Miss Saigon and the Unreliable Narrator

I’ve listened to and loved Miss Saigon for about twenty years. I know every word and I identify with the characters – well, as much as I can without actually being an American GI or a Vietnamese prostitute forty years ago – so much that my pulse still races building up to the finale or when Kim and Chris sing out all their hopes and fears in The Last Night of the World. 

Despite that, it still took me until only a couple of years ago to realise something quite important. Kim isn’t a reliable narrator. Actually, she doesn’t do most of the narrating. If you ask me, The Engineer keeps the story moving along and to be honest he’s far more reliable. If you overlook the fact that he’s a self-serving, greasy pimp. He is pretty much upfront with his motives and he gives us an eye into what’s happening both in Kim’s story and in the wider setting. Plus he has his own humour and charm which make him a likeable and sympathetic character without the tormented heroism of Chris or the tragedy of Kim.

Anyway, the narration. One of the most crucial parts of Kim’s story is what happens at the Fall of Saigon in 1975, and we get to see this in Act 2. The thing is, for years I listened to this and watched this as if it was a flashback. But it’s not – it’s a dream (and hey Sherlock, it’s there in the song title – Kim’s Nightmare. D’oh). That changes things – it’s not what actually happened, it’s what Kim remembers as happening. She was on the other side of the gates from Chris, and has had no contact with him for three years at this point; she has no way of knowing what he was thinking or doing and she fills in the gaps with her imagination in the guise of a nightmare.

The reason this is important is that it provides her whole motivation for getting through what happens to her after the American evacuation. She hides herself and her son, murders her cousin and flees from Vietnam because she’s clinging onto a certainty that Chris loves her, promised himself to her and will return for her as soon as he can. Now if you take her point of view, which for years I did, this makes more sense; a Love-in-Adversity sort of theme. And you are full of sympathy for her and less so for Chris, who went off and married someone else, the cad.

When the penny finally dropped with me and I realised how unreliable Kim is as a narrator – basically she is deluded for most of the story’s action – it changed my perspective on their characters. Kim is no less sympathetic but for different reasons, and I can no longer rely on her view of Chris. Instead of being a hero who changes into a cold-hearted scallywag who abandons Kim to her fate to go off and marry someone else, he’s a flawed man who had unexpectedly deep feelings for Kim but basically got on with his life. I’m not saying he wasn’t in love with her – he shows how much he was in love with her by the snatches that are revealed of him after he left Saigon, the way he had nightmares and what John says when he meets Kim (He [Chris] went crazy when he lost you, Spoke to no-one for a year) – but in the end He [Chris] finally said ‘I’m home now, My life has to go on here.’ For all we know, he regrets his impulsive offer to take her away to America and by the time the helicopters are leaving, maybe he’s ready to leave with them instead of the struggle that Kim imagines him having with John. And you couldn’t totally blame him. He’s obviously been messed up by the war, Why God Why reveals some of his struggles, but it does change how you view him.

Re-listening to Miss Saigon with this in mind adds a sense of tragedy to earlier scenes that wasn’t there before. When Kim explains her reasons for surviving before you realise how deluded she is, you have hope for her happy ending. Listening to her again knowing the truth adds poignancy (not to mention a certain amount of wanting to shake some sense into her). It also changes how rational her final choices are. If she’d not held this idealistic view of Chris fighting all odds to come back for her and play happy families, she might have been able to accept the provision for her and Tam that Chris and Ellen were offering. Instead, I think she loses what little reason she had left and it has devastating consequences.

All of these things are a great example of how the reliability of a story’s narrator can have  huge impact, both on how the story goes and how it affects the reader/audience.

Do you hear the Diva sing?

We had a Parents’ Consultation at Daniel’s nursery yesterday evening (we don’t have Parents’ Evenings apparently. We have Consultations). All in all it was a glowing report, aside from his short temper which we’ve known about since he was a few months old. He is seemingly a whiz at maths and number skills – didn’t see that coming!

He’s also very independent and strong-minded. As his teacher pointed out, this can be a good thing. He’s standing up for himself with children who are all bigger and stronger than he is (he’s one of the youngest in his class) and it’s good to know he can do that, particularly since I myself am such a wuss!

It’s turned out for his teachers to be a double-edged sword though. He’s very fond of singing and music, and he’s developed a passion for the song Do You Hear the People Sing? from Les Misérables. It’s taken him a few weeks to get to grips with the words – after all, we’re not talking Jack and Jill here. His nursery rhymes haven’t prepared him for lyrics such as “The blood of the martyrs will water the meadows of France” (his teacher’s eyes nearly popped out of her head when we told her that line… ). But he’s pretty much got all two and a half minutes off pat now and he loves singing it. Over and over and over. He’s also quite a perfectionist and if he gets a word wrong he starts again. If his audience aren’t duly appreciative, he starts again.

