Honorable mentions: “Bui-Doi,” “The Fall of Saigon”
On a scale from Madame Butterfly to M. Butterfly, Miss Saigon is probably a D. It almost certainly fails the Bechdel test. In a less enlightened time, Jonathan Pryce played a Vietnamese national. It is one of the most problematic musicals of the past twenty-five years. People love all sorts of things, though, that in a kinder and more equitable world we would not love. Yet deep within the musical, there’s a message about the American Dream that I think F. Scott Fitzgerald would have had to stroke his chin at appreciatively, the talk of hope and the expression of it that is all the more intoxicating because we know that it will end with a Christlike suicide in a Bangkok hovel. There are expressions of misery in this show so thorough and true that they sound like they escaped from Next to Normal. “There are days/There are days when your life clouds over/And the world gets so dark/That all at once you can’t tell night from day,” Ellen says after meeting Kim. Kim, when she realizes who Ellen is, prays a quick, painful, fruitless prayer. “Please tell me you’re not married.”
“I Still Believe” pushes the timeline forward in this show; Kim is no longer a prostitute in Saigon but a “bargirl in Bangkok.” Chris, as we discover halfway through the song, is married to Ellen even though we saw him undergo a questionably binding ceremony with Kim earlier in the play. Chris, understandably and maybe through Providence, has retributive nightmares.
Kim has dreams, too. She can remember the brief time she had with Chris, so strongly that she can feel his arms around him. Kim really belongs in Swan Lake, not Miss Saigon. She believes in a fidelity that is more lasting than any geopolitical fracas; for that reason, she is sure that Chris will come back for her. What she doesn’t know is that Ellen is watching Chris’ nightmares, really watching his body shake in bed, holding him while he wakes up and shivers in his arms. Ellen doesn’t know what the matter is, and that’s what burns her. “Won’t you let me inside what you so want to hide?” she asks. “I need you, too.” Chris’ secret is a woman who still yearns for him, expects him, from thousands of miles away, a woman he may actually have loved. But Ellen is a familiar, if somewhat dispassionate, romance.
Chris has a change of heart late in the play, and it’s hard to know exactly how much of this is true and how much of it is talk. With his wife and his good friend, a fellow veteran, he disavows Kim with a brief cruelty. “So I want to save her, protect her!” he cries. “Christ, I am American! How could I fail to do good?”
All I made was a mess
Just like everyone else
In a land full of mystery I never once understood.
I wanted back the life I knew:
The story of my life began again with you.
Chris comes most of the way to responsibility in those lines, realizing that being an American soldier allowed him to drop his anchor in any harbor, realizing that he took on more chivalrous responsibility than he had any right to. And yet he fails to take responsibility for Kim, casting his romance for her as nationalistic delusion. He may as well blame Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon for Kim’s fate; he would be right, but he would also be as blameless as his son by Kim.
Ellen has the hallelujahs in this song, but as it is in much of the musical, Kim is our emotional point of entry. While Ellen is concerned that her husband has secrets from her, Kim places herself entirely in the faith that her American soldier will come back and rescue her – and their son – from squalor and misery. “I live,” she says simply. “Love cannot die. You will return.” And while her loves doesn’t die, what she doesn’t realize, what she has no power to know, is that the love she pins her hopes on is already stillborn.