First things first. As everyone knows, British musicals are less about music than they are about scenery. "Les Miz" was about The Barricades, "The Phantom of the Opera" was about The Chandelier, and "Miss Saigon," theoretically about the consequences of America in Vietnam, is really about The Helicopter.
As special effects go, this one is pretty nifty. Behind an ashen scrim, a two-seater chopper descends from above the proscenium with three searchlights on its underbelly, making it look like an alien spaceship. When it lands, too many soldiers rush aboard it (the reverse of the circus act where too many clowns get out of a Volkswagen). It then takes off.
No one will be mystified by how the effects are achieved. What makes it work is the thunderous sound that accompanies it, the strobe lights that punctuate its arrival and departure, and the commotion of the actors in the foreground, playing angry, anguished Vietnamese who have been left behind.
It takes barely a minute.
Whether it's worth $100 for premium seats or $60 for orchestra locations depends on how intense your craving for novelty is. Apart from some impressive performances, there's not much else to make "Miss Saigon" worthwhile.
An update of "Madama Butterfly," the $10 million show concerns Chris, a G.I. who spends the night with Kim, a Saigon bar girl, on her first night on the job. They fall in love. In the chaos of the U.S. evacuation, she is left behind.
She is pregnant. Years later, after he has married an American, he comes back to find her. She wants him to take their child back to America. To make certain he does so, she kills herself.
The plot is pure melodrama. If the score were better, it might make the characters and situations believable. But the music is staggeringly banal, the lyrics insultingly predictable. They don't allow for human chemistry. So you feel the whole thing is mechanical and manipulative. (Also, Puccini's heroine kills herself because she has no options; Kim is considerably savvier and not restricted by a rigid, pre-modern society.)
Normally, people complain that you don't leave British musicals humming any songs. That is not true with "Miss Saigon." You do leave singing "Why God Why," because you knew it when you came in. It has the same tune as "There's a Small Hotel."
There is some beautiful, stirringly performed choral music in scenes after the North Vietnamese takeover that give you an idea of what those Soviet operas extolling the virtues of collective farming must have been like. There is some skillful ensemble writing, but the score is mostly as syrupy and simpleminded as Boublil and Schonberg's earlier work, "Les Miz."
On top of the love story is a plot hinging on a Eurasian character called the Engineer, who runs the bar where Chris and Kim meet. He is a conniver whose big moment is a song called "The American Dream," in which he describes America as an utterly sleazy society, the source, in fact, of the sleaze that blights the Asian cities in "Miss Saigon." (If America is so repugnant, how come Kim wants to send her son there?)
The song builds into a garish number in which the Engineer humps the hood of a '50s car, a cream and chrome baby with Miss Liberty in the front seat, a "Springtime for Hitler" idea if there ever was one.
The Engineer is played by Jonathan Pryce, one of England's best actors, whose talents are wasted on this one-dimensional character. He has a powerful voice, diction to project the inane lyrics clearly and a wizardry with his hands that gives his every gesture elegance.
Though the character is both French and Asian, Pryce, in response to last summer's controversy, does not wear Asian makeup.
This makes no sense. Since he looks Western, the Americans, who are portrayed as racists, would have given him an exit visa. If he looked Asian, however, it would have made clear that the character is a hateful stereotype, what the English used to call the WOG, the Wily Oriental Gentleman.
Lea Salonga, who plays Kim, has a radiant, pure voice and a lovely presence. As Chris, Willy Falk sings and acts soulfully. So does Liz Callaway in the thankless role of his wife. The sensational Hinton Battle stops the show as an ex-G.I. working on behalf of the racially mixed kids that are a painful part of the U.S. legacy in Vietnam.
The second act begins with heartrending footage of these children. In the context of this otherwise synthetic show, the footage can be interpreted in two ways. The first is as a blatant slap in the audience's face, rubbing Americans' noses in guilt over Vietnam. (This would be roughly comparable to our sending a musical about Northern Ireland to London.)
