I recently went to see one of my favourite musicals of all time, Miss Saigon, in its West End revival shortly before it made the move to Broadway. My excitement at seeing a show that I adore (with music I know every note of) was unmatched, and I was delighted when the production surpassed my expectations, with a fantastic cast and some amazing set and costume design. However, there was a moment in the second act which completely threw me – one of my favourite songs from the show, ‘Now That I’ve Seen Her’, was replaced by a new song written for the revival, entitled ‘Maybe’. Sung by the same character, with more or less the same sentiment, the new replacement song felt inferior in many ways.
Miss Saigon tells the tragic love story of a Vietnamese girl named Kim and an American GI named Chris, who fall in love in the midst of the Vietnamese war, and are separated as the Americans pull their forces out of the country. The second act of the show takes place three years later – Kim is looking after their child and Chris is married to an American wife, Ellen. ‘Now That I’ve Seen Her’/’Maybe’ takes place after the two women accidentally meet for the first time. It is the song that allows you to see Ellen as more than just the obstacle in the way of Chris and Kim’s reunion, and lets you see her as a woman who fell in love with a tortured man, who desperately wants to do the right thing.
Narratively, it probably made sense to replace the intensely emotional ‘Now That I’ve Seen Her’ with a song that explains the situation more clearly. ‘Maybe’ spells out the details of Chris and Ellen’s relationship, where they were merely implied in the original production. Still, in prioritising narrative clarity, the production missed out on the emotional journey that ‘Now That I’ve Seen Her’ takes. In the original song, you understand the conflict that Ellen feels in sympathising with Kim and her situation, while still desperately wanting to maintain her own relationship with Chris. Additionally, ‘Maybe’ is also quite forgettable, with the same musical expression repeated with very little variation. In comparison, ‘Now That I’ve Seen Her’ stays with you both in the context of the musical, and as a powerful song in itself.
When any show or musical is revived, some degree of change is inevitable. Producers and directors appear to feel an inexorable need to modernise shows that might seem problematic or dated to a modern audience. While I can understand the desire to make a revived show relevant to theatregoers, I think it is important for producers to remember why they are creating a new production of a much loved piece, and why audiences flocked to it to begin with. Before the previews even began, this production of Miss Saigon broke box office records by making £4.4 million in the first day of sales alone. None of these people had seen reviews, they bought tickets because they loved the music, had seen the show in its original run, or were simply intrigued by the storyline. When a show is revived, it feels important to stay truthful to what people loved about the original, and some of the hardest work can be figuring out what that is. This time, Miss Saigon missed the mark slightly by removing an element that people absolutely adored.