Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Tell 'Em Charlie Sent Ya

By Chris Davis

APRIL 12, 1999: 

Fire Zone

Ah – the life of a theatre critic, doomed to endure the hatred and scorn of those wonderful dramatic artists without which he wouldn’t even have a job. Well, it ain’t rock-and-roll but I still like it. (violins) Because occasionally a show comes along that strips away the cynicism and makes me believe in magic all over again. I recently encountered such a production, and it was (drum roll) not Miss Saigon (rimshot). It was an unpublicized event produced and directed by Rhodes College senior Brandon Barr.

Many Loves, or Trial Horse #1 by celebrated poet William Carlos Williams was performed in a classroom and under fluorescent lights. Props were minimal and the actors wore their street clothes. It began before the audience was aware, and when it ended no one applauded, at least not right away, and not because what they saw was bad, or confusing, but because they were genuinely stunned.

What has this to do with that smash Broadway musical featuring a helicopter, a Cadillac, and machine guns and that’s laying siege to The Orpheum April 14th through May 8th? Sit tight, I’m getting around to that part.

In his director’s notes, Barr quotes Williams, saying, “[The theatre business generates] a sordidness which corrupts playwright, producer, and actor alike yet which somehow, and sad to relate, brings in the coin while it strangles the entire range of what is offered.” That sordidness which the renowned modernist referred to over half a century ago can today be expressed in the kind of spare and tangible language Williams so dearly loved. Simply said, it is Miss Saigon.

Tet Offensive

Miss Saigon’s plot is a familiar one. Remember the acclaimed play M. Butterfly, or perhaps Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly, or maybe John Luthor Long’s book by the same name? It’s the same old story: Non-Asian boy impregnates Asian girl, then abandons her. Asian girl shoots herself when non-Asian boy returns, meets the child, and renounces his lovely yella gal who has remained ever-faithful. This kind of rehash was once reviled as “slot-work,” but thanks to the miracles of modern technology it can now be hailed as a landmark of originality.

Miss Saigon’s music is poppy enough to please, though “stagey” saxophones underscore scenes we know in our hearts belong to Dylan and the Doors. The special effects will absolutely blow you away. But such cinematic literalism ultimately disarms the theatre’s most powerful weapon – its ability to show us an apple and make us believe it’s an elephant.

Agent Orange

Allow me to clear away some of the underbrush. (deep breath) It takes 33 semis to schlepp Miss Saigon, with its 94 winches, 91 automated effects, 375 costumes, and 250 props, including: an 18-foot, 600-pound statue of Ho Chi Minh, an 11-foot pink Cadillac (representing, of course, the American dream), and a fully computerized 8,700-pound helicopter. As one might guess, it’s not an inexpensive affair.

Theatres like The Orpheum have made multimillion-dollar renovations to accommodate bread-and-butter behemoths like Miss Saigon, and patrons feel the expense when they shell out their 60 bucks for a ticket. But like they say, “You never hear the shot that kills you.” You see, with the promise of serious pyrotechnics, these hyper-hyped monster musicals eclipse less flashy theatrical accomplishments, and the real casualties here are our largely regurgitative regional theatres. Given an impossible model to measure themselves against, smaller playhouses must abandon artistic considerations and embrace the “hit or tough shit” philosophy of big-time showbiz. And if you want a hit these days, you got to show ’em the chopper.

Withdrawal Without Victory

Triumph is unobtainable without risk, and like U.S. President Dick Nixon before him, Miss Saigon’s writer and original French lyricist Alain Boublil wrestled with issues of integrity and public opinion. “[We] had a heart-breaking photograph and a potential connection to [Madame Butterfly],” he has said of the mega-hit’s origins, “[but] setting a musical at the end of the Vietnam War was probably unsuitable (this was long before the successful movies about Vietnam had been released).” Boublil deserves our thanks for joining the likes of John Rambo and Oliver Stone in the hard-won struggle to make Vietnam the incredibly popular war that it is today.

All The Children Are Insane

By now you all think I hate Miss Saigon and would rather you didn’t see it. Untrue. See it, love it, and buy the coffee mug, because the ride is worth every dime. But know that what you are seeing is a cyborg, more machine than blood and bone. It’s good entertainment, sure, but it’s not good theatre. For good theatre, seek out the cashless kids who are putting on plays in their classrooms. That’s where creativity flies like a rocket. Helicopters be damned.

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