The kindlier interpretation is that this material is here for genuine humanitarian reasons. If so, perhaps the interest from the $35 million advance can be used to start a fund for these children, which can be augmented by passing the hat among the $100-a-seat customers.
In keeping with the mood of the piece, John Napier's sets range from drab to tacky. Audiences, however, are now so used to applauding set changes that they cheer as the vulgar neon signs of Bangkok fall into place.
It is hilarious to think the show that raised Broadway ticket prices to a new high is an anti-American, allegedly anti-materialist musical whose second most impressive visual image is a stage-high statue of Ho Chi Minh.
The chopper has landed.
The controversial "Miss Saigon," London's epic retread of the old Madama Butterfly story, already immortalized somewhat stickily by Puccini, of that ugly American and his betrayed Oriental war-bride, transposed to Vietnam and featuring a live helicopter and an even livelier Jonathan Pryce, arrived last night at the Broadway Theater.
It has the largest advance sale (the precise account seems to vary, safe to say more than 30 million bucks and still counting) of any show ever to hit Broadway, and some of its seats - a few in the front mezzanine apparently strategically placed for the most advantageous viewing of the special effects - are ticketed at $100, a new benchmark for Broadway. When history is made, even as modestly as this, note it.
Also "Miss Saigon" is unquestionably a triumph for its cast, particularly the priceless Pryce, but also the moth-like Butterfly of Lea Salonga, incidentally a triumph for the producer, Cameron Mackintosh, whose adamant insistence on them coming over from London now seems fully justified, and finally, but indubitably, a triumph for the young classic British director, Nicholas Hytner, best known for Shakespeare and opera, here making his Broadway debut.
The musical itself, which opened in London at the end of 1989, is the latest work of the French music and lyrics team of Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil, who earlier gave us the justifiably acclaimed pop-opera, "Les Miserables."
Set right at the end of the Vietnam War, the hearts-and-flowers story of "Miss Saigon," telling of a country innocent lured by family need into becoming a bar girl, her "West Side Story" romance with a young, embittered G.I. enchanted to find a girl who "smells of orange trees," their inadvertent parting, and the final tragedy of betrayal, love and death, probably needed little more than the right words and music to make it work.
Properly speaking, "Miss Saigon" - like "Les Miserables" before it - is also a pop-opera. There is no spoken dialogue, and although a list of musical numbers is thoughtfully provided in the Playbill, they are by no means set pieces in the manner of the old-style Broadway.
This may sound a little more musically sophisticated than it is, for Schonberg's unoriginal and almost unquotable score, could, like his music for "Les Miserables," be comfortably ensconced among the more menacingly romantic mid-century movie scores, although use of sprechstimme or speech-song, as well as the tart and astringent lush-reducing orchestrations by William D. Brohn give it a slightly more contemporary sound.
The lyrics - rendered from the original French by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Boublil himself, with additional material supplied by Maltby - vary from the plain, unvarnished and schmaltzy to the grotesquely inept and grossly insensitive. The emphasis is unfortunately on the latter.
The evening is studded with banal and inelegant infelicities as: "You will not touch him / Don't touch my boy / He's what I live for / He's my only joy." Oddly enough, it doesn't even help when it's set to music!
While the show may not have much to offer in the way of art or even (performances apart) artistry, what "Miss Saigon" has in abundance is energy and confidence.
It doesn't compare to "Les Miserables," any more than the David Belasco potboiler play (which the original Puccini opera and this later spun-off vulgarization was based) compares to Victor Hugo, but it does offer a surging picture of love in a hot climate in a troubled time.
Hytner's imaginatively cinematic staging - from the first scene, set in a bar/clipjoint/brothel presided over by a fiendishly adaptable Eurasian pimp called the Engineer, on through such extravaganzes as a victory parade in the newly named Ho Chi Minh City or the flashbacked fall and evacuation of Saigon, and the Engineer's dream fantasy of the American way - never once pauses for breath. Well perhaps once. But then only for the intermission.
