BWW Interview: MISS SAIGON Stirs Conversations and Emotions at the Ordway
There's some controversy over the upcoming production of MISS SAIGON at the Ordway Center for Performing Arts in Saint Paul that runs Oct. 8 -13, 2013. Some people, including local theatre artists, who are not fans of the show because of the way it portrays Asians will see the production through their own eyes, or choose not see it. But in the eyes of one of the lead actors, who is of Asian descent, too, this story is a timeless one of love and loss, and an opportunity to raise awareness.
"For me, this is a beautiful love story and the triumph of the human spirit. And overcoming grief, loss and a story of persevering; hanging onto your hopes, hanging onto your dreams and the inner faith that life is worth living, everything will be ok and your light is at the end of the tunnel," said Manna Nichols, the actor who plays lead Kim in this co-production by the Ordway with the Starlight Theatre of Kansas City. "I feel that the message of this show goes far beyond the production. I feel like so many of the stories from it are life-long lessons and stories you'd use in real life. It's a timeless kind of story."
A modern take on Puccini's MADAME BUTTERFLY, Tony Award-winning musical MISS SAIGON is a powerful pop opera and an emotional tale about forbidden love, the tragedies of war and the sacrifices made for family.
The story of the relationship between an American GI, Chris (Charlie Brady) and a young Vietnamese woman (Nichols) during the American occupation of Saigon during the Vietnam War was created by Claude Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil, the visionaries behind LES MISERABLES, and remains the 12th longest-running Broadway musical in history. In her 20s, Nichols, like many musical theatre fans, was first attracted to the music.
"I love Kim because I grew up listening to the CDs of Lea Salonga on the London recording," she said. "The music from MISS SAIGON is just so absolutely gorgeous. I grew up singing those songs; it was something that was always a part of my life, something I always enjoyed."
Nichols has played the character three times now and finds the story a way to bring generations who remember the Vietnam War and those growing up now who may not be educated on the period together to discuss and learn from it. But for the kids coming to the stage door after the show, she says it's like a "Romeo & Juliet" set in the Vietnam War and the attraction to the love story and powerful music prevail. The commercial success of the show over 20 years seems to bear that out.
Still, she said that cast members' personal experiences of being adoptees from Vietnam, meetings with audience members who were moved to come share their personal stories and time spent watching news reels and documentary footage from the period have left a mark on her personally and in her performance. Director Fred Hanson spent the first couple hours of rehearsal with this cast watching the news footage of victims of the war suffering that put faces on the history and made it real for the actors.
"Watching people's (cast) silent reactions...it was incredibly powerful... I don't know there was a dry eye ... and we all had just met," said Nichols. "We're all just sitting there for two hours just watching this news footage, crying... I mean, how can you not be moved by this? Seeing actual historical support for what we were getting ready to put up on stage just made the stories so much more real to us because it is a fictional story that is based on fact."
Nichols also found personal experience as a young actor to be useful in finding the heart of her character.
"I really love the resilience of her character. I had an incredibly difficult first year in New York City. I mean, sleeping on floors and on couches, not being able to afford groceries, getting mugged, being followed to my building... I had a rough first year in New York. And I love that against every single odd against this character Kim, she has a goal, which is to reunite her family," Nichols said. "She has a survivor mentality that these things happened but they're behind me now. And that I'm hanging on to the hope that I have for my dreams to come true and this is going to happen.
I love that because In my own life--and anybody's life, you know--there are things that we've had to overcome. I love that in her character and her spirit."