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Lea Salonga Headshot

Lea Salonga

The first few notes of a song from Miss Saigon began to play, and audience members erupted in applause. However, it was not one of the songs most of the assembled crowd were probably expecting. I know I certainly wasn’t. Lea Salonga delivered a passionate and soulful rendition of “Why God Why?” from the blockbuster musical. For those less familiar with the show, the reason that struck me as odd is that it’s a solo by the character of Chris, an American soldier, singing about the conflicted feelings he now has after spending a night with young Vietnamese prostitute Kim—the part that Salonga originated to great acclaim (including both Olivier and Tony Awards) during the musical’s premiere production.

Salonga sang the number as part of a one-night concert event at Artis-Naples, in Naples, Florida. I took my mother to see the show. Also my aunt, who is visiting from the Philippines. We were far from the only Filipinos in the audience, and I found it a bit amusing that several of the (white) patrons around me were actively commenting on that fact. But Salonga is Filipino royalty, a success story that infuses Filipinos far and wide with pride. She’s also currently one of the coaches on the version of The Voice that is produced in the Philippines, and which my mom watches on TFC (The Filipino Channel). During the car ride over, my mom filled me in on some of the young singers who have been a part of “Team Lea.”

“Why God Why?” happens to be one of my favorite songs from Miss Saigon. I enjoy singing it at late-night karaoke parties, particularly if I’m hanging out with Asian American friends. The soaring melody and overwrought emotions are a delight to dig into, and I loved hearing Salonga do just that in her concert. I know that she would never publicly (or probably privately) say anything negative about Miss Saigon, as she owes her international career to the musical. Nevertheless, I found the number slyly subversive. Seeing the woman who once played Kim crossing race and gender lines to embody the white American G.I. lusting after the sleeping Vietnamese girl he’s just deflowered caused my brain to explode a little bit as I tried to sort out the issues of representation, appropriation, and international politics being invoked.

As you might have guessed, I have a complicated relationship to Miss Saigon. The first time I saw the musical was with my mother and father in London in the early 1990s. Salonga had left the show by then, but we watched another talented Filipina actress play the role of Kim and we all left singing the musical’s praises. I was happy that my parents were sharing in my love of musical theatre, and they couldn’t stop talking about the fact that it was a Filipina who was playing the lead. It wasn’t until years later, when I read Martin F. Manalansan IV’s article “Searching for Community,” which references gay Filipino identification with the show (printed in Asian American Studies Now: A Critical Reader), that I realized that my ethnic identity was coloring my critical faculties in regards to this musical.

While in graduate school at New York University, I read up on the casting controversy surrounding the Broadway premiere of Miss Saigon, centering on the yellow face performance of Jonathan Pryce as the Engineer. I also read about the lesser known protest movement that critiqued the show’s use of racist stereotypes. As a teacher, I’ve used this moment in time as an effective way of bringing up issues of race and representation, gender and sexuality, and protest versus censorship.

Miss Saigon - Alistair Brammer as Chris and Eva Noblezada as Kim - Photo credit Matthew Murphy

Alistair Brammer and Eva Noblezada in the current Broadway production of Miss Saigon
Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

Miss Saigon is currently back on Broadway, and I’m uncertain if I want to go and see the revival. I recently read Diep Tran’s powerful article in American Theatre that articulates the show’s erasure of Vietnamese stories in favor of another “white savior” narrative, and I’m in 100% agreement with it. But I still have a nagging desire to re-experience the musical for myself.

The last time I saw Miss Saigon was in 1999, my first year as a professional theatre journalist. I had interviewed two of the performers from the Broadway cast for the magazine InTheater. And I was curious how I’d react to the musical now that I was more familiar with both its history and the critical race theory I’d been studying at NYU.

What I remember most about the production was the performance by one of the actors I’d interviewed, Margaret Ann Gates, who played Ellen, the wife that Chris has married in the United States after being forced to abandon Kim during the fall of Saigon. Gates is an actress of Asian descent, and this was a bold casting choice that changed the way I viewed the musical, and the character of Chris. It was clear that Ellen was Chris’s attempt to replace Kim with someone he consciously or unconsciously chose because she reminded him of his lost love. The moment when Ellen and Kim meet for the first time was utterly heartbreaking, as it seemed (to me at least) that both of those characters come to the same realization in that moment, literally seeing themselves in one another.

Let’s just say that Chris didn’t come across all that favorably to me in this production. However, what I did find poignant were the stories of collateral damage resulting from American ignorance. Those themes were, of course, already in the show, with Kim’s violent act of self-sacrifice at the end as the most obvious example. But somehow it seemed different when there was another face—an Asian American face—that I could focus my identification through at the end of the story. One that survives, and who must come to grips with how she will deal with the mess left behind by her husband. I wondered if Ellen would leave Chris. If I were her, I certainly would.

None of this, of course, negates any of the critiques leveled against Miss Saigon in terms of racial representation and imperialist mindsets. Still, I was surprised by how easily the musical tugged at my emotions. And even now, I’m amazed by how so many of the songs remain stuck in my head even though it’s been years since I’ve seen the show or listened to the original cast recording.

Miss Saigon Cast Recording

Miss Saigon Original Cast Recording

I can’t remember now if I bought the recording before or after I saw the musical with my parents in London. I do know that I used to play it all the time; it was one of my guilty pleasures even after I became conscious of the musical’s problematic racial overtones. I finally gave the CD away, during one of the purges that always preceded a move from one apartment to another. And if I’m honest, I regret doing so, as I enjoyed listening to the songs—even though I continue to hate some of the explicitly racist lyrics.

My love for the Miss Saigon original cast recording has a lot to do with Lea Salonga. Her voice comes across as so lush and pure. And even though I’ve never seen her in the musical, she’s who I picture whenever I think about the show.

And I still love to hear her sing. My mother’s favorite moment from the concert in Naples was Salonga’s extended version of the song “Reflection,” from Disney’s Mulan (a movie that also brings up complex feelings that are perhaps better reserved for a future blog post). I quite enjoyed Salonga’s rendition of “Burn,” from the most popular musical currently on Broadway, Hamilton. I also got a kick out of her take on the One Direction song, “Story of My Life.” But the moment I found most affecting was the duet she did with a man named Bernie, who was volunteered by his wife to sing “A Whole New World” (from Aladdin) up on stage with Salonga. Bernie was, perhaps predictably, Filipino. And as a (white) woman I overheard say to her (also white) friend after the show, “All Filipinos are good singers.” I don’t think that’s actually true, by the way, but for now I’ll embrace the stereotype.

Bernie’s performance wasn’t perfect, as he lost his place in the lyrics at least once. But (with some assistance from Salonga) he was always able to get back on track. And he sounded good! I found myself leaping to my feet after the end of the song—something I rarely do. And it wasn’t like a peer pressure standing ovation, as I was one of only a handful of people so moved to stand and applaud at that juncture.

I think I stood because I felt overcome by a feeling of identification and community—even though I don’t know Bernie, and have only spoken to Lea Salonga once (when I interviewed her via phone for an article). But I was there at Artis-Naples with my mom, in an auditorium with more Filipinos than I have ever seen in any other theatre in Southwest Florida, listening to a Filipino performer sing some of my favorite songs. And at that moment, I felt free enough to cast aside the critical objectivity I spent such a long time cultivating when I worked as a journalist, and just reveled in the joy of the moment.