John Napier's settings have the right look for the Vietnam we all know firsthand through TV's evening news, and their computerized performances make up a good part of the evening's fun. You won't go out humming the scenery, but then you won't go out actually humming anything, although the costumes by Andreane Neofitou and the lighting by David Hershey all deftly play their appointed roles in the technological whirligig.
When I first saw "Miss Saigon" - in London, when it was brand-new - I was struck by a certain cynical anti-Americanism. I have been told that changes have been made - and I did notice one or two comparatively minor things - but to me it looks and sounds much the same. Yet - I suspect seeing it with a New York rather than a London audience makes a difference - I was not really aware of any anti-American gloat this time around.
The Drury Lane stage in London is rather bigger than the one here, and a few of the more spectactular effects appeared more spectacular there. But the performances - some better, some worse - seemed much of a general muchness.
The about-to-be-legendary performance is, of course, that by Pryce as the Eurasian pimp (incidentally, there is a transatlantic change here, with Pryce looking a lot more Euro and a lot less Asian) and he quite certainly as good as everyone has said and will say.
He is an actor of extraordinary intent. He takes a role, walks into it and closes the door behind him. He then acts from within the character. As the Engineer, his sleazy scene of self-preservation, his cartoon version of the American dream-ideal, and his expressionist way of throwing everything into a glance, a gesture or a pose, has a Brechtian dimension and totally transcends the show's basic material.
In a weird sense, he is performing some Platonic ideal version of a role Boublil and Schonberg failed to give him, and it is more important to watch what he does than to listen to what he says.
Lea Salonga sings beautifully and brings a glistening passion to the role of the heroine Kim. And Hinton Battle, rendering his one big number with revivalist fervor, is tremendously effective as the hero's best friend, rather overshadowing the hero himself, a tortured Willy Falk, who seems a little wimp-like, but then, perhaps he should. The devious Lt. Pinkerton was never much of fellow in Puccini, was he?
Mention of Puccini, reminds me. He did do this story first, and he did do this story better. Many people will want to see "Miss Saigon" - they'd better, they've already paid for their tickets - but I imagine that your main interest (apart from the first six months or so when you'll have Pryce to watch) will be in deciding whether you were disappointed by it, or not as disappointed by it as you had expected to be. That should give it a decent, or perhaps even indecent, run.
There may never have been a musical that made more people angry before its Broadway debut than "Miss Saigon."
Here is a show with something for everyone to resent -- in principle, at least. Its imported stars, the English actor Jonathan Pryce and the Filipino actress Lea Salonga, are playing roles that neglected Asian-American performers feel are rightfully theirs. Its top ticket price of $100 is a new Broadway high, sprung by an English producer, if you please, on a recession-straitened American public. More incendiary still is the musical's content. A loose adaptation of "Madama Butterfly" transplanted to the Vietnam War by French authors, the "Les Miserables" team of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, "Miss Saigon" insists on revisiting the most calamitous and morally dubious military adventure in American history and, through an unfortunate accident of timing, arrives in New York even as the jingoistic celebrations of a successful American war are going full blast.
So take your rage with you to the Broadway Theater, where "Miss Saigon" opened last night, and hold on tight. Then see just how long you can cling to the anger when confronted by the work itself. For all that seems galling about "Miss Saigon" -- and for all that is indeed simplistic, derivative and, at odd instances, laughable about it -- this musical is a gripping entertainment of the old school (specifically, the Rodgers and Hammerstein East-meets-West school of "South Pacific" and "The King and I"). Among other pleasures, it offers lush melodies, spectacular performances by Mr. Pryce, Miss Salonga and the American actor Hinton Battle, and a good cry. Nor are its achievements divorced from its traumatic subject, as cynics might suspect. Without imparting one fresh or daring thought about the Vietnam War, the show still manages to plunge the audience back into the quagmire of a generation ago, stirring up feelings of anguish and rage that run even deeper than the controversies that attended "Miss Saigon" before its curtain went up.
