Emily Bautista grew up on “Miss Saigon.” The original cast recording, at least.
“Growing up, being a Filipino-American, this show is a very big deal in our culture,” she said. “Growing up, I heard the music … it was always playing. I remember a lot of songs being like lullabies for me as a child.”
Bautista was speaking from Denver, where the U.S. tour of “Miss Saigon” was playing. The tour comes to Spokane on Wednesday for seven performances, with Bautista in the lead role of Kim.
She’d never seen the show but knew she wanted to be part of it. When word got out that a revival of “Miss Saigon” was transferring from London to New York, Bautista’s father wrote an email to an address he found on producer Cameron Mackintosh’s website.
He was not in show business. He had no connections to show business. He was just a dad who thought his daughter would be perfect as Kim, the young woman at the center of “Miss Saigon” and wanted to hear about audition opportunities.
“A year later, it was going on in London at that point, but we didn’t know it was coming to New York,” the Connecticut-raised actress said. “So it was right timing, right place, right age. It was a bunch of things that lined up.”
Ten auditions later, she was offered the understudy role to Eva Noblezada, who earned a Tony nomination for her performance of Kim, and a spot in the ensemble.
“I’d never done anything professional theater-related before, so they put me through the wringer,” she said. “I think a lot of it was a test to see if I had the stamina to do it, if I had the commitment to do it. And those were two things I really strived to show that I had.
The show, from “Les Miserables” creators Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, is a reworking of Giacomo Puccini’s opera “Madame Butterfly.” Set in 1904, “Madame Butterfly” tells the story of a doomed Japanese girl who marries – and is betrayed by – an American Navy officer.
Set against the backdrop of the war in Vietnam, “Miss Saigon” tells the story of a doomed Vietnamese girl, Kim, a prostitute who falls in love with an American soldier as the war is accelerating to a close.
As one would expect from the creators of “Les Miserables,” the show is a spectacle with a capital “S” complete with a helicopter to help re-create the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon as the city fell to North Vietnamese forces.
The revival is directed by Laurence Connor. He made it a “top priority to make it as gritty and real as it could possibly be,” Bautista said. The cast watched documentaries about Vietnam and the war during rehearsal to bring added realism to their performances.
She recently traveled to Vietnam, she said, and is “proud to see that what we’re doing onstage is very realistic in comparison to what happened in Vietnam.”
Controversy has always found “Miss Saigon.” When the show opened in London in 1989, white actor Jonathan Pryce portrayed the Eurasian pimp called the Engineer complete with makeup to change his skin tone and prosthetics to change the shape of his eyes.
By the time the show came to Broadway in 1991, Pryce had left the makeup and slanted eyes at home and won a Tony for his performance. Since then, producers have made a point of casting Asian actors in Asian roles.
Other changes have been made. When the show was revived, first in London in 2014 and New York in 2017, the lyrics to the song “The Ceremony” were rewritten from the nonsense words featured in the original to actual Vietnamese words.
Not everyone has been mollified. Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Sympathizer,” wrote an op-ed in the New York Times this summer arguing that “Miss Saigon” continues to perpetuate stereotypes that Asians are small, weak and effeminate.
While he appreciates that the show offers important roles for actors of Asian ancestry, the fantasy it depicts – that Asia, and thus Asians, are in need of “Western benevolent guidance” – isn’t worth it.
“Perhaps those of us who detest the musical would not be so upset if there were other stories about Asians or Vietnamese people that showed their diversity,” he wrote.
“If there were a thousand stories onstage and onscreen about us — or even if there were just a dozen — we might forgive ‘Miss Saigon.’ ” For Bautista and her fellow castmates, the criticism seems misguided.
“Being an Asian-American actress, this is one of the roles I’ve wanted to play because of how strong she is. I can’t begin to describe how proud I am to be able to portray a character like Kim,” Bautista said.
“And when I was in the ensemble, I was proud to portray the characters I was portraying because it was real life, and it showed the strength and power that these women had. This is what they had to do to feed their families, and there is so much strength in that.”
She hopes that when audiences see “Miss Saigon,” they attend with an open mind and heart.
“It’s not an easy topic … but it did happen. It is history, and I think we have to learn from history. A lot of the morals in our show are not dead today,” she said. These are two people who meet in a brothel. “Their two souls connect, and they fall in love, past racial differences, past political differences, past all this stuff. Love trumps at the end of the day.”
Subscribe to the Spokane7 email newsletter
Get the day’s top entertainment headlines delivered to your inbox every morning.