Day #309 The Dust of Life

The rule of scoring work swag is that you have to be in the right place at the right time. Or, as is often the case these days in large firms, looking into your inbox at the right time and clicking reply and send first and thinking through all of the details later. That’s how, earlier this week, I got my hands on a ticket to see Miss Saigon in the Bord Gais Energy Theatre.

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I felt a little bit bad and selfish because I knew that even if I could have gotten a second ticket, we wouldn’t have been able to find a baby sitter in time so I didn’t even try and only confessed my acquisition to The Mister after I had secured it. But as I said – it’s a say yes first and figure out the details later sort of job. But the thing is, going to see Miss Saigon wasn’t just an opportunistic cheap night out at the theatre away from my responsibilities. It was a coming home in many ways to the very beginning where my love of musical theatre began.

To my recollection, Miss Saigon was the first ever big Broadway / West End musical that I got to see live in theatre. I had to go digging on the internet to find out what year the show first premiered at the Boston Wang Center to confirm that it was, in fact, a whole twenty five years ago that I saw it and fell in love. It was part of a middle school school trip, and I distinctly making an ass of myself in the restroom during the intermission by accidentally walking into a mirror when I got slightly disoriented by the overwhelming amount of lights and reflective surfaces. I acquired the Broadway soundtrack shortly after and listened to it on repeat for well over a year until the lyrics were branded in my memory.

I didn’t just stick with Miss Saigon, of course. The following year I got a chance to see Phantom of the Opera, also on a school tour in Canada (where I nearly got stuck because the naive me back then didn’t realise that I was travelling on an expired green card). Almost four years later, as part of a summer study abroad programme which marked my first return to the eastern side of the Atlantic since the family left Russia, I got a chance to submerge myself in Shakespearean Stratford-on-Avon, expanding my love of theatre outward, and then after a peaceful sojourn in the Lakes District the trip concluded with a whirlwind three days in London. I remember skipping meals in my last 24 hours and spending the last of my spending money on student tickets to see Jesus Christ Superstar and Les Miserables.

The plain fact is that I was in love with theatre and I was in love with music and I was in love with stories and musical theatre was just that perfect marriage of all three things and that is why I only felt just a little bit bad that I was getting a chance to see the show again on my own.

What did I expect out of this performance? Truthfully, I didn’t dwell very hard on my expectations. I have some  visual recollections of the Boston performace twenty five years ago, but I can no longer be sure that they are accurate. Also, we were seated way back in the nosebleed seats at a time in theatre when bigger was still better and we were so far away (and I didn’t yet have glasses) that I didn’t see a lot in the way of detail. And obviously, when you only hear the music and lyrics for the very first time, you miss a lot of detail. On top of all that, I was a naive just-turned-teenager. I broadly understood the concept of where babies come from, and the idea of women selling sex to earn money but I was a little fuzzy on the details. I was also not familiar at the time with the origin of Miss Saigon. It is a retelling of an opera, which was a retelling of a play, which was based on a 1887 French book called Madame Chrysanthème. Madame Chrysanthemum became Madame Butterfly: The Tragedy of Japan and in 1900 it was seen by Puccini in London who was inspired to write Madama Butterfly the opera.

If you don’t know the plot to any of those, then be prepared to be spoiled.

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At it’s very basic, it is the ancient tale of a soldier from a foreign land getting a local girl pregnant and then leaving her. But as usual the devil is in the details. The original novel and the opera are cynical in their portrayal of the Western men, who take a Japanese girl as a convenient bride, only to abandon her when they must return home. However, Miss Saigon takes the tale from turn of the century Japan to the final throes of the Vietnam War. The naval officer becomes a US Marine and the Japanese giesha becomes a Vietnamese girl from the countryside forced to seek refuge in Saigon when her village is bombed and burned to the ground. Lost and destitute she is found by a man who is known as The Engineer. He takes her to his brothel and auctions her to Chris, a jaded American GI who is about to head home. Instead of a one night hook up, however, he becomes entranced by Kim and they spend 24 hours in lovers’ bliss together, honouring their love in a wedding-like ceremony which is only slightly marred by the unexpected appearance of Thuy, the man to whom Kim was betrothed by her father whom she does not love. He promises to take Kim to America with him, but the fall of Saigon leaves him unprepared and stranded in the US embassy, separated from Kim and thrown into the last helicopter by his friend, John. Kim, stuck on the other side of the fence, is unable to gain entry and is left behind as the Viet Cong enter the city.

