Miss Saigon

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

Madame Butterfly, The Musical. Penned by the legendary composers of Les Misérables (Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil), Miss Saigon is a reworking of Giacomo Puccini's 1904 opera for more contemporary audiences, by moving it to some new place, specifically The Vietnam War (setting) and Broadway (venue).

The date is April 1975. A group of American Marines are out for one last night on the town, since they will be pulling out of Saigon soon. They visit a sleazy nightclub called "Dreamland" run by an Honest John known as The Engineer, and populated by a number of hookers, including Kim, a 17-year-old girl who would probably be The Ingenue if it weren't for her profession. She catches the eye of Chris, one of the marines; his friend John makes the arrangements, and the Official Couple get together. However, after finding out that Kim is a Heartwarming Orphan, Chris offers to take her back to America with him. Of course, this is easier said than done, since the Vietcong are going to be moving in on Saigon in a matter of days. Even better, Kim and Chris' Fourth-Date Accidental Marriage is interrupted by Thuy, joint victim of a Childhood Marriage Promise their parents made. Of course, Kim's parents are dead, she loves Chris long time, and Thuy has gone over to the Dirty Communists, so Kim's not going for it. Thuy promises revenge and storms out again.

Time Skip to 1978, Ho Chi Minh City (what Saigon was renamed after the Dirty Communists took it over). Kim is still there, living in poverty. Even though three years have passed, she is still devoted to Chris, and has been waiting for him to rescue her. Chris is asleep with his new American wife, Ellen, as it appears Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder. (Maybe. He still wakes up shouting Kim's name, and believes Kim to be dead.) Kim is still being stalked by Thuy, though, and reveals her motivation for Holding Out for a Hero: she and Chris have a son, Tam. Thuy goes a little Ax Crazy over this and Kim has to shoot him, which kills him. She then goes to The Engineer, who points out that Tam having an American father ups their chances of being allowed to emigrate to America. As the curtain falls, they book passage to Bangkok as the first leg of this journey.

Act Two opens in America, where John is deeply involved in an American charity organization that helps with the aftermath of the war, specifically, linking American fathers to their interracial children. He tells Chris about Kim and Tam, which leaves Chris in the uncomfortable position of telling Ellen what happened when he was Off the Wagon; the three travel to Bangkok for some sort of family reunion. (Meanwhile, we have a Flash Back to the Fall Of Saigon, where it turns out that Chris did his darnedest to get Kim out with him; in fact, John had to punch him to keep him from abandoning the 'copter and staying in Vietnam.) Kim goes to Chris' hotel room but finds only Ellen, who is not unsympathetic to her plight but doesn't want to be second fiddle to one of her husband's byblows. Ellen issues Chris an ultimatum - her or me - and Chris agrees to limit his contact with Kim and Tam to monetary support sent from America. Of course, Kim isn't particularly happy about this, so once the Americans are at her front door, she shoots and kills herself, leaving Tam's fate entirely in American hands. The curtain falls.

(It's actually a lot more dramatic when you see it onstage. The music's pretty good too.)

Tropes used in Miss Saigon include:
  • Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder: Played backwards, in that it's Chris who moved on and Kim who stayed faithful. Having said that, he thought she was dead -- a reasonable conclusion when, the last he saw of her, she and the other refugees were getting machine-gunned by Dirty Communists. Subverted in that we see that he never forgot her and that his guilt has left him in bad shape--he had a breakdown that resulted in him mourning her for more than a year, suffers from nightmares, and is unable to confide in his wife about the trauma he went through.
  • Accidental Marriage:

Chris: It's pretty, but what does it mean?
Kim: It's what all the girls sing at weddings.
Chris: *Double Take*
Kim: They didn't know what else to sing.
Chris: ...It's the prettiest thing I ever heard.

Chris: Christ, I'm American, how could I fail to do good?

