disputed. Kuno Hara’s thesis “Puccini’s Use of Japanese Melodies in ‘Madama Butterfly’” declares that the use of Japanese melodies showed “Puccini’s preoccupation with creating an authentic Japanese setting within his opera,” while others have argued that “Puccini wanted to produce an exotic atmosphere rather than an accurate musical portrayal of Japan.”
Whatever the case might be, each composer was heavily influenced by the culture in which his work is set, and the music and instrumentation of both works demonstrate this. To express the conflict between Western culture and Eastern culture, Puccini used American themes for Pinkerton while using more exotic melodic colors for Cio-Cio San.
Moreover, according to Georg Capellen, Puccini used popular Japanese tunes and tried to evoke Japanese style accurately by using melodies based on pentatonic scales with half steps and sequential melodic fragments outlining a tritone.
The music of Schoenberg demonstrates the same type of affinity for Eastern colors. As Stephen Holden noted in his review for the New York Times, “Miss Saigon’s” “melodies are discreetly trimmed with Asian percussive effects, and occasionally the tunes themselves affect an Eastern modality.”
And like Puccini, Schoenberg used music to put the cultures in conflict. For example, the orchestrations for Kim and Chris’s music employ diverse musical styles. And Chris’s more passionate outpourings come into conflict immediately with some of Kim’s more tranquil and melodic music, demonstrating two distinct cultural worlds.
Both these scores represent Western culture’s attraction to recreating the East, in attempts that have been widely though not universally praised.
Both stories, deeply entrenched in Western theater, are compelling tales with intensely gratifying musical scores, favorites in both their respective niches. But both stories, composed by white males, have been criticized by the Asian community as being unrealistic, perpetuating erroneous stereotypes at the expense of stories that would instead highlight the strength and resilience of the Japanese and Vietnamese people.
Japanese-American director Matthew Ozawa has pointed out in the Arizona Republic that “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a production [of ‘Madama Butterfly’] that didn’t make me culturally upset and kind of offended. It turns into a very black-and-white nature of what the East and West is. When the East is only seen as submissive and servile, I have a huge issue, and when people are kowtowing and bowing and they’re in yellowface, I have a huge issue with that.”
When “Miss Saigon” made its transfer from the West End to Broadway in 1991, it faced a huge backlash begun by the Actors’ Equity Association trying to deny Jonathan Pryce the opportunity to continue the role of the Eurasian Engineer, for which he had worn bronzer and eye prosthetics in the London productions, on the grounds that it was an “affront to the Asian community.”
Today “Miss Saigon” has met with similar resistance from the “Don’t Buy Miss Saigon,” coalition, who say that, “While we recognize there are many truths,” the show “presents a narrow lens through which all Asians are viewed.”
It’s 2017 and there’s been a successful rising up against racism in theater, notably in the Met’s decision in 2015 to discontinue the use of blackface in “Otello.” The movement continues to strengthen and be heard through “Project Am I Right?” which educates actors on how to support minority colleagues as allies.
“Miss Saigon” is particularly troubling for the community, presenting the Vietnamese as helpless and completely reliant on Americans, painting Americans as the only possible heroes in this story when the Vietnamese did in fact fight for themselves.
It is perhaps the setting of 1904 that helps protect “Madama Butterfly” from the most intense criticism of its depiction of Japanese characters and culture. A premiere in 1989 and revival in 2017, when the portrayal of race on stage raises complex and unavoidable questions for audiences and for the theater community, has exposed “Miss Saigon” to more careful scrutiny and harsher criticism.
In Collaboration with Francisco Salazar