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For three years, Kim hides in Saigon (renamed Ho Chi Minh City) until the Engineer, his life threatened by Thuy who is now a high ranking officer in the Viet Cong army, finds her and brings Thuy to confront her. Thuy insists that she marry him to redeem the family honour and honor their fathers’ promises when the two were betrothed as children. Kim refuses, considering herself to still be married to Chris, and believing that he will some day come back for her. Finally she reveals her secret to Thuy as to why she cannot accept him – her son Tam, conceived from her night spent with Chris. Enraged by the shame Tam’s existence would bring to him if anyone were to find out about him, he attempts to kill the boy but is shot by Kim with Chris’s gun that he left with her when he returned to the embassy to arrange their departure.

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Although horrified by her own actions, she is unapologetic for doing  whatever is necessary to protect her son – her only remaining connection to Chris – and seeks out the Engineer for help to escape the Viet Cong regime. He sees the mixed-race boy as his ticket to America and arranges for the three of them to gain passage to Bangkok as part of the steady stream of refugees seeking escape from the oppressive regime.

In Bangkok the Engineer continues to do what he is best at – surviving through hustling and prostitution, but he is dissatisfied with the lot of Vietnamese refugees in Thailand and seeks American contacts that would help him locate the boy’s father in the hopes that it would get him, masquerading as Kim’s brother, visas to the USA where he dreams of making it rich.

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Through the Engineer’s efforts, Kim’s survival and Tam’s existence become known to John, who upon his return from Vietnam began a campaign to help raise funds and assistance to children of American soldiers born to Vietnamese mothers. These mixed-race children, easily identifiable by their looks, were shunned and ostracized, referred to as Bui Doi, the dust of life. Their existence was a stain on the American military conscience. (Eventually, in 1988 Congress passed the Homecoming Act, which repatriated 23,000 of these children, roughly one child for every two American soldiers killed in the conflict).

Chris, following his return, spent a year frantically searching for any news about Kim, until, a near broken shell of a man, he meets and marries an American woman named Ellen in an attempt to restart his life again. However Chris is unable to speak about Kim, only uttering her name in nightmares leaving his wife frustrated in not being able to help him with his trauma.

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John breaks the news to Chris that Kim is alive and that he has a son, and he finally tells Ellen about Kim. The existence of Tam convinces Chris to follow John to Bangkok with Ellen to see Kim. John meets with Kim, who becomes so excited to hear that Chris was coming to her that John is unable to break the news to her that Chris is married. The Engineer, meanwhile, is determined not to be left behind and convinces Kim that she needs to go find Chris herself rather than wait for him to come to her. He finds out Chris’s location and sends Kim to see him at his hotel. But she does not  find Chris, who has left the hotel to find her, and instead meets Chris’s wife.

Already devastated by the news that Chris did not stay faithful to her, she is enraged by Ellen’s insistence that they cannot take Tam away from his mother and that they will support him financially in Bangkok instead of bringing him to America. Kim refuses to accept this and tells Ellen that if Chris intends to leave her and his son behind, he must be the one to tell her that in person.

Having rebuilt his life with Ellen, Chris is unable to contemplate leaving her for Kim and agrees with her that his son should stay in Bangkok with his mother. John is powerless to convince them that this is not the best solution. He follows Chris and Ellen to Kim’s place where he sees his son for the first time. However, hidden from sight, Kim takes the decision out of Chris’s and Ellen’s hands, shooting herself fatally with Chris’s gun. She dies in his arms knowing that it is the sacrifice she had to make to ensure that Chris would take their son with him to America.

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I avoided listening to the soundtrack again before seeing the show this evening. Not only did I not have time, but also it has been a long time since I’ve heard it and I did not want to walk into the theatre with the original Broadway voices of Leah Salonga and Jonathan Pryce fresh in my mind. Even still, I found myself trying to compare what I was hearing with my memories and initially I was a little uncomfortable with some of the vocalisation choices and the transitions between the musical numbers. Ultimately, however, the singing by both the men and the women of the ensemble were powerful and I forced myself to stop comparing what I was seeing and hearing to the ghosts of my memories. By the time Tam is introduced on stage, I was able to lose myself in the story.

