This musical is obviously inferior to the legendary opera Madame Butterfly on which it’s based, but like another modern Puccini adaptation, Rent, it’s different enough from that work to stand on its own and avoid redundancy. Granted, the central plotline is not all that different from Madame Butterfly, but the two main characters are different people than they were in the opera.
The attempt to turn manipulative cad Benjamin Pinkerton into a sincere lover runs into some not-unforeseeable difficulties…leading man Chris Scott is a far more developed character than Pinkerton, but while his motives are certainly understandable, he isn’t especially sympathetic. This is kind of a problem, given that, unlike Pinkerton, we’re actually expected to like this guy. On the other hand, leading lady Kim is an even stronger female figure than Butterfly, and the show’s choice to set up her death as a heroic sacrifice rather than an act of despair is arguably the only way in which it improves on its source. Pinkerton’s American wife Kate, little more than a walk-on in the opera, is here fleshed out into a full participant in the central romance, which becomes an intense love triangle rather than the one-sided love story of the opera.
But in Miss Saigon, all this is merely meant to be a microcosm of the cultural clash of East and West as manifested in the Vietnam War and its aftermath. This is in stark contrast to Puccini, who simply didn’t do abstract themes or messages; his operas are never really about anything but the literal characters and their emotions. This is part of the reason why Madame Butterfly is universal and immortal, but Miss Saigon requires some cultural context about the Vietnam War to be fully appreciated, and is already visibly fading as the general public is losing touch with that context.
A perfect illustration of the show’s transformation of Puccini’s tight, intimate melodrama into a much larger-scale political drama is the character of the Engineer. Very loosely based on a tiny supporting role from Madame Butterfly, this cynical pimp with an eye for marketing and manipulation that he sees as wasted on his small-time situation in a third-world country is desperate to get to America, which he sees not as a fictional paradise but as a place where the gullible have lots of money to throw around. He provides the voice of satiric commentary on the political aspects of the show, making a delightful contrast with the sentimentality of the love story, and it is he, not Chris or Kim, that wound up becoming the show’s starring role.
The score, while not on the level of either Madame Butterfly or its own composer’s previous score for Les Miserables, is often quite lovely. “Sun and Moon”, “The Last Night of the World”, and the Engineer’s eleven-o’clock showstopper “The American Dream” are the highlights, but “The Movie In My Mind”, “Why, God, Why?”, “I Still Believe”, “I’d Give My Life For You”, and “The Sacred Bird” are all rhapsodic and moving. Arguably the most interesting material goes to the Engineer, whose lyrics are definitely a significant cut above those given to the other characters. Famed lyricist Richard Maltby, Jr. co-wrote the lyrics, and he seemed to have made most of his contributions in the Engineer’s material, which do a particularly vivid job of characterizing his cynical philosophy. The rest of the lyrics, unfortunately, are exactly the kind stereotypically associated with Pop Opera, clumsy and overwrought, and they do tend to make the political situation seem less interesting than it should, especially compared to Tim Rice’s work on Chess, another Pop Opera with similar political content.
And it has to be acknowledged that the show’s use of spectacle does seem slightly gratuitous compared to the other shows in its genre. Phantom of the Opera‘s chandelier was built into the story (and had been as early as the original novel), while Les Miserables‘ revolving stage was a perfect visual illustration of its premise. By contrast, Miss Saigon‘s onstage helicopter, while it did add some extra dramatic impact to a key scene, seemed to be there mostly because shows like this were expected to have gigantic spectacle in their staging. Even more unfortunately, the way it’s used awkwardly throws the show’s narrative out of order in a way that could be defended from a dramatic standpoint but probably does more harm than good in the end.
Even so, this is an interesting and meritorious work with a generally excellent score, and while it is not a masterpiece on the level of either Madame Butterfly or Les Miserables, there’s more to this show than the helicopter—it actually has real depth and serious content, and it gets far too little respect from the critics, who generally see it as an easier target than Phantom or Les Miserables and make hyperbolic claims about its supposed awfulness, which says more about their bias toward its genre in general than it does about the show’s quality.