Its authors, whose own nation had its own unfortunate misadventure in Southeast Asia, also wrote Les Miserables, a similarly splashy show about controversial social issues -- in that case, injustice and revolution in mid-19th century France. The Vietnam War, even today an issue in the U.S. presidential campaign (who served? who didn't? who got captured?) is the tragic backdrop for their 1991 Miss Saigon.
The authors say they were inspired by a searing photo that came out of the war: an 11-year-old, mixed race child being surrendered by her Vietnamese mother to be raised by her ex-GI father in the U.S. Their fictional musical, a modern reworking of the opera Madame Butterfly, recounts the fleeting love affair between Kim, a Vietnamese "bar girl" played by the Japanese-born actress Mika Nishida, and an American soldier, Chris (Will Swenson). The memorable American evacuation from Saigon in 1975 -- here's where the helicopter comes in -- separates them, seemingly forever. But their son, yet to be born, is the tragic element that will re-unite them.
Michael Schaller, professor of history at the UA, says that many thousands of such children were born of unions between Vietnamese women and American soldiers.
"About 2 million American soldiers passed through Vietnam (during the war)," Schaller says. "A lot of them had sex while they were there." Their children became "outcasts from both societies...They were awkward reminders of the past. Many ended up in orphanages or became street kids." For their mothers, "they were constant reminders of the fate that had befallen them in the war." For the GIs gone back home, "they were awkward at best."
Schaller cautioned that he had not seen the show, but that it falls into all-too-familiar depictions of Asians as "women turned into whores and men into killers." Though its authors attempt to portray the universal tragedy of war, Schaller said it's instructive for Americans to remember that in Vietnam the conflagration is known as the American War. Despite the fact that the Vietnamese "suffered deaths in a 20-to-1 ratio to U.S. deaths," most popular representations of the war in the U.S. "depict it as a U.S. tragedy, the terrible things that happened to our boys."
This traveling production's cast of 43 includes a Vietnamese-born actor, Phong Truong. His father worked for the Americans in Vietnam and after their defeat he fled with his family by boat, when his son was still a small child. The family spent 35 days at sea, but the father writes in an account of the ordeal that after rescue "our lives were born again in the freedom countries."
Miss Saigon, part of the UApresents season, opens at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Thursday, February 10, at UA Centennial Hall, 1020 E. University Blvd. Evening and matinee performances continue daily through Sunday, February 20 (with the exception of Monday, February 15). Monty Ralstin gives a pre-performance talk at 6:45 p.m. opening night in Room 102 of the Center for English as a Second Language, just north of Centennial Hall. Tickets range from $32 to $64, with discounts for select performances only. For more information, call the box office at 621-3341.