Which brings me neatly to the point of today’s post. His teacher gave us this story from yesterday. They were all sitting down together for music time and Daniel decided that the time was ripe to try out his repertoire on his classmates. He insisted on treating them to a gala performance of Do you hear the people sing? and launched into full diva mode. About half way through what is a fairly long and repetitive song for a class of three and four year olds, he noticed some of the other children had started whispering and letting their minds wander away from the cultural feast that was, frankly, being wasted on them. He immediately stopped singing, complained vociferously and demanded to start again. His poor teachers (who deserve a medal) endured the whole song again, begging the children to be quiet so Daniel could finish his song.

When I picked him up he proudly showed me his sticker and told me he’d got it for singing Do you hear the people sing? for Mrs Badger and Mrs Burton. I can only think they were so relieved to get to the end that a sticker seemed a small price to pay.

My son, the diva, obviously has a long and glorious career in show-business ahead of him. I hope Cameron Mackintosh is prepared.


from nopo_11 on PhotobucketThere’s a scene in Moulin Rouge which is possibly in my top ten film scenes ever – The Emergency Rehearsal. Christian (Ewan MacGregor)is unexpectedly pitching the show they need finance for to The Duke, and he says it’s about love. The Duke sneers until Harold hastily adds more licentious details. Well, excuse me, M. le Duc, but I’m with Christian when he says “Love is a many-splendoured thing, love lifts us up where we belong, all you need is love.” I reckon some of the most powerful stories in the world are love stories, and some of the most beautiful songs in the world are love songs. Not the watered-down number 1’s produced by cloned boy bands but real, moving songs. Which, funnily enough, can often be found in musicals.

Take “Love Changes Everything” – it talks of the contradictory way you feel when you’re in love, the way it transforms you for ever, and the song just soars and takes you with it. I think I want it played at my funeral – obviously the Michael Ball version (is there another?).

Obviously there’s the whole range of love – romantic love, parental love, love of country or a cause… all of these have been covered spectacularly in musicals. Off the top of my head, Love Changes Everything from Aspects of Love, I’d Give My Life for You from Miss Saigon and Do You Hear the People Sing? from Les Misérables respectively. What I’m really looking at in this post is different ways romantic love manifests itself, as demonstrated spectacularly in Notre Dame de Paris by Richard Cocciante and Luc Plamondon. I don’t think it’s widely known in England although it did have a run in London with Dannii Minogue, and was featured on the Royal Variety Show one year. It’s not one of the blockbusters anyway, although it deserves to be – it’s stirring, powerful and has a modern edge whilst retaining the atmosphere of the time in which it’s set. (Quick disclaimer – to my shame I haven’t yet read Victor Hugo’s original book, so all references to story and characters here are entirely based on the musical).

The story features Esmeralda the gypsy and the three men who love her in their different, yet ultimately destructive, ways. Quasimodo, the hunchbacked bellringer, who loves her the most unselfishly and tries to protect her; Frollo the priest, whose lust overcomes his morals and eventually leads to Esmeralda’s execution; and Phoebus, the Captain of the King’s Archers who selfishly pursues her and takes advantage of her love for him despite being betrothed to another girl, and who betrays Esmeralda when she needs him even though she has risked her life to love him. These three men show the different facets of their love in the song Belle, in which they variously turn their back on the Church that has sheltered them, their priestly vocation and vows and their vows of fidelity to another woman. It’s the first time you get to know exactly how each of them feel about Esmeralda, whilst I have an image of her flitting just out of reach. It shows the power a woman could have over men even in an age dominated by man – each man is completely enthralled by her and breaks the rules they have set themselves in an effort to claim her.

Quasimodo alone recognises her free spirit – “A bird stretching out its wings to fly” is how he describes her at one point. His is the ultimate unrequited love, and he actually does die of a broken heart. He is the only one who wants what’s best for her even though he longs for her so much, to the extent that he murders the man who has raised him, the only one who has ever shown concern for him until now. His love for Esmeralda overcomes the love he has for Frollo, who he loves “more than any dog ever loved its master”. I think if you really want a heartbreaking love song, you could do worse than listen to Quasimodo’s Dieu Que Le Monde Est Injuste (God You Made the World All Wrong in the english version) – on YouTube here (ignore that the title says Vivre). Garou’s voice is perfectly imperfect as he mourns his own hopeless situation, the contrast between his ugliness and poverty, Esmeralda’s beauty and Phoebus’ wealth and handsomeness.