  • Anti-Villain: The Engineer. Sure, the antagonist role is filled more by Thuy, but he dies during the first act. Nonetheless, the Engineer is a scoundrel, but you can't help but like him. He's clearly an entrepreneur—someone who would be a lot more comfortable in America than Vietnam. Furthermore, it appears that he's just as desperate to escape the poverty and violence of Vietnam as the girls he pimps out. His methods may be greedy and self-serving, but given his motives, it's hard to hate him completely. And he even manages to have a few Pet the Dog moments—in some versions of the ending, he's holding Tam as the fatal gunshot rings out and instantly dives to protect him, then just as quickly shields him from seeing his mother's body.
  • Ascended Extra: In the initial London production, Ruthie Henshall was one of the nameless bar girls. Several years later, she was cast in the role of Ellen. In fact, many of the actresses playing the bar girls eventually took on the role of Kim or Ellen.
    • Ellen and The Engineer's role are far more expanded than their counterparts in Madame Butterfly.
  • Asian Baby Mama
  • Big No: Depending on how much scenery Chris wants to chew.
    • This actually happens twice. Once by Kim after she fatally shoots Thuy, and the other by Chris after Kim fatally shoots herself.
  • Catapult Nightmare: Chris bolts upright in bed after yet another bad dream about Kim. Depending on the actress, Kim herself often does this following her flashback to when she and Chris were separated during the fall of Saigon.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Done literally, twice, with Chris' gun - this actually follows the original "see a gun in the first act, fire it in the third" formula very well.
  • Childhood Marriage Promise: The fact that this suddenly got overturned by Me Love You Long Time is a big part of what drove Thuy off the deep end.
  • Counterpoint Duet: "I Still Believe" sung by Kim and Ellen. The main "counterpoint" is the setting—Kim is alone in a hovel in Saigon while Ellen is in a comfortable bedroom in America, sitting next to the sleeping Chris. Their lyrics are actually quite similar--each woman sings of her love for Chris, Kim of how much she misses him and hopes to be reunited with him, Ellen of wishing that he would confide in her and stop keeping her at arms' length.
  • Crosscast Role: The role of Tam has also been played by girls.
  • Died in Your Arms Tonight: Kim dies in Chris' arms.
  • Downer Ending: It's based on an Opera, what were you expecting?
  • Eagle Land: The Engineer's song "The American Dream".
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The Engineer.
  • Expy: Virtually every main character is a recreation of his/her counterpart in Madame Butterfly.
    • Kim is Cio-Cio San (Madame Butterfly).
    • Chris is B. F. Pinkerton.
    • The Engineer is Goro.
    • John is Sharpless.
    • Ellen is Kate.
    • Thuy is The Bonze and Prince Yamadori.
    • Tam is Dolore ("Sorrow").
  • Final Speech: Kim.
  • Foregone Conclusion
  • Foreshadowing: Present in the majority of the songs in the show, but it's Kim's song "I'd Give My Life For You" that really takes this trope and hits the audience over the head with it, as it turns out this is exactly what she'd end up doing.
  • Heartwarming Orphan: Kim.

Chris: She's no whore; you saw her too.
She's really more, like... The April moon.
John: ...The April fuckin' moon??

Kim: I'm seventeen, and I'm new here today
The village I come from seems so far away
All of the girls know much more what to say,
But I know: I have a heart like the sea

A million dreams are in me!

Chris: Good Jesus John who is she???

