September 7, 2000

The Low-Cal Saigon

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After seeing Aida, the new musical collaboration between Elton John and Tim Rice, I couldn’t help but think how much it reminded me of Miss Saigon. There are parallels from the production of the show, the execution, the actual plot, and the critics’ response. Let’s go down the list.

First of all, each show had a huge amount of financial support. Cameron Mackintosh, the “Prince of the Theatre,” had Saigon as another jewel in his musical crown. Aida had the support of the colossal Disney. Each production company wanted their new show to ride on the coattails of their previous successes (Les Miserables and The Lion King, respectively). And it worked.

Speaking of these shows, there was another uncanny similarity. Both new musicals kicked their producer’s previous work out of its host theatre. Les Miserables opened in 1987 at the Broadway Theatre. However, producers decided in 1991 that they wanted the venue for Saigon, and Les Miz moved a few blocks downtown to the Imperial Theatre, with 300 less seats. Likewise, Beauty and the Beast started at the Palace Theatre. But with the coming of Aida, Disney wanted the larger venue for their new moneymaker. A year before Aida’s opening, Beauty moved to the Lunt-Fontanne, also with 300 less seats than the Palace.

Critics panned the staging, book, and direction of both shows. Fans lauded each show’s popular stars, the user-friendly lyrics, and catchy tunes. Saigon broke records when it opened. It set the highest advance ticket sales with $36 million in 1991. Today, Aida is selling an average of over 99% capacity of attendance for shows each week. Both musicals also won Tony Awards for each lady in the title role (Lea Salonga for Kim in Saigon and Heather Headley for Aida).

Then there is the actual plot. Both shows are based on well-renowned operas, Madam Butterfly and Aida. Both involve a love triangle with a male and two females. In each case, the male must make a decision between the woman he “should” be with, by society’s morals, and the woman he truly wants to be with. In each show, the characters try to defy the social mores, and ultimately fail (though Aida tries to give it a happy ending).

Despite these similarities, Saigon is still the better show; the story is much more powerful and more driven by its songs. Aida is confused and tries to go off in several directions. The Saigon score is beautiful and consistent throughout, whereas Aida has only five or six really solid songs.

Some still may argue that Aida was the one that won the Tony for best score and lyrics, but look closer. Aida was going up against musicals that sucked. Against The Wild Party and The Dead, Elton John’s pop score and Tim Rice’s catchy tunes were bound to win. Saigon, on the other hand, was competing with the wonderful music from The Secret Garden, and the Tony-winning duo of Once on This Island, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens.

Ten years after its opening, Saigon has run out of steam. After breaking records for the first few years, the sales have markedly dropped. It will close December 31 as the sixth longest running musical of all time. I hope that Aida will not have such a prosperous run. I’m sure it has several years left in it, based on its crowd-pleasing manipulation. I only hope once its acclaimed stars leave, it will run out as well.

Archived article by Daniel Fischer