Frollo is the Bad Guy. In Belle he blames Esmeralda for inciting his own lustful thoughts. He basically admits that he wants to break his celibacy vows, he knows how wrong it is, yet it is Esmeralda who “is the devil incarnate” and who carries the weight of original sin. Belle is a foreshadow of Tu Vas Me Detruire where he sings of being torn apart by his obsession, of how he thought himself as hard and cold but consumed by lust and haunted by the gypsy’s eyes. And again he he blames Esmeralda and curses her. In the end, of course, he does destroy himself, and Esmeralda and Quasimodo alongside him. If Quasimodo’s is the ultimate unrequited love, Frollo’s is the ultimate destructive love.

Phoebus is a bit of git, really. I found when listening to first the English then the French, that Phoebus is far more sympathetic and distraught in the English. In the French he is much more calculating, quite determined to have his cake and eat it. His part in Belle sets out his plan to be unfaithful to Fleur de Lys and his fairly slimy nature comes up again and again in the show. In Le Val D’Amour he reveals that he frequently sleeps with prostitutes; in Déchiré he describes himself as ‘torn apart’ to a gang of his soldiers but he’s loving every minute of it. He also shows how little he knows of Esmeralda – despite the fact that she is young and innocent, he sees her as a stereotypical gypsy and mistakes her exotic-ness for loose morals. He shamelessly exploits her love but casts her aside for the wealth and stability of Fleur de Lys, leading to Esmeralda’s death. Phoebus shows the ultimate selfish love; and you just know that it’s not going to end well, however much Esmeralda wants to “live for the one she loves”.

I haven’t touched here on the fraternal love of Clopin or the platonic love of Gringoire the poet. But it’s indisputable that the power of this story is due to the importance of love.

Despite what The Duke thinks.

Here’s Belle. And if that’s a bit intense, let’s finish where we started, with the gorgeous Christian in Moulin Rouge.

Belle on YouTube Elephant Love Medley on YouTube

5 Things Musicals can teach us about writing

I was driving yesterday and put Les Misérables in the CD player for the first time in ages. Wow, that’s a good show. And as I was listening, it struck me that there’s a few tips you can pick up from musicals on good writing.
  1. Dialogue – Expositional dialogue drives me crazy. “Hello Annie who is my sister and has dark hair, did you hear Ruth who is our half sister and ran away with the milkman is back in town?”. Ugh. And yet in musicals there’s no prose, no way of easily relating backstory. So it all has to come through the dialogue/lyrics WITHOUT being exposition. And good musicals do it. Ok, so at the start of Les Mis you get a teensy bit between Jean Valjean and Javert, but it’s not forced, it doesn’t intrude and it ain’t bad going in a 3 hour show. You also have to relate the character’s feelings through their dialogue, as someone listening to the soundtrack without being able to see the acting needs to be able to get a rough idea of the story, and you can’t use prose here.
  2. Characters – Musicals use lyrics to lay their characters bare. They need to. They could show Valjean going through angst as he decides whether to turn himself in or not, but without the words you’d just wonder if he was constipated. So you get Valjean’s Soliloquy, and Javert’s suicide; deep emotion made believable through 2 minutes of lyrics. At least I think so.
  3. Voices – Secondary characters in good musicals also get a voice and are made believable. Eponine is a very minor character in Les Mis, but she gets some cracking songs, including one of the most popular woman’s solos EVER, and we really care about her when she dies. You can see how distinctive each of the characters is in One Day More, where everyone’s voice comes through clearly despite being so deeply layered.
  4. Setting – Again, there’s no prose or description to give a sense of atmosphere or setting. The most you might get is some explanatory notes in the programme, but you can’t rely on those. Some comes through the set, but mostly you know what’s going on because the characters are acting and speaking in a way that’s believable for their setting. Javert IS a nineteenth-century, upright policeman. Chris (in Miss Saigon) IS a 1970’s GI. Bernardo IS a Puerto Rican immigrant in 1950’s New York.
  5. Growth – The characters we care about most in musicals are the ones we see make a journey. One of my favourite characters is The Man in Whistle Down the Wind – you can see him change and grow and move on just from his dialogue with Swallow and the kids. On the flip side, Judas is a truly tragic figure because you watch his faith in Jesus crumble and his dilemma, as he sees it, crush him.

These are a few of the things we could learn from musicals, in my humble opinion. I’m off to put them into practice!

Anyone got anything to add? I’d love to hear what you think.