Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Miss Saigon on Broadway, 19 years ago

As Lea Salonga notes on her Facebook, April 11 (Sunday in Manila) was the day, 19 years ago, when Miss Saigon opened on Broadway.

It was an opening that nearly didn't happen. Producer Cameron Mackintosh announced the cancellation of the show at one point, after Actors' Equity in New York had objected to the casting of the English actor Jonathan Pryce, in the role of the Eurasian pimp The Engineer, as a form of “minstrel show,” and then voted to bar him from appearing in the Broadway production of the hit West End musical.

Mr. Mackintosh's decision to pack up rather than replace Mr. Pryce brought things to a head. Equity backed down, Miss Saigon opened on schedule and went on to run for over 10 years in New York. It was the last of the four British mega-musicals--after Cats, Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables--to storm Broadway and define an era in musical theater. And it was the show that brought the young Lea Salonga--after tremendous acclaim in London for her role as the ill-fated bar girl Kim (“In Salonga, a star is born,” wrote Time Magazine. “Playing a plaster saint, she is stunningly real.”)--to the fabled world capital of musical theater and, eventually, to the Tony Awards, where she'd win Best Leading Actress in a Musical (on top of sweeping all other Best Actress-Musical citations that season).

Says Lea on Facebook: “Wow, has it really been 19 years?”

Miss Saigon itself didn't win Best Musical. Although it scooped nearly all major acting awards--aside from Lea, Jonathan Pryce won Best Actor, and Hinton Battle was Best Featured Actor--it lost to Will Rogers Follies, a musical as pure-bred American as its title character and perhaps the perceived corrective to the dominance and hype of the British import.

Miss Saigon was also among the last musicals to be reviewed by the most powerful theater critic on Broadway at the time, Frank Rich of the New York Times. His review of Miss Saigon appeared on April 12, 1991. Two years later, he quit his post and became an op-ed columnist for the same paper. His ringing appreciation for the musical and its two electrifying stars is still a must-read. An excerpt:

For all that seems galling about “Miss Saigon”--and for all that is indeed simplistic, derivative and, at odd instances, laughable about it--this musical is a gripping entertainment of the old school (specifically, the Rodgers and Hammerstein East-meets-West school of “South Pacific” and “The King and I”). Among other pleasures, it offers lush melodies, spectacular performances by Mr. Pryce, Miss Salonga and the American actor Hinton Battle, and a good cry... Without imparting one fresh or daring thought about the Vietnam War, the show still manages to plunge the audience back into the quagmire of a generation ago, stirring up feelings of anguish and rage that run even deeper than the controversies that attended “Miss Saigon” before its curtain went up.

Altered substantially but not beyond recognition, the basic “Butterfly" premise of an Asian woman who is seduced and abandoned by an American military man is affectingly rekindled in “Miss Saigon” by Mr. Schonberg's score and Miss Salonga's clarion, emotionally naked delivery of it. Whenever that tale flirts with bathos, along comes the leering, creepy Mr. Pryce to jolt the evening back into the hellish, last-night-of-the-world atmosphere that is as fitting for the fall of Saigon as it was for the Weimar Berlin of “Cabaret.”

Miss Salonga, whose performance has grown enormously since crossing the Atlantic, has the audience all but worshiping her from her first appearance as Kim, an open-faced 17-year-old waif from the blasted Vietnamese countryside who is reduced to working as a prostitute in Saigon. As her romance with an American marine, Chris (Willy Falk), blossoms “South Pacific”-style in a progression of haunting saxophone-flecked ballads in Act I, the actress keeps sentimentality at bay by slowly revealing the steely determination beneath the gorgeous voice, radiant girlish features and virginal white gown. Once Chris and his fellow Americans have fled her and her country, the determination transmutes into courage, and the passages in which Kim sacrifices herself for the welfare of her tiny child, no matter how hokey, are irresistibly moving because Miss Salonga's purity of expression, backed up by the most elemental music and lyrics, simply won't let them be otherwise.

PLUS: Where it all began--Watch the faces of Cameron Mackintosh, director Nicholas Hytner and lyricist Alain Boublil (that's composer Claude-Michel Schonberg on the piano) light up after Lea's last note. Priceless.

PLUS PLUS: A historic moment--Lea's win at the Tonys. (Lily Tomlin and Joel Grey as presentors!)


Anonymous said...

I can't believe how calm and poised she was when accepting the award. Great stuff.

Drei said...

Thanks for this Gibbs! Great stuff! I remember following this regularly in the news when I was a kid in Mindanao. Didn't realize years later I'll be lucky to watch her as Kim in Manila. :)

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