Miss Saigon – Broadway musical

The heat is on in Saigon. Eye-popping production numbers lure us like johns into the hyper-sexual atmosphere of a sleazy girly bar called Dreamland.The recent revival ratcheted up the raunchiness, making the bar more garishly trashy, the lingerie and bikinis more revealing, and the behavior of off-duty American G.I.s more aggressive.

On this night in Dreamland, one of the bargirls will be crowned Miss Saigon, a nightly occurrence as part of a greedy French-Vietnamese pimp’s scheme to make more money off the backs of his girls. We forget the meaningless competition when we zoom in on a Marine who insists on buying his buddy a girl for the night, “getting him laid as a last souvenir.”

There’s a war on and young men are dying in combat, so we’re supposed to excuse the sorry spectacle of American soldiers abusing Asian girls in a country they’ve come to uplift. Men with weapons have been taking advantage of defenseless women for centuries, but as Americans, didn’t we imagine that our bright-eyed boys were better, that they went off to Vietnam with the highest ideals, and always behaved as angels? “Apocalypse Now” and “Platoon” told us we were wrong about that.

Now we are in Dreamland. Against the ugliness of war and against all odds, the sweet-faced U.S. Marine Sgt. Chris Scott falls in love with the virginal Vietnamese bargirl Kim. Of course we want Chris and Kim to live happily ever after. Of course tears well up when they sing a duet expressing heartfelt hopes for a life together free of strife. In America! But we bought tickets to a tragedy so we know Fate will not be kind to the cute couple. The Universe will never allow the Sun to run off with the Moon.

Chris and Kim chance it. They play house on his 48-hour leave while enemy troops encircle the city, the U.S.-backed South Vietnam government collapses like a house of cards, and Americans are packing to leave. Hastily married, the lovers botch their honeymoon plans – and the rest of their lives – by failing to connect on the morning of April 30, 1975. Chris is aboard the last helicopter as it lifts off the Embassy roof at 7:53 a.m. But Kim is left behind banging on the gate. To prove she’s the wife of a GI, Kim shouts, “Look, I have his gun.” How fitting! Three years later, we learn Chris left Kim with something other than his gun. They have a son.

By his own admission, Chris Scott was a draftee who did his time, returned to the States, then chose to re-up and return to Vietnam. Why?
“…’cause here if you can pull a string
A guy like me lives like a king
Just as long as you don’t believe anything.”
He was empowered. He carried a weapon he could pull on any Vietnamese who got in his way.

Disillusioned G.I.s like Chris consider the Vietnam War a joke. But on the Last Night of The World, Chris finds Kim and she becomes the Vietnam he’s fighting for.

“I saw a world I never knew
And through her eyes I suffered too
In spite of all the things that were,
I started to believe in her.”

Broadway’s longest-running musical, Miss Saigon is a tawdry tale of America’s disastrous, decade-long affair with a girl called Vietnam, all the while high on her cheap perfume.

In Chris’s last song, he sings:

“Christ, I’m American
How could I fail to do good?
All I made was a mess
Just like everyone else.”

South Pacific (film) – directed by Joshua Logan, 1958

 Broadway show, Hollywood film posters

Bosley Crowther, the film critic of The New York Times, spent half of his review raving  about cinematic aspects of Hollywood’s celluloid take on the Richard Rodgers-Oscar Hammerstein Broadway smash. (Filmed in Todd-AO! Stereophonic songs! Photographic magic that bathes musical numbers in “changing rainbow hues!”) But I’m not here to discuss production values. I’m here to comment on Americans behaving like Americans.

In this special case we’re situated on South Pacific islands that are admittedly outside my Southeast Asia target area.

I’m going to pass on the questionable often hilarious transgressions of Seabee Luther Billis and his swabbies. There’s a war on but they’re busy dealing in contraband tiki statues and boar tusks and doing double-duty on the chorus line in musical numbers.

Being a true romantic, I’ll focus on the two love stories. Each has a serious interracial subtext and in one, we find a female in the role of an Ugly American.

While serving in the Pacific theatre, the U.S. Navy nurse Nellie Forbush is doing something little ladies from Little Rock don’t normally do. She’s dating a dashing, grey-haired French planter who’s planted a few seeds in his day. Not only is Emile deBecque enchantingly French, he is the father of two children with a native woman. When deBecque reveals his demi French-Polynesian children to his fiancée, Nellie is charmed by the kids but shocked to think the man she loves previously lived with a dark-skinned woman. People back home did not cotton to interracial love affairs. In fact, Arkansas was one of 16 states where anti-miscegenation laws made interracial cohabitation a felony until the U.S. Supreme Court stuck down miscegenation laws in 1967. In a rage of confusion and prejudice, Nellie breaks off the engagement and resolves to wash that man right out of her hair.

Meanwhile the handsome young Marine Lieutenant Joseph Cable arrives on a dangerous mission. Awaiting deployment, Cable comes under the spell of a plus-sized, middle-aged, betel-chewing peddler of grass skirts and tropical paraphernalia. The monumental Bloody Mary hails from the mythical island Bali Hai but she’s Tonkinese. Let’s get our geography straight: Tonga is in the South Pacific but Tonkin is part of Vietnam. Bali is an island in Indonesia – in Southeast Asia not the South Pacific – but Bali Hai is a fictional Fantasy Island that’s supposed to be somewhere near Vanuatu. Now back to love.

Bloody Mary dreams of making a heavenly match between Cable and a guileless young Tonkinese girl named Liat, who turns out to be her daughter. The gorgeous young people fall instantly in love and on Bali Hai, there’s nothing to stop them from spending the night together. But in the strong glare of daylight, Cable confesses that he can never marry Liat. What would his family and friends say if he married a Vietnamese girl, with eyes oddly made and skin of a darker shade?

Ironically it is the spurned deBecque who confronts Cable over his prejudice. The more worldly man makes the U.S. Marine reach down into his own psyche and come out singing one of Richard Rodger’s most brilliant, biting songs, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.”

“You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear
You’ve got to be taught from year to year
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade
You’ve got to be carefully taught
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late
Before you are six or seven or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught”

Cable and deBecque join forces, taking up a position behind enemy lines to spy on the Japanese. The mission succeeds when a Japanese convoy is destroyed but the young Lieutenant Cable is yet another casualty of war.

As one love dies, the other is reborn. When the lovelorn Liat is overcome with grief, her pain stabs the heart of Nurse Nellie. When deBecque returns, the Arkansas native overcomes her prejudice and opens her heart to her enchanting beau and his biracial children.