When Miss Saigon premièred in London’s West End in 1989, the play ignited controversy by having two white actors appear in yellow-face as Vietnamese characters. Although they ditched the eye prosthetics and bronzer when the musical migrated to Broadway in 1991, the great argument of racial sensitivity versus total artistic freedom raged on.
In the Edmonton 2015 production, Martin Galba sees little room for debate.
“We wanted to be true to the ethnic requirement and the ethnic makeup of the show and not have non-Asian people playing the Asian roles,” he says.
The artistic director of Two One-Way Tickets to Broadway has been focused on the politics of race and the ethics of inclusion for several years. In 2012, the company mounted Ragtime to expand the presence of African-American stories in Edmonton theatre.
“Through putting on shows like Ragtime and Miss Saigon, we’re hoping that the ethnic community will embrace theatre and will want to start to participate even more,” Galba says. “So far we’ve been overwhelmed with excitement from the Asian community about Miss Saigon coming to our city.”
Miss Saigon is adapted from Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. The West End musical carried on the opera’s grandiosity (including a helicopter landing on stage in the famous “Fall of Saigon” sequence). Playing at La Cité Francophone, this production will focus more on the character moments and less on the pageantry.
“We really wanted to make this an intimate show, because we are bringing it into an intimate venue,” Galba notes. “Our focus was to really zoom in on those small moments and show them even more than they might have been visible in other productions.”
The scale of the original musical is the grandiose scale of war itself, where conflict between nations overshadows human stories. The story of Vietnamese bargirl Kim and American soldier Chris may seem unimportant in the grand scheme of history, but it resonates with the thousands of true-life survivor stories from the war, each of which contains its own tragedy.
“If people don’t bring Kleenex they’ll be blowing their noses in their shirts.”
Fri, Jun 12 – Sun, Jun 28 (7:30 pm)
Directed by Martin Galba
La Cite Francophone, $16.75 – $28