Story by Isabella Brown, senior at Lusher Charter School
Last Wednesday night, “Miss Saigon” premiered at the Saenger Theatre, whisking the audience away to war-torn Saigon in 1975. The musical tells the story of Kim, a Vietnamese woman, and Chris, an American GI, falling in love and how, after being torn away from each other by the hardship of war and issues of citizenship, they eventually reunite—tragically.
Meanwhile, just a block away from the Saenger, the Hard Rock Hotel sits decimated and seemingly bombed out, obscuring the fact that ICE deported one of their workers and, thus, the ugly truth: the American Dream is not what you think it is.
While the premise of the musical may romanticize a terrifying time in history—it is a love story first and foremost— the 2020 run of “Miss Saigon” can’t help but draw parallels between the past and present treatment of immigrants. Specifically: the increasingly volatile treatment of migrants south of the American border. This 2019-2020 North American production of the 1989 musical is all too aware of these similarities, and brilliantly highlights the irony of claiming that the American Dream (also the title of perhaps the most famous musical number in the show) even exists at all.
This is evident from the start of the show as the audience is introduced to Dreamland, the brothel owned by the Engineer. American GIs storm Dreamland, hoping to spend the night with one of the dozens of prostitutes (this particular production even featured a male option), all while singing “The Heat Is On In Saigon.” It is then that we’re introduced to GiGi, who was chosen to spend the night with John, Chris’s best friend.
Our first impression of GiGi is that she is a confident woman who knows how to do her job well. She is the original “Miss Saigon” and one of the Engineer’s most prized “possessions.” In the process of courting John, she pleads with him to take her to the United States, claiming she’d make a good wife. But she is met with adamant refusal.
She shows her true colors in her rendition of “The Movie In My Mind,” as she describes wanting to, “flee this life, flee this place,” and live in America and have a family. She exemplifies what all of the women in Dreamland truly want: to have a normal life far from war and desperation. Moreover, John’s refusal represents an anti-immigration sentiment that plagued both 1975 Americans and present-day Americans, preventing many migrants from being able to seek the asylum—or just better opportunities—they desperately need.
The Engineer is also another example of how “Miss Saigon” is able to reflect the present-day immigrant experience. The Engineer (played with an uncharacteristic but perfect comedic performance by Red Concepción) throughout the musical is searching for a pathway out of Vietnam and to the United States. He represents a majority of migrants who view the United States as their best option, people who believe that in times of revolution, the best option you have is to “pack a sack and take the first boat heading west.”
However, his character also represents just how difficult it is for migrants to enter the U.S., as he concludes “heaven’s there, but you need a visa to get in,” insinuating how choosy the United States is in accepting migrants.
Nevertheless, he fantasizes about the United States almost obsessively, to the point of dedicating a whole song to his fantasy, “The American Dream.” This particular production truly pulls out all the stops for this scene, planting the Statue of Liberty’s face center stage, framing her with a projection of a dollar bill, an old-fashioned car rolling out of her mouth, while dancers clad in feather headdresses and costumes flank each side. This scene, with its glitz and glamour, is what we want the American Dream to be. But it also sets us up for the sobering reality that the American Dream is only a dream as the dancers abruptly exit to Concepción screaming, “don’t go! Please, no, wait!”
The characters with the most glaringly similar circumstances to those of the migrants at our border, are Kim and her son, Tam.
Toward the end of the first act of “Miss Saigon,” it is revealed, three years later, that Kim had Chris’s son and, in a desperate act to defend her son, Kim kills a now-high ranking Vietnamese officer who was at one time betrothed to her. This instigates her need to leave Vietnam for good and reunite with Chris in America, where both she and her child will finally be safe.
While Chris is a major factor in her desire to go to the U.S., what Kim truly wants is to give her son a better life in America. In her rendition of “I’ll Give My Life For You,” she belts, “As long as you [Tam] can have your chance, I swear I’ll give my life for you.” Not long after, we see that Kim is true to her word.
In perhaps the play’s most famous scene, a flashback to three years prior—ostensibly hours after Tam was conceived—we see American soldiers gather at a base in Vietnam to evacuate in a helicopter. Vietnamese men and women are on the outskirts, separated by a chain-link fence and incoherently shouting as they furiously shake official documents. Suddenly, the fences are moved upstage and inverted, giving the audience a new perspective—from the outside. We are able to see these desperate men and women front and center, clinging to the fence and begging the Americans to at least take their children.
The predicament that both Kim and Tam as well as other Vietnamese families in “Miss Saigon” find themselves grappling with is reminiscent of the fact that many of the migrants currently at our border (replace that fence with a wall) are families. And yet, these family’s stories don’t often end happily ever after. The ending of “Miss Saigon” embodies this actuality as Kim is faced with the fact that both she and her son will not be able to go to America and, as a result, makes the ultimate sacrifice by killing herself.
The fact that Kim has to die in order for her son to live in the United States is comparable to the fact that many migrant children are currently only allowed to enter the United States at the expense of getting separated from their families. As audience members sniffled and teared up at the death of one fictional character in New Orleans, thousands upon thousands of children remain separated from their families just a couple of states away.
We’re further reminded of these children as the second act opens up with a slideshow of the Bui-Doi. They are children facing eerily similar circumstances to those at our borders, children born out of the Vietnam War looking for their mothers and fathers—children that are “the living reminder of all the good we failed to do.” One can’t help but think about the poor conditions migrant children face in the detention centers we’ve placed them in.
After seeing the spectacular 2020 touring production of “Miss Saigon,” it’s hard not to reflect on what has come to pass in the United States. As Americans, we’ve always at least pretended to stand for the principles of freedom. However, we are not upholding these principles, especially in terms of immigration. As Chris puts it, “Christ, I’m American. How could I fail to do good?” So, while you may leave this musical with the tune of “The American Dream” stuck in your head, you’re also left with the lasting reminder of the current state of migrants at our borders and how they’re fighting to reach the American Dream, however tarnished it may be.