  • I Let Gwen Stacy Die
  • Ironic Echo: Kim's final line showed up previously when the two were pledging their love. In the song "Sun and Moon", just as they were falling in love, Chris asks Kim, "How in the light of one night did we come so far?" In the "Finale", just before she dies in his arms, she asks him "How in one night have we come... so far?"
  • "I Want" Song: "The Movie in My Mind" and "The American Dream".
  • I Will Wait for You: Kim has pledged this to herself for Chris during the three years she spent without him.
  • Large Ham: Come on, guys. It's a musical. (As Bridget Jones puts it, "Strange men standing around with their legs apart bellowing songs straight ahead.")
  • Last Kiss: Chris and Kim kiss one last time leading to the Ironic Echo quoted above.
  • Lovable Rogue: Sure, the Engineer is a scoundrel, but he's so charismatic that you can't help but like him.
  • Lovable Traitor: If the Engineer isn't a Lovable Rogue, he's probably this.
  • Love Dodecahedron: Or perhaps two instances of LoveTriangles (since Thuy and Ellen are never involved with the main characters at the same time).
  • Mama Bear: Both Kim and Ellen, especially during their one meeting. Even though Ellen doesn't have kids yet.
  • Me Love You Long Time: I think this one goes without saying.
  • Murder the Hypotenuse: Thuy threatens this against Chris. Then Kim actually does it to him (granted, he was declaring his intention to kill her son at the time, so her response was far from unjustified). (Then she does it to herself!)
  • Non-Indicative Name: Kim does not actually win the "Miss Saigon" pageant.
    • However, Gigi toasts Kim as the "real" Miss Saigon due to Kim and Chris falling in love and believing Kim will leave Saigon.
  • Pietà Plagiarism: Twice: once after Kim shoots Thuy, and once after she shoots herself.
  • Please Select New City Name: Saigon actually was renamed Ho Chi Minh City. Most of its residents don't call it that, though.
  • Race Lift: Towards the end of the show's Broadway run, the role of Ellen, typically played by a white actress (specifically, a blonde or redhead) was cast with Margaret Ann Gates, who is Asian. Critics pointed out that this added a very interesting new dynamic to the show, as suddenly, instead of moving on with his life as he insisted that he had, it now seemed as though Chris married Ellen only because she reminded him of Kim.
    • The role of John was initially played by a white actor, but soon replaced with African-American ones.
  • Recycled IN VIETNAM!
  • Say My Name: KIIIIIIIIIIIIIMMMMMM! During the fall of Saigon and at the end, which can be combined with a Big No depending on the actor.
  • Sexophone: Lampshade Hanging within the musical itself.
  • Sexy Discretion Shot: The lights begin to dim as Kim and Chris undress, then go out completely as they get into bed. There's similar staging for his love scene with Ellen.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Chris, as he often has nightmares of his time during the war. Also combined with his falling in love with Kim, of course.
    • The lyrics of "Bui Doi" indicate John is pretty shaken up too, even if he's in better shape than Chris.
  • Shoot the Money: Theater writer Peter Filichia wrote in the book Let's Put on a Musical!: How to Choose the Right Show for Your School that the probable reason the story is told out of sequence was so the show's big special effect—the last helicopter taking off during the fall of Saigon—could be saved for the second act.
  • Subliminal Advertising: Look very closely at the helicopter logo: you can see the face of a woman in the slipstream. Props go to the graphic designer, who was asked by Cameron Mackintosh to include the face of a woman somehow in the logo.
  • Tragic Mulatto: Kim is trying to prevent her son from becoming this, knowing full well that he will be shunned because he's the half-white illegitimate son of an American GI. Indeed, the fact that her cousin Thuy tried to KILL the boy demonstrates how rampant the feelings of contempt towards such children are.
    • Even The Engineer might count as this. One wonders if he may have had the chance to be more than a pimp had he not been the illegitimate son of a prostitute and her Frenchman customer.
  • The Vietnam War
  • Villain Song: Basically anything The Engineer sings. Ironically, he's not really villainous, just... avaricious a little too entrepeneurial for his own good (not to mention being involved in the prostitution business). (Though he's not above employing Kim as one of his pole dancers once they get to Bangkok.)
  • Yellowface: In the original West End (London) debut, the Engineer was played by white actor Jonathan Pryce. This was extremely controversial, but it didn't stop him from winning a Tony Award for his performance.
    • It was also counter-argued that the Engineer is Eurasian (half-Vietnamese and half-French).