Miss Saigon, the 1989 musical that re-tells Puccini’s Madame Butterfly as a modern epic set during the chaotic final days of the Vietnam War, has returned to Broadway on a more human scale.
The helicopter is still there, but this new revival—which comes to Broadway after a 2014 London run—has undergone revisions guided by a directorial approach that brings an authentic focus to the human cost of the Vietnam War.
“You’ve got to do the history justice and tell the story in a real way,” says Alistair Brammer, who makes his Broadway debut as Chris, the American G.I. who falls in love with Vietnamese bargirl Kim in the days leading up to the fall of Saigon. When the Americans pull out, Kim is left behind.
“We are concentrating on the Vietnamese take on the Americans leaving,” adds Nicholas Christopher who plays John, the G.I. who buys his best friend a night with Kim and sets the plot in motion. “We’re trying to show—as realistically as possible—what we were like over there. It was dirty and complicated.”
Eva Noblezada, the recent American high school grad who originated the role of Kim in the London revival and makes her Broadway debut with the transfer, believes today’s audiences will connect with the story differently in an era of 24/7 news coverage filled with the plight of global war refugees.
The “refugee scene” rings particularly relevant to the newcomer. It’s a mere minute-and-a-half, but it’s a powerful scene. The fact that these girls have to go to these lengths to sell themselves to make money, that is still relevant. People are still doing that around the world. There are still victims of war—innocent victims of war.”
Brammer, a fan of the show since his teens, says this incarnation of Miss Saigon will reach a new generation of theatregoers with its gritty immediacy. “I knew about the Vietnam War, but I didn’t know the ins and outs. Suddenly the words—I heard the songs for the first time again.”
To that end, Saigon’s writers, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, have made numerous lyric changes throughout the score. This includes the incorporation of Vietnamese lyrics that were offered to the creative team by Vietnamese cast member Christopher Vo, who helped provide authentic lyrics for the wedding scene, as well as adlibs and various phrases throughout the show.
Having played the role of Thuy four times previously, actor Devin Ilaw says this new approach to Saigon is a chance to take a fresh look at his character—an officer in the North Vietnamese Army who resents the American infiltration of his country.
“I just went to Vietnam to do research,” he explains, “and learned a lot about the culture, and the strength and love that people there have for their country. People often ask me, ‘What’s it like playing the bad guy?’ I am not a villain, that’s the important thing about Thuy. I had a great conversation with Bob Avian, the original choreographer on the show. He said to me, ‘I really love how you play him like a hero.’ I never thought of it that way, but that’s how you have to think of it. Thuy is just trying to bring honor to his culture, country, and family—and that’s what we’re trying to do in this production—to showcase the culture of Vietnam and to show them honor.”