The Epitome: Claude-Michel Schonberg & Alain Boubil “The Fall Of Saigon”

Welcome to a new sporadic feature. Like “Things I’m Obsessed With” and “Weird Actor Patterns” and “Lies Musical Theater Told Me.” I’ll do these whenever something hits me that fits into it.

So, I’ve been doubling down on musical theater lately. Listening to show tunes has always been a safe space for me, even as I find new things, I tend to enjoy them and wrap my mind around them, and since lately, I’ve been really tired and not terribly interested in exploring, wrapping myself in the comfortable world of musicals seemed like a good plan.

And then last week, I decided to revisit The Pirate Queen, which, isn’t as good as I remembered it (I didn’t expect it to be) nor was it as awful as I feared. But it did remind me about the patterns of it’s music team, Claude-Michel Schonberg & Alain Boubil tend to fall into, and I decided to do a bit of a deep dive into their stuff.

Rather than simply limp along with the multiple versions of Les Mis (For overall quality, I recommend the 10th Anniversary Concert, for individual performances you can’t beat the Original London Cast, and if you want every note and word, you need The Complete Symphonic) I decided to listen to Miss Saigon.

Miss Saigon has always been an anomaly for me out of those early 90’s British import epics, in that I didn’t listen to it until high school. I know my parents saw it and that they weren’t really fans. (I like it a lot but I can totally see how it’s not their thing. My dad did love the helicopter though, because, I mean, they landed a helicopter on the stage!) And for that reason, I’m able to see it’s flaws much more than it’s big sister, Les Mis.

Which I’m sure has them. Couldn’t tell you. I refuse to look.

Anyway, that was Friday, and I’ve listened to it 5 times since then, because that’s how my brain works. And yesterday morning as I listened to “The Fall of Saigon,” which chronicles the evacuation of the American embassy in the city, as well as separation of our main couple Kim and Chris, due to circumstances way beyond their control, I realized, “this song is really an excellent example of everything that Boubil and Schonberg do well, and also of a lot of their flaws.”

So I figured, let’s break down why I feel this way:

1. Operatic Tradition

Being European composers rather than American or British, Boubil & Schonberg have a much better grasp of opera & operetta than other composers in the medium. They’re one of the few modern writers who use full scale arias in their work for example. (“I Dreamed A Dream” & “Valjean’s Solioquy” from Les Mis, “Woman” & “I’ll Be There” from Pirate Queen, “Why, God, Why?” & “I’ll Give My Life For You” from Miss Saigon) And “The Fall Of Saigon” is operatic in stakes, sound and style. Chris leaves Kim with his gun and heads to work at the embassy. Hearing the evacuation is happening she rushes to join him, only to be lost in the crowd. Meanwhile, Chris is forced on a plane without his beloved, after securing her a spot beside him with the promise to marry her. Obviously, they’re separated. Their individual parts are stunningly written, with Chris arguing for Kim’s visa, Kim attempting to get through the crowd to get in, and Kim’s eventual singing of a reprise of “I Still Believe,” fits into an operatic pattern that few musical theater composers could pull off.

2. Aggressive Chorus Parts

As the Vietnamese attempt get over the wall the American soldiers sing, “Get back, tell you don’t shout, the ambassador won’t leave til everyone’s out.” It’s heavy, heady stuff and it’s also incredibly melodic and in your face. Similarly, the poor & convicts chant “Look down,” in Les Mis, but this is that turned up to 11. And it…doesn’t quite work. While I think Kim and Chris’s parts of the sequence are fantastic the chorus parts aren’t terribly inventive or compelling. The Vietnamese chanting “They’ll kill who they find here. Don’t leave us behind here,” is equally aggressive but way more effective, which leads to my next point…

3. Marginalized Voices

Boubil & Schonberg excel telling stories of people on the fringes of things. Hell, Les Mis (as Hugo originally envisioned it and as it’s adapted) tells the stories of people on the fringes, not heroes, the miserable ones. Miss Saigon isn’t about an American Marine who falls for a hooker at the dusk of the occupation of Vietnam, although that happens. This isn’t Chris’s story, he’s third on the list at best. It’s Kim’s story primarily, and secondarily, it’s The Engineer’s. This is a musical about a 17 year old Asian prostitute that pretty much never makes her a victim, and a FrancoVietnamese pimp who’s given depth and nuance but is never once likable. I can’t even begin the fathom how difficult that is to do, let alone do to the level of quality that they do it. But it’s their ability to write about characters on the fringes that make the Vietnamese half of the song, and Chris and Kim’s individual parts more interesting than the more aggressive marines. Kim and Chris have no control over what’s happening to them, even as they fight tooth and nail to get to each other.

4. Moralizing

I don’t know if it’s just the material they choose (possible) or if it’s inherent in what they do, but there’s always a moment in a Boubil & Schonberg musical that telegraphs the point they’re trying to make in a big way. In Les Mis, “To love another person is to see the face of God,” in Pirate Queen, “There is a time, there is an hour, for those in power to set aside their grief, a time for women to behave as men, when men aren’t men.” And in Miss Saigon it comes in “The Fall of Saigon” from Chris’s buddy John, “Your mercy trip has failed, there’s nothing you can do, that ship has sailed. She’s not the only one we’ll have betrayed.” And…that’s a pretty cogent view of Vietnam, and how America views that chapter of our history. “We tried, we failed, we screwed up a lot of stuff.” And that’s pretty much the moral of Miss Saigon. This could either be a flaw or a plus, depending on how you feel about people singing the thesis statement of a dramatic piece right in your face.

I’m a fan to be honest, and I think it works really well here, coming from a character who’s sort of a shit at this point in the story, though we’ve already learned has turned things around and now advocates for the abandoned children of Americans. John has a mountain of regrets about Vietnam, and they actually start the moment he leaves.

Anyway, I think that these pieces are going to be fun. It all depends on how often things that are the epitome of something cross my path. Meanwhile, I’m going to go listen to “Sun And Moon” again…and “Reflection…” and the live version of “On My Own…” look, I’m just going to marvel at Lea Solanga’s perfect voice for a bit…

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