“Miss Saigon,” the epic stage musical by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil (based on Puccini’s opera “Madame Butterfly”), tells the story of a U.S. Marine and a Vietnamese bargirl who fall in love in the days leading up to the fall of Saigon during the Vietnam War. With its grand score, heart-wrenching storylines and, of course, one of the most unforgettable props in the history of musicals, the original Broadway production garnered 11 Tony Award nominations (winning three) in 1991. But it is the 2017 Broadway revival, dark and lush, which has taken to a national tour this fall/winter, and which plays through Dec. 8 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre.
While the core of the musical is the love story between the Marine Chris (played by Anthony Festa) and the bargirl Kim (Emily Bautista), the show’s secondary storylines are equally potent, especially when it comes to the plight of the bargirls — victims on one level, but strong, independent beings at their core.
“Gigi is the madam at Dreamland [the local bar/brothel for American soldiers in Saigon],” says Christine Bunuan, who portrays the strong-willed character. “This life is not her choice, it’s not something she wants to do with her life. It’s something she has to do to survive. None of the bargirls want to do what they do; it’s what they have to do. It’s their way to feed themselves, put a roof over their heads and maybe get a way out of the country. … I love singing ‘The Movie in My Mind’ [one of the show’s most powerful numbers, sung by the girls at Dreamland] because it tells of the heartbreak of what these women have to go through in their minds to ‘escape’ while they’re having to sell their bodies. These are incredibly strong women who make difficult choices under the worst of circumstances.”
Bunuan says it was Schonberg himself who sat down with the cast before the tour kicked off to discuss the many layers inherent in “Miss Saigon,” and the messages the words and music must convey.
“We have a love story to share between Chris and Kim, two people from two different worlds who are able to find love amid the most broken of places,” Bunuan says. “We have the responsibility of telling the story of a mother’s love for a child and what she must sacrifice for the life of that child. You realize how much this resonates today where women in many parts of the world are still having to make choices and sacrifices just to survive. I think that’s why the show is still so relevant.”
And of the love story, one of the most unforgettable in musical theater, Bunuan hopes audiences will take away a message of hope. “Love can transcend different worlds. Love between two people, and between a mother and son, [are] epic. Love simply transcends all.”
“Miss Saigon,” through Dec. 8, Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph, $35 – $120.