Friday, June 15, 2007

Magical, yet silly. Daggy, yet awesome.

I have this weakness for musicals. When I was a kid, like about eleven, I loved the album of Chess, The Phantom of the Opera was a close second. The movie Grease 2 was also a favourite (with the foxy talents of Michelle Pfeiffer, so my choice if she and Olivia Newton John were ever going to have a battle). There's something so daggy about them (musicals, not MP and ONJ), yet there's a magic too, suddenly everyone knows the words, the moves...those big dance numbers are always the best. A Chorus Line was my absolute favourite...a musical about musicals. Back then I was an aspiring actor too. Apparently quite a few women writers start of wanting to be actors. Interesting.

When Joss Whedon did the musical Buffy episode, Once More With Feeling I was in musical paradise. An ironic musical about musicals, about how daggy yet magical they are (and in this case everyone sings because of magic), and with a rocking soundtrack to boot, showing a genuine affection for the utter silliness of the genre, with heart.

As Wikipedia says, in a musical, when the emotion gets too much for words, you sing. When it's too much for song, you dance. It's hilarious. It's also deeply moving, music is such an effective way to stimulate immediate emotions, even if part of you is in internal hysterics about the saxophone solo.

Anyway, last night Martin and I went to see Miss Saigon. Martin bought me a ticketek gift voucher for my birthday, intending for us to see Swan Lake, but we forgot to book (oops) and eventually we had to pick something last minute, since we looked at the vouchers at the end of May and realised it expired in June. So it wasn't exactly our first choice, but we knew it would be a spectacle. Plus I have this secret weakness for musicals.

The sets were incredible, including amazing use of animation with the helicopter lifting out troops. The acting was great. The music was a wee bit eighties in places (and not always the good kind) but in places it was just incredible, peaking with the song The American Dream at the climax, sung by the character of the Engineer (a pimp), played by Filipino actor Leo Tavarro Valdez, which is one of those songs that shows you why the Eighties were let to exist.

The story however failed to satisfy me.

**Spoilers start now**
The basic plot involves a whirlwind romance between a G.I. called Chris - disillusioned by war and an exploitative, ugly Saigon - and a young, 'innocent' Vietnamese woman, Kim, who has been forced to go into prostitution (gosh, but luckily it's her first night, so she's still 'pure'). It was told with a leap in the chronology, we see them fall in love and kind of 'get married' and then there's a three year gap in which she has ended up living on the streets in Saigon (later you find out with a 3 year old child) and he's married, but tortured by nightmares, in the US. In the second act there's a flashback to the night they got separated. However the flashback (while visually amazing) doesn't actually reveal anything we haven't managed to work out for ourselves. And it kind of slows down the pace of the story so that the ending feels rushed - to me the emotional heart of the story was lost.

I was uncomfortable with some of the themes. Of course the depiction of Asians is deeply flawed, Orientalism at it's worst, dealing with the tedious stereotypes of sexual object/china doll, rigid traditionalism/rush to embrace the seedy side of the West, and not able to really grapple with the psychologies of its Asian characters. And the sexual objectification of Asians depicted bordered closely on becoming objectifying in itself - there was something a bit too video smash hits about the lap dancing women. For example, why did all the actors have to be tall, thin, busty and beautiful? Surely not all the prostitutes in Vietnam were? Later in Bangkok there's more pole dancing, a kind of automaton asexuality on one hand, and yet again, I felt uncomfortable that it bordered on glamorising their plight, the costumes, the perfectly sculpted bodies. I felt there was a layer of critique missing, that the spectacle was more important than the ideas behind the spectacle. It was a case of being told one thing, but shown another.

However, it is equal opportunity racism. There is a similar restriction in depicting Americans, who are also portrayed as a cluster of stereotypes. Only one character really came across as genuinely complex to me, which is a second American character, John. In the opening scenes, in Vietnam, he comes across as shallow and exploitative, however in the three years since leaving Vietnam he has become obsessed with helping the children parented in Vietnam by American G.I.s. While this change isn't mapped, it's an intriguing glimpse of psychological depth and character growth - he seems to genuinely care about these children (perhaps wondering if he had parented some himself?). And yet there is a cultural currency in the way these kids are discussed, as if a part of America has been left behind, that also made me uncomfortable. All of the other characters struggle with duality and ambivalence (love and hate, innocence and experience) yet I didn't feel that this was fully portrayed...perhaps some of the sets were too awesome, perhaps there needed to be a bit more character and a bit less environment, a bit more nude lighting...but the flaw is largely in the writing. Sometimes sets and lighting in a musical (or any kind of theatre) gives you a sense of being actually inside the character's head - Miss Saigon managed this with, say, The American Dream, playing out the Engineer's fantasy life. But I think one of the weakness is the story tries to be about America and Vietnam (so the scenes were more about portraying the sense of place), with the characters representing aspects of the place and the troubled relationships between the two countries, and so we miss out on some of the internal life and texture of the characters.

Maybe for me the problem was that our attention was shifted from the lovers to the child, the vestige of the love. And in that moment the Love (which I didn't really buy at the beginning, I didn't 'feel the love' until later on, when Chris was singing to his American wife about how Kim was the only real thing he'd seen in Vietnam, which seemed quite believable, even haunting) truly became object rather than dynamic force. It made love seem static and sited elsewhere, the child actor (a boy of about four?) was lovely and gorgeous and did a great job, but the way his presence was used, the way he was carried about the stage further created this impression that he was an object rather than a dynamic continuation of the love between Kim and Chris. He was a prop more than a character. The second act was slightly unsatisfying, the ending felt rushed. This musical at least wasn't about character, and perhaps for me, character is what I look for. Someone so overwhelmed by their emotions that goddammit, they just have to sing...and when their voice fails them...there's always the medium of dance. Maybe Miss Saigon needed more dancing.

**Spoilers end**

Still it was great to have a night out and to enjoy a real spectacle. I am sure Miss Saigon has come a long way over the years since prosthetic 'Asian' eyes and minstrel-esque faux tan faces. It will be interesting to see if anyone ever manages to direct it in a way that tells some of the story that remains untold. I know I came home writing the screenplay in my mind. And yes, there was dancing. And it was directed by Joss Whedon.


  1. Penni, are you familiar with Wicked and Avenue Q?

    If not, there is a whole new magic amazing world just waiting for you.

  2. Oh hello amazing world! Avenue Q. I love it. Off to look at Wicked.

  3. You want me to send you a CD?

    (if you have any emotional attachment to the wizard of oz... wicked will make you cry like a baby... and reassess everything you thought you knew about the Wicked Witch)

  4. I too am a musical lover! I believe my love was sown with the Muppet Show! Tho I now enjoy Gilbert & Sullivan, I own the ABC productions of The Mikado & Pirates of Penzance both with John English in them ::Sigh:: boy is he getting old! I saw him a couple of years back in Dad's Army, very old!
    Am a huge fan of Mary Poppin's (oh the things I could have done to a young Dick Van Dyke!!). Hugh Jackson is a hunk in Okalahoma. Tho reading this post it could be not the musicals but the men....hmmmm. Oh well, I now feel the need to sing loudly and badly at a TV screen!

  5. Lili, I've sent you an email. You are the high princess of the multiverse.

    Monique, when I was about 15 I had the biggest crush on a young Nicholas Hammond in Sound of Music, it was devestating to realise how old he really was. Fred's a big Mary Poppins fan. She loves 'songing' in movies. She also likes Bedknobs and Broomsticks and we're keeping an eye out for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. We've bought her the first season of Fraggle Rock for our July holiday.

  6. Nice review! Thoughtful and thought-provoking. Thank you.