Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Miss Saigon: Sixteen Years Later

It had been some time since I opened up my Miss Saigon OBCR for a listen. I was honestly never a huge fan of the show (though I did enjoy it). I saw it when I came to New York for the first time in 2000 because it was closing, and I felt like I should see it before it closed so I wouldn’t forever live in regret (after all, I was a huge Les Miserables fan).

One of my biggest memories of the evening (and this is where writing an anonymous blog comes in handy) was being horribly uncomfortable at the amount of female flesh constantly on display. As a naturally reserved person, I don’t seek out such entertainments, so it was awkward, to say the least. And the thing is, I would finally breathe a sigh of relief when the women were dressed again . . . then we’d get Stripper Kim . . . then we’d get the Engineer’s chorus girls . . . That was the only show I didn’t stage door that trip simply because I would have felt embarrassed to meet the women in the show. Okay, so I am still wet behind the ears. Anyway, moving on . . .

After the last few years of listening to lots of The Wedding Singer, The Drowsy Chaperone, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Wicked, Hairspray, and so on, when I popped in Miss Saigon for the first time in a long while, I got a very fresh perspective on the piece.

First of all, it (and by it I mean all the "pop operas" of that time) really does feel like music from another era. The tone, content, and style couldn’t be farther removed from today.

Part of this comes from the lyrics in the show, which really do seem to range from traditional musical lyrics (like “Sun and Moon”) to the sung-dialogue (“The Fall of Saigon”). Honestly, sung dialogue rarely works for me. I would never hate a show for it, but I don’t think it is the best way to communicate in a musical. In comparison to the lyrics of Les Miserables, which are poetic in nature and less sung-dialogue-y, Miss Saigon’s lyrics often feel more like rhymes than poetic expression.

I love the candid reviews in The TheaterMania Guide to Musical Theater Recordings, but as with many theatre reviews (even casual ones on the message boards), you can’t read them without first taking into consideration the bias. Michael Portantiere clearly has an axe to grind in his review of Miss Saigon’s music, which is “Not Recommended” (preceded in the alphabet by his review of that dud Les Miserables, on which he bestows an uber-generous Two Stars . . . like anyone is going to remember that show in ten years).

I would agree that there are some pretty rough lyrics (and this became much more apparent as I’ve bought many other CDs in the past years)—take “Let Me See His Western Nose,” for example. But I think when we start dismissing such phenomenally popular shows, we’re missing the forest through the trees. After all, someone must have liked Miss Saigon for some reason.

And I think it’s important to acknowledge that whatever faults individual parts may have—however more “enlightened” I might be now after hearing much more Sondheim—I still found myself enthralled with Kim and Chris’s situation. There’s a lot of passion and agony in those lyrics, and I still love hearing Ellen’s “Now That I’ve Seen Her.” In fact, after listening to the CD once, I replayed all of Act II’s songs with Kim, Chris, John, and Ellen, which I always used to do before as well.

If forced to do a comparison, I would say that Les Miserables is a far superior show, but hearing Miss Saigon again (and afterwards, I popped in Les Miserables again as well), it made me miss those epic shows with epic themes and emotions. Why we can’t have room on Broadway for everything, I’ll never know.

I do also want to take a moment to acknowledge the important role those British shows played in the lives on American actors. In Making it on Broadway, many of the actors interviewed said that they were disappointed to realize that their significant roles in those large British shows didn’t equate into more jobs despite the challenge those characters were. Another big impression was the frustration that there are no more stars on Broadway, that it is increasingly difficult to become the next Mary Martin or John Raitt.

However, a ton of actors owe Cameron Macintosh big time for the experiences they got. Yes, no one in a replacement or tour cast became a star playing Ellen or Cossette or Christine; however, those shows, with their huge casts, gave many folks a chance to shine in great roles from great shows that they never would have gotten had a “star” name been required. And let’s be frank. The most talented people rarely become the biggest stars. Fifty years ago, how many of those Fantines would have become the next Kristin Chenoweth or Idina Menzel anyway. Statistically, not many. But because Cats, Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, and Miss Saigon were the star attractions instead of a star name, those talented lesser-known actors got a chance to shine. When I saw Melinda Chua as Kim, she was doing a role like Ethel Merman or Julie Andrews or Florence Henderson. If they had needed a star name for Miss Saigon, Melinda Chua wouldn’t have gotten that opportunity. Thank God she did!

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