Challenged perhaps by the ill will that greeted their every move, the evening's creators, led by the director Nicholas Hytner, have given New York a far sharper version of "Miss Saigon" than the one originally staged in London. The much publicized (and inane) helicopter effect notwithstanding, this is the least spectacular and most intimate of the West End musicals. The most stirring interludes feature two or three characters on an empty stage or in a bar girl's dingy hovel, and for once the production has been made leaner rather than fattened up for American consumption. (Though the Broadway Theater is among the largest Broadway houses, it seems cozy next to the cavernous Drury Lane, where the show plays in London.) If "Miss Saigon" is the most exciting of the so-called English musicals -- and I feel it is, easily -- that may be because it is the most American. It freely echoes Broadway classics, and some of its crucial personnel are Broadway hands: the co-lyricist Richard Maltby Jr., the choreographer Bob Avian, the orchestrator William D. Brohn.
Without two legendary American theatrical impresarios, David Belasco and Harold Prince, there would in fact be no "Miss Saigon." It was Belasco's turn-of-the-century dramatization of the Madame Butterfly story that inspired Puccini's opera, and it was Mr. Prince who, inspired by Brecht and the actor Joel Grey 25 years ago, created the demonic, symbolic Emcee of "Cabaret," a character that is unofficially recycled on this occasion in a role called the Engineer and played by Mr. Pryce. These two influences are brilliantly fused here. Altered substantially but not beyond recognition, the basic "Butterfly" premise of an Asian woman who is seduced and abandoned by an American military man is affectingly rekindled in "Miss Saigon" by Mr. Schonberg's score and Miss Salonga's clarion, emotionally naked delivery of it. Whenever that tale flirts with bathos, along comes the leering, creepy Mr. Pryce to jolt the evening back into the hellish, last-night-of-the-world atmosphere that is as fitting for the fall of Saigon as it was for the Weimar Berlin of "Cabaret."
The theatrical poles of "Miss Saigon" represented by its two stars are equally powerful. Miss Salonga, whose performance has grown enormously since crossing the Atlantic, has the audience all but worshiping her from her first appearance as Kim, an open-faced 17-year-old waif from the blasted Vietnamese countryside who is reduced to working as a prostitute in Saigon. As her romance with an American marine, Chris (Willy Falk), blossoms "South Pacific"-style in a progression of haunting saxophone-flecked ballads in Act I, the actress keeps sentimentality at bay by slowly revealing the steely determination beneath the gorgeous voice, radiant girlish features and virginal white gown. Once Chris and his fellow Americans have fled her and her country, the determination transmutes into courage, and the passages in which Kim sacrifices herself for the welfare of her tiny child, no matter how hokey, are irresistibly moving because Miss Salonga's purity of expression, backed up by the most elemental music and lyrics, simply won't let them be otherwise.
Mr. Pryce, a great character actor whose nasty streak has been apparent since his memorable Broadway debut in Trevor Griffiths's "Comedians" 15 years ago, makes disingenuousness as electrifying as Miss Salonga's ingenuousness. The Engineer is a fixer, profiteer and survivor who can outlast Uncle Sam and Uncle Ho: a pimp, a sewer rat, a hustler of no fixed morality, sexuality, race, nationality or language. Wearing wide-lapelled jackets and bell bottoms of garish color, he is the epitome of sleaze, forever swiveling his hips, flashing a sloppy tongue and fluttering his grasping fingers in the direction of someone's dollar bills or sex organs. With his high-domed forehead and ghoulish eyes, Mr. Pryce is also a specter of doom, and he manages to turn a knee-jerk number indicting the greedy "American Dream" into a show-stopper with the sheer force of his own witty malice.
