Thoughts: Miss Saigon

Last year, it was the 10th anniversary of the musical Wicked on Broadway, and I had the opportunity to see it for free during the anniversary week– so, of course, I went. It probably goes without saying that I was absolutely obsessed with Wicked when I was a kid. I saw it on an eighth grade trip to New York, and was completely and utterly blown away. I followed all the cast changes on Broadway obsessively for about a year. It was a go-to playlist for longer than that. But I hadn’t thought about it or listened to it in a rather long time when I saw it last October. 

Obviously, I was not quite as wowed as I had been at thirteen. I didn’t sob through all of “Defying Gravity.” But I recognized that this was a still a very well written, very well constructed piece of theatre. And, more interestingly, I could still identify all of the things that had so moved me, and could still understand why they had done so. The person I was then was someone I could still clearly see and understand, even if I couldn’t quite experience the show through her eyes. 

Eighth grade was probably the year I was most obsessed with musical theatre, and the show that started it all was Les Misèrables. Perhaps inevitably, from there, I eventually ended up at Miss Saigon, which I listened to more or less on repeat for a good couple of months. Unlike Les Mis, I never had a chance to see it… until the current London production. 

For those of you who weren’t obsessed with 80s mega-musicals, Miss Saigon is essentially Madame Butterfly reset in the Vietnam War. American soldier Chris meets and (apparently) falls in love with Vietnamese prostitute Kim, only for them to become separated during the evacuation of Saigon. Three years later he finds her again in Bangkok: she has his son, he has a wife, and tragedy ensues. 

Despite my enduring love for Les Mis, I wasn’t necessarily expecting the tale of Chris and Kim’s tragic, doomed love to age particularly well. But was most surprising and jarring was that, as I watched the musical, though I enjoyed it well enough, I had absolutely no idea what I had once loved about it. I couldn’t pick out what thirteen-year-old-Hailey must have identified with, or felt moved by, or laughed at.

In fact, the only thing I remembered clearly from my listening habits as a kid was that I skipped over all of the Engineer’s songs because I thought they were boring. Now, I came away thinking that he was the only interesting character in the play. Which suggests that I was drawn to the Chris/Kim romance, but that doesn’t ring true. I was melodramatic and angsty as an early teenager, sure, but my favorite parts of Les Mis weren’t (and aren’t) Marius and Eponine, they were the scenes in Paris and with the rebel students. I liked “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” much better than “On My Own.” 

It’s strange to feel so separate from my younger self. Unlike with Wicked, the girl who loved Miss Saigon is someone so very different from me, so separate, I can’t even recognize or remember her. I was never good at keeping journals, and even if I had been, I doubt I would have bothered to write about why I listened to “The Heat Is On In Saigon” over and over. 

Maybe I only think that Wicked and Les Mis are still good because they are both shows I had the opportunity to see at the height of my love for and identification with them. Now, maybe, they are bound up in that experience of seeing and loving them, and those positive associations will never entirely go away. Maybe if I’d seen Miss Saigon as a freshman in high school, I’d be writing a different post about it now. That was most of what I felt while watching it: I wish I could be seeing this at age fourteen. I wish I could be the sixteen-year-old girl down the row from us (who looked appalled at our decrepitude when we told her we were both twenty-four) who sobbed through the entire second half. 

So we grow out of things. It would probably be more worrisome if we didn’t. 

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