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Reviving ‘Miss Saigon’: How the Musical Remains Fresh and Relevant in 2024

Reviving ‘Miss Saigon’: How the Musical Remains Fresh and Relevant in 2024

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Miss Saigon has returned to Manila after 24 years. When it opened in 2000, it had a record-breaking 6-month run at the CCP starring Lea Salonga, who originated the role of Kim both on the West End and on Broadway, where she won both the Olivier Award and the Tony Award respectively.

Now, the show returns to Manila with an international tour coming from Australia, where it had seasons in Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide. The company also features a total of 16 performers who have origins of Filipino heritage. 

A retelling of Giacomo Puccini’s classic opera, Madama Butterfly, Miss Saigon moves the love story to 1970s Vietnam. The audience follows a young Vietnamese woman named Kim as she navigates the chaos of Saigon during the Vietnam War, falls in love with an American G.I. named Chris, and embarks on a three-year quest for reunion, all while harboring a heart-wrenching secret.

Still relevant 35 years later

At the media call held last March 21 at The Theatre at Solaire, Miss Saigon composer Claude-Michel Schönberg, who also composed the music for Les Misérables and The Pirate Queen, talks about how the musical is still relevant all these years later. 

Yanah Laurel interviews Claude-Michel Schönberg at the media call; Photo Credit: GMG Productions

“In any war, which is happening today, I’m sure in Palestine, Israel, Russia, and Ukraine, all those terrible wars, bear [Miss Saigon] kinds of stories always. And it’s a pity to imagine that we still have to face that kind of situation because in ‘89, it was the fall of the USSR and we thought that tomorrow, life will be wonderful; in peace. But as a matter of fact, it is worse.”

“We learned nothing, and everything will be repeated years after years– conflicts, fights, and I think the best way to express our vision of the war is not to explain and give a big lesson of history on how the Vietnam War arrived and how the sweet days of revolution in Paris happened [in Les Mis]. We are just telling simple people’s stories, a boy and a girl, simple people in Paris, all shattered by the wars.”

“You know what it is to be living in a chaotic country, where you have colonizations of the Americans, Spanish, and the Japanese. I can’t say it’s a pessimist vision of the world, but if we can prove that there is still love there, and by love, we can save the rest of humanity that we have in us, we would be more than happy.”

“That’s why we’re writing these kinds of stories because even Les Mis or Miss Saigon can tell you something that we would like to hear more often.”

Nigel Huckle, who plays Chris, echoes this by saying, “We’re still seeing the emotional tolls of war going on in the world. This show has been around for 35 years and we’re still seeing how relationships are shaped and affected by war. It’s something that we wish we weren’t seeing anymore but of course this show sort of brings to light again how the Vietnam War affects mothers, affects people in romantic relationships, all sorts of relationships. But then you see Kim’s story of hope and what she’ll do for love, go to the corners of the world, and we’re still exactly seeing that still to this day.”

Filipino homegrown theater and P-pop artist Kiara Dario, who plays Gigi, shares that this production not only has 16 artists with Filipino heritage, but it also has artists with backgrounds from Vietnam, Cambodia, Korea, and Japan. “ I think it’s that coming together of cultures that really makes this show so especially relevant. These stories are things that our cast members carry.”

“I think coming to the Philippines especially where issues like female exploitation, and female powers as well are so evident in our daily lives. We see everyday Kim’s, and Gigi’s and Engineers, and I think that even if it’s a period piece, it’s still so current and I think [that with] each year that passes, there’s a different way we see Miss Saigon and I think that’s what’s beautiful about this show. It’s been changing throughout all of the 35 years and this version is so necessary for today’s current climate, which is so different from what it was when it first debuted in 1989.”

New things to watch out for

One of the big changes for this current production of Miss Saigon is Seann Miley Moore, who refers to his character as ‘The Engin-queer’, will be playing the role of ‘The Engineer’ as unapologetically and openly queer. “It’s really fantastic to bring this new energy to the show, but it’s really a testament to Cameron [Mackintosh] for bringing new people, new voices, bakla energy.”

Miss Saigon

from Top, L-R: Laurence Mossman, Kiara Dario, Seann Miley Moore, Abigail Adriano, Nigel Huckle; Photo Credit: GMG Productions

He says that he’s doing the role not just for himself, but for all the young, queer, bakla, audience members out there. “If I can do it, you can do it too. It is me, and that is everything that I have fought for, this full circle moment about people going, ‘We can’t have people like you on stage because it is too gay.’ Now it’s, ‘I’m giving you queer excellence on all the stages I come to’.”

Huckle adds that people might think the idea of ‘Engin-queer’ might seem new, but it’s all written in the text. “It’s just Seann’s stroke of genius and we all get to witness it, but it’s what his mind does to the text that’s already written that is a revelation and that is just mesmerizing to watch.”

Dario says that Theresa Nguyen, the company’s resident director, also gives the show a valuable perspective as a Vietnamese-American woman. “The changes might seem subtle, but I think if you’re a fan, you’ll really notice them,” she shares. 

“There was a lot of effort put into whether it would be Vietnamese adlibs, or more Vietnamese culture put into this production, I think it was very very beautiful to see. I know that in Sydney, they reworked a lot of the Dreamland scenes to make sure that the women in the bar were given more power, were more highlighted, and were the focus of those scenes. I think those changes are really, really beautiful to see in 2024 because it’s such a beloved musical that is also able to adapt. I think that’s the beauty of this current production.”

Abigail Adriano, who plays Kim, adds that Nguyen really focused on researching and making sure that the company finds the complexities in each character’s perspective. “…each character has their own internal world that is so unique and the choices that they make are driven by so many internal motivations that I think as actors, we have so many tiny subtle changes that we make that make a huge difference. I mean in ‘Last Night of the World’, we made some lyric changes to bring more agency to Kim. Before, Chris was the savior, to take Kim out and she was painted more of a victim rather than being in charge of her own destiny. But I was consistently told that I am in charge of my destiny, I am choosing to be with [Chris] because I love [him], not because I’m just using [him] to get out of this situation.” 

“I think because we touch on those complex perspectives, the feeling of love and tragedy is much more palpable.”

Moore also shares that this time around, the perspectives have changed. “Our world has changed. We’re still living in a world of war. LGBTQ+IA is proud and up there in the air. Ten years ago, Chris and the American GI’s were the heroes. But now, I believe this time, we are seen as the heroes and the survivors through the turmoil and struggle that is war.” 

Miss Saigon will run until May 12 at The Theatre at Solaire. You can watch Abigail Adriano, Seann Miley Moore, Kiara Dario, Cassidy Lorenzana, and the cast of Miss Saigon perform excerpts from the show below.

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Founder and Managing Director of TheaterFansManila.com. Thinks about the performing arts scene 2/3 of the day, everyday. A firm believer in the Filipino artist.