The intermission gave me a chance to dwell on some of the emotions the play was stirring in me. It was clear early on that the play, despite being created in 1989 about a conflict that is no longer fresh in people’s minds these days, is still as relevant as ever. The never-ending conflicts and the military game of chess played by the western nations continues to recreate the same scenes in places like Yemen and Syria. America is still the most sought after refuge, the dream that people without hope aspire to when their life is being torn apart around them by war. I was young and naive when I first saw this play, but in the intervening twenty five years I have studied and observed international events and was now watching the embassy evacuation scene with world-weary weary eyes. It was particularly and unexpectedly painful to realise that while America is still the land of hope for so many, its light has been severely diminished lately as it has begun to shut its doors in the face of so much suffering.

Similarly, while America might be much more respectful of its veterans these days, at least overtly, the fact is they are still coming home in large numbers slightly broken inside, with nightmares and flashbacks and PTSD. When John sings about his Bui Doi foundation, he utters the line “war isn’t over when it ends / some pictures never leave your mind” which is ubiquitous to any  conflict, past and present.

Neither was I unmoved by the Morning of the Dragon number, which i had completely forgotten about until the stage was flooded with red lights, flags, and the larger than life size face of Ho Chi Minh. While the music starts out somewhat soft, there is a hard, dangerous edge to it, like silk being pulled off a sharp blade. The choreography and costuming is precise and militaristic in the style that is so common to authoritarian regimes, evoking an oppressive atmosphere of fear and terror.

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Another thing I contemplated during intermission is how different it was to watch this musical knowing what happens in the end. I thought I was prepared for what was coming. Lyrics and scenes took on new meanings. When Kim sings to Tam that she would give her life for him, you know that she is speaking literally, though she doesn’t yet know it. As an adult so many more of these nuances had greater depth to me than they did to me as a naive and clueless teenager.

The biggest dichotomy is, of course, the two Americas portrayed in the play. The Engineer, driven by greed and money, only sees the American dream for what it can give him – he sees it as the debauched, glitzy playground of the rich where men like him with loose morals can make a lot of cash. Men are men everywhere, he says, and he knows what men want. As far as they he is concerned, men are ultimately driven by lust and that is his ticket to success. The numerous sexual innuendos, both verbal and visual, would have gone over my head when I first saw the musical but they’re not subtle in the slightest. On the other hand, Kim sees America as the hope for a future for her son that is not clouded by war, or threat, or shame. She sees it in its ideal stage – the land of boundless opportunity that she wishes for her son at least, if not for herself.

And that brings me to the last sucker punch of the night. I was prepared for Kim to kill herself. I was prepared to be faced with the symbols of war, and refugees, and immigration, and human cost of failed politics. I was prepared for the sex and the prostitution, for the degradation of women as they do whatever it takes to survive.

But as the play began to wind its way toward the inevitable desperate climax, I realised I was not at all prepared to watch this play as a mother. While I certainly contemplated going on that the last twenty five years would have opened up my eyes to a whole new perspective of the issues, it never once occurred to me that I was going to see a play where the mother of a three year old boy sacrifices herself an effort to give her son a better future. By the time Kim storms out of Chris and Ellen’s hotel room, her dreams of a reunion with love shattered, I was weeping with the knowledge of how different this play felt watching it knowing that, fifteen minutes’ walk away from the theatre, my own three year old son was sleeping in his bed. I wanted to rush out of the theatre and hold him. I wanted to sit still long after every one else had left, crying and wondering whether my own maternal feelings were as strong. I wanted to crawl into a cave and close my eyes to all the suffering that I knew was going on that very moment in far flung parts of the world, or to shout to the sky how sorry I was to be this privileged to live in the land of peace and plenty. Every time I blinked I would see photos of the shell shocked child in Aleppo covered in blood and dust sitting on the back of an ambulance. Or the photograph of the little body washed up on the Turkish beach, lying in the same position that older babies and toddlers like to sleep – face down bum up in he air.  By the time the cast came out for their bows to thunderous applause my heart was racing even though I had barely moved for the last hour. I couldn’t breathe and I wanted to get home and get comfortable, as if the very fact of sitting curled up in my pajamas would negate the dreaded knowledge stirred up by the play. At the same time I wanted that feeling of raw awareness to never end. I felt I had touched an exposed live wire. It was devastating and painful and yet at the same time I realised I was exhilarated by the sheer force of the musical.

I walked out of the theatre with tears still drying on my cheeks. I don’t think I can give it a better review.

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All images in this post were taken from promotional material, either from the official Miss Sagion home page, or pages of various theatres that have hosted the show, such as Bord Gais Energy Theatre and the Birmingham Hippodrome. None of them belong to me and I use them here without permission, but only with the intent of sharing my experience of this play and not for any profit. 

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