The pop musical Miss Saigon is a global stage sensation set in 1975 at the end of America’s Vietnam War when the conflicting cultures and ideologies of the world meet tragically in one city: Saigon. American GI Chris falls in love with Kim, an orphaned Vietnamese ‘bar girl’, and they dream of making a life together.
Separated by the fall of Saigon, Kim gives birth to Chris’ son alone and waits faithfully for his return. Unable to contact Kim, Chris remarries and attempts to move on with his life in the U.S.
Circumstances reunite the pair three years later in Bangkok, and they must decide what the future holds for all of them.
This tribute to Puccini’s Madama Butterfly brought forward to the 1970s during Vietnam’s American War also draws parallels with the tragic story of Fantine from Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s legendary hit musical Les Misérables.
Young, unworldly and abandoned, Kim and Fantine sacrifice all for the sake of their children. Both are stories of passion and exploitation, which reflect the jarring reality of life during pivotal moments in history shaped by French nationalism and colonialism.
As one theatre reviewer said “these shows brim with images and scenes that incite reactions and provoke questions”.
The Showbiz Christchurch Production
Ten years after staging the New Zealand premiere, Showbiz Christchurch is mounting their second production with the same Christchurch based creative team from 2009: Stephen Robertson as director and choreographer and Richard Marrett as musical director.
The show calls for a strong Asian and European cast. Returning from the Philippines for the lead role of Kim is former New Zealand resident Tina Bergantinos-Panlilio, who has played this role previously in the Hamilton Musical Theatre and Dunedin Operatic productions of Miss Saigon. She will be performing opposite Jack Fraser as Chris.
Jack Fraser will play ChrisMiss Saigon will be Jack Fraser’s third role this year with Showbiz Christchurch having had major parts in The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber and We Will Rock You. He is also no stranger to the work of Boublil and Schonberg having performed twice in Les Misérables.
Filipino/Australian countertenor Marcus Rivera will perform the role of The Engineer. Marcus knows this role well as he has played it three times previously. He also comes with a vast CV of theatre, opera, film, TV, concert and cabaret credits.
Joining Marus is fellow Australian Daniel Aguilar performing as Thuy, a role he also has played before on the 2007 Australian Tour of Miss Saigon.
The 18 children in the show – four performing the role of Tam, plus 14 ensemble children – all come from Russley Primary School. The children range in age from 5 to 11 years of age and represent 30% of the entire cast.
Reprising its role is the set. In just three days long-time Showbiz volunteer Don Gillanders and a team made the Iroquois helicopter. It features in one of the most spectacular scenes in the show, the evacuation from the American Embassy which is based on real events which took place on 30 April 1975.
All epic stories need epic music and, in Miss Saigon, Schönberg uses music to underline the conflict between the two distinct cultural worlds of Kim and Chris.
Musical Director, Richard Marrett says this show is among his favourites to conduct: “its score is wonderfully orchestrated and is at times soaring, passionate and epic, and at others delicate, intricate and beautiful. In the hands of 19 expert players, the live orchestra will certainly transport theatregoers powerfully through the turbulent, emotional worlds of the play”.
“The orchestrations employ diverse musical styles,” says Miss Saigon percussionist Craig Given. “There is a fusion of Western and Asian influences, as well as some saxophone infused Broadway-style power ballads.” Given and international ethnic percussion specialist Doug Brush will have a large set up of traditional and ethnic instruments such as gongs, prayer bowls and a ‘damaru’ or Tibetan skull drum, which was traditionally made from the cranium of two human skulls.
“There isn’t much else that is this big, logistically interesting and rhythmically complex,” says Given.
The Inspiration for Miss Saigon
Claude-Michel Schönberg, of Les Misérables fame, was taking a coffee break and thumbing through a magazine someone had left on the piano when he came across a photo of an 11-year-old Vietnamese girl about to board a plane from Son Nhut Air Base near Saigon to join her American father who she had never met, leaving behind her mother.
“I was so appalled by the image of this deliberate ripping apart that I had to sit down and catch my breath. I suffered for the mother as though I might see my own little boy leaving me forever, and I suffered for the child as though in my early youth, I had been forcibly removed from my parents. Was that not the most moving, the most staggering example of ‘The Ultimate Sacrifice’, as undergone by Cio-Cio San in Madame Butterfly, giving her life for her child?”
“This photograph was for Alain [Boublil] and I, the start of everything…” wrote Schönberg, in October 1995, six years after their second musical, Miss Saigon, had premiered on the West End, and four years after it had opened on Broadway.
The Miss Saigon Effect
For some, the show awakens long-suppressed memories from their own time spent in Vietnam.
“My Dad was a Vietnam Veteran. He passed away in April this year and is dearly missed,” says Natasha Armstrong of her father former W2 Company Radio Operator, Tom Naylor. “When Showbiz Christchurch staged Miss Saigon in 2009 we all went to watch as a family. It was really emotional, but Dad enjoyed it. He even talked a little about his time in Vietnam.”
Don Lord, Executive Director of Hagar NZ says: “Vietnam remains a significant target for traffickers. Vulnerable women, particularly from villages like the one Kim in Miss Saigon was from, are today at risk of sex trafficking and forced labour. Many are trafficked into neighbouring countries to meet the demand for wives in rural communities, into other Asian countries as forced labour, and even as far as Europe.”
Hagar New Zealand is a charitable organisation which supports the recovery of women and children who have survived severe human rights abuse in Vietnam, Cambodia and Afghanistan. Some of their clients have come from situations where they have been trafficked and in slavery and Hagar is committed to seeing them healed and thriving.
For a member of the Christchurch Vietnamese community, the beauty, poignancy and relevance of Kim’s song about her son, “I’d Give My Life for You”, reflects an essential aspect of Vietnamese culture: a mothers’ love, sacrifice and selflessness.
The Tale of Kieu, a significant work of Vietnamese literature, is a poem which recounts the life, trials and tribulations of Thúy Kiều, a beautiful and talented yet tragic young woman, whose story is used to illustrate Phuc duc, a karma like merit-virtue which can be created by women and handed on to future generations.
Like Kim in Miss Saigon and tens of thousands of other Vietnamese women during and after the Vietnam War, she sacrificed herself to save her family.
Showbiz Christchurch had NZ Vietnam Veterans and NZ Vietnamese, who escaped before and after the fall of Saigon, share their stories with the Miss Saigon company and theatre patrons. With such meticulous and in-depth background work put into delivering the best audience experience, there is much to look forward to in this new production of Miss Saigon.