‘Miss Saigon’ Ages Horribly In Era Of #MeToo And Authentic Representation; Broadway Classic Needs A Makeover
From the beginning, Miss Saigon had its problems. When Jonathan Pryce first played The Engineer, they altered his eyes and skin color to make him look more Asian. Luckily, producers of the musical decided to stray away from this practice of yellowface after Pryce won the Tony and departed the show, and Miss Saigon became the one and only beacon for working Asian American stage actors. But now that we are living in a time where musicals like Hamilton have changed the game when it comes to inclusive storytelling and providing more opportunities for people of color, Miss Saigon remains an archaic, cringe-worthy musical that ages as well as its history of yellowface.
Yes, Miss Saigon is a product of its time, but that does not make it all right to keep telling a story that perpetuates stereotypes and serves as a reminder that Asians and Asian Americans once were relegated to roles of “Me love you long time” prostitutes, abusively domineering desexualized male figures (mainly the character of Thuy ) and shady, clownish men used as comic relief (The Engineer). As soon as the show opens, we see these stereotypes play out and celebrated in a number called “The Heat Is On,” where we see scantily clad sex workers beg the attention of American military men. It’s clear that the direction here was: “Be as over the top and lewd as possible to echo the era.” There is no female empowerment or ownership of their bodies whatsoever as men fling these women over their shoulders as if they are objects. There are several instances of women are spread eagle and men burying their faces in crotches. It’s ’70s-brand toxic masculinity at its best, and another layer of disgust is added when in one part of the scene ends in violence after a woman begs a G.I. to take her to America.
The story is framed and told by white men with little or no consultation from the Vietnamese community. And each time it plays, it will get a standing ovation because — well — the performances are strong and eclipse the racist details and macro-aggressions in the narrative. Miss Saigon, however, is representation gone wrong and lacks empathy in a story that viewed through an Orientalist lens puts a questionable romance in the forefront during a period of strife in Vietnam. Perhaps it is time that we revisit this musical and tinker with it in order to make it not so problematic — if that’s even possible. If not, maybe it’s time to retire it and listen to “The Last Night of the World” out of context in order to detach it from the controversial stigma of the musical.