As choreographed by Mr. Avian in demented parody of an old-fashioned Broadway song-and-dance turn, "The American Dream" looks like the Fellini-esque "Loveland" sequence in the 1971 Stephen Sondheim musical "Follies," and no wonder, given the song's imitation Sondheim lyrics and the fact that Mr. Avian was Michael Bennett's associate choreographer on "Follies." Among the other old favorites in "Miss Saigon" are a balcony scene out of "West Side Story," a departing refugees scene out of "Fiddler on the Roof," an Act II song for Mr. Pryce that recalls Fagin's equivalent solo in "Oliver!" and some dancing North Vietnamese who seem a cross between the Peronists in "Evita" and the ritualistic Japanese dancers of "Pacific Overtures." It is only when "Miss Saigon" imitates West End musicals of the 1980's, however, that it goes seriously astray. The helicopter stunt, which will most impress devotees of sub-Disney theme parks, is presented out of historical sequence in an Act II flashback, for no good reason other than to throw Andrew Lloyd Webber fans a pseudo-chandelier or levitating tire. A neon-drenched Bangkok nightlife spectacle in the same act is a grim reminder of the ill-fated "Chess."
Of all the failings of modern British musicals, the most severe has been their creators' utter bewilderment about what happens between men and women emotionally, psychologically and sexually. "Miss Saigon" is not immune to this syndrome, either, and it shows up most embarrassingly in the lyrics characterizing Chris's stateside wife, who, despite a game portrayal by Liz Callaway, induces audience snickers and giggles in her big Act II solo. Chris himself is nearly as faceless, and Mr. Falk, a performer with a strong pop voice and a Ken doll's personality, does nothing to turn up the hero's heat.
If anything, "Miss Saigon" would be stronger if Mr. Battle, who plays Chris's best friend, had been cast instead as Kim's lover. Mr. Battle's grit and passion are far more redolent of the marines who fought in Vietnam than Mr. Falk's blandness, and his one brief encounter with Miss Salonga has more bite than any of her scenes with her paramour. Mr. Battle, who has heretofore been better known as a dancer than a singer, also rescues the sanctimonious opening anthem of Act II -- a canned plea for homeless Amerasian children -- with a gospel delivery so blistering and committed that he overpowers an onslaught of cliched lyrics, film clips and a large backup choir.
With the aid of his designers, especially the lighting designer David Hersey, who uses John Napier's fabric-dominated sets as a floating canvas, Mr. Hytner usually keeps the staging simple. An opening "Apocalypse Now" sunrise that bleeds into a hazy panorama of a Saigon morning is as delicate as an Oriental print, and the Act I climax, in which boat people set off for points unknown, is stunning because it relies on such primal elements as an outstretched helping hand and the slow exit by the characters to the rear of a deep, darkened stage stripped of most scenery.
To be sure, the hallucinatory view of Vietnam familiar from the films of Oliver Stone, the journalism of Michael Herr and the fiction of Robert Stone, among many others, is beyond Mr. Hytner's mission, if not his considerable abilities, just as any thoughtful analysis of the war is beyond the libretto. The text of "Miss Saigon," second in naivete only to "Nixon in China," says merely that the North Vietnamese were villains and that the Americans were misguided, bungling do-gooders. Facts and haircuts are fudged, the corrupt South Vietnamese regime is invisible and any references to war atrocities are generalized into meaninglessness.
Yet the text is not the sum of a theatrical experience, and however sanitizing the words and corny the drama of "Miss Saigon," the real impact of the musical goes well beyond any literal reading. America's abandonment of its own ideals and finally of Vietnam itself is there to be found in the wrenching story of a marine's desertion of a Vietnamese woman and her son. The evening's far-from-happy closing tableau -- of spilled Vietnamese blood and an American soldier who bears at least some responsibility for the carnage -- hardly whitewashes the United States involvement in Southeast Asia. "Miss Saigon" is escapist entertainment in style and in the sense that finally it even makes one forget about all the hype and protests that greeted its arrival. But this musical is more than that, too, because the one thing it will not allow an American audience to escape is the lost war that, like its tragic heroine, even now defiantly refuses to be left behind.