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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Extra! ‘Miss Saigon’ stirs ‘some real emotions’

Critic At Large

Thoughts on the musical and more

A collage. (Warren Gerds)

APPLETON, Wis. (WFRV) – An email about “Miss Saigon” from a veteran of the Vietnam War is part of this swirl of thoughts generated by the musical that today wraps of performances at Fox Cities Performing Arts Center.

As the email says, the musical stirs up “some real emotions.”

Watching Tuesday’s performance, I experienced again conflicted emotions. These were not just from the story but having felt the backwash of the era as a witness from afar… along with other ripples.

The writer of the email also hopes “those in attendance were appreciative of what that war really was about to many of us who experienced the real thing.”

In the blur are these points:

The show

The touring production is all-out intense. Some cast members have real-life family roots in Vietnam, and they seem to inspire earnestness in performances.

My review: https://www.wearegreenbay.com/critic-at-large/warren-gerds-critic-at-large-review-miss-saigon-brings-intensities-of-vietnam-war-to-appleton/.

Risky duty

My oldest brother, Quinton, was serving in the Army in Saigon just before the city fell, as depicted in a nightmare scene in “Miss Saigon.”

Years later, Quinton recalled driving a soldier under his command to a critical position. Lines of communication had to be kept open, and the soldier was to man the equipment that was in a crumbling area.

“I told him, ‘We will try to get you back,’” Quinton said. “I had the strangest feeling having to tell him that.”

My brother dealt with communications with the Army.

He told another story of the Viet Cong overrunning a position that included his critical equipment. When Americans took back the position, the sophisticated equipment was untouched.

“It was so state-of-the-art they didn’t know what it was,” he said.

Quinton continued for many years in similar roles with NATO after retiring from the Army, and he would tell me stories without revealing anything sensitive.

The “strangest feeling” story was told in passing among many others. Quinton, now deceased, never told me the fate of the soldier.

From afar

During the war, my family never knew exactly where Quinton, and my other brother who served, Charles (Air Force), were located in Vietnam.

This doesn’t count for much, but I edited the story and wrote the headline in the Green Bay Press-Gazette on the fall of Saigon the day it happened, April 30, 1975: “Saigon Surrenders: Reds Pour Into City.”

During mornings, I was an editor with my prime responsibility organizing the newspaper’s coverage of the war. The rest of my day was devoted to entertainment stuff.

Add-on

Green Bay’s Weidner Center for the Performing Arts opened Jan. 15, 1993, and early on was a host to major touring Broadway shows.

“Miss Saigon” had just begun touring, but only 12 theaters in America could accommodate the large production, notably its scene with a helicopter.

Edward W. Weidner, founding chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, influenced a multi-million-dollar expansion of the facility to fit “Miss Saigon.”

Perhaps among his motivations were these: Weidner was among select consultants working in Vietnam prior to the war, and his family was with him. To have the musical play in his namesake performing arts center likely stirred “some real emotions” in Edward Weidner.

Also, in a sense, “Miss Saigon” added to the region’s cultural scene.

Associated events

During the run of “Miss Saigon” in Appleton, the PAC offered three “Community Conversations” giving perspectives of people impacted by the war. They helped bring, as the email person sought, an appreciation “of what that war really was about.”

Another event brought 36 high school students into the “Miss Saigon” saga in an entirely different way – learning the nuts and bolts of a difficult dance piece in the show. The singer-dancer-actor presenting the workshop brushed on the importance of the history in the show and its “meaty roles,” but the purpose of the event was to throw the students into the demands of pulling off a complex 15 seconds of “Miss Saigon.” A glimpse: https://www.wearegreenbay.com/highschooltheater/six-seven-eight-area-high-school-students-get-a-taste-of-a-broadway-dance-rehearsal/.

The composer

Claude-Michel Schonberg was surprised that “Miss Saigon” played in Green Bay.

“I presume there is a lot of population around the city,” he said in a telephone interview. One day in April 1998, I phoned him in Saint Tropez, France, from my desk on the third floor of the Press-Gazette.

I did the numbers for him – 100,000 in the city, 250,000 in the vicinity, maybe 1 million in the larger region.

When he heard the advance sale figure for the one-month stand – 88 percent – he said, “That’s fantastic” with disbelief in his voice.

Speaking with the composer of “Miss Saigon” (and “Les Misérables”) was fantastic – hearing explanations from the horse’s mouth.

Among other things, Claude-Michel Schonberg told of the kernel of his idea for “Miss Saigon.” He had a desire to write an updated version of the famous opera “Madame Butterfly” by Giacomo Puccini.

He saw a photograph “of a Vietnam woman leaving her little daughter at the airport – she was flying to the United States to join her ex-vet father – that I made the connection between Cio-Cio-San in ‘Butterfly’s’ sacrifice for the little boy and the sacrifice of the Vietnam woman for her daughter. And it was a picture from the American Vietnam war.”

Also, Claude-Michel Schonberg said this in 1998: “As long as I will be alive, I want the show to be delivered exactly as I wrote it.”

He is 75 and lives in France.

A classmate

Seeing “Miss Saigon” again brought me “some real emotions” about James Neil Tycz, one of my jolliest friends at Milwaukee South Division High School.

About the time I was accepted to work at the Press-Gazette, he was a U.S. Marine missing in action in Vietnam.

Thirty-eight years later, a report on the radio spoke his name. His body had just been identified.

This flashed: I had been drafted and then rejected because of chronic lung problems. Had I served, I believe that I, too, would have missed out on all that life brought me in those 38 years.

Important in this is James Neil Tycz was not drafted. He was a Marine. He enlisted. He chose.

It was an honor to write about James Neil Tycz at that time of his identification. His reconnaissance unit was overwhelmed with everyone killed or wounded, including a helicopter officer coming to save them. Bodies had to be left behind.

It was a greater honor to write about James Niel Tycz 50 years to the day he died: https://www.wearegreenbay.com/news/warren-gerds-critic-at-large-extra-remembering-a-hero-sergeant/.

A central character in “Miss Saigon,” Chris, touches on his conflicts as a soldier when he says, “I didn’t have a clue what was right.”

Here is the perspective of James Neil Tycz in his last letter home, printed in Erin Miller’s wonderful book, “Wisconsin’s 37: The Lives of Those Missing in the Vietnam War”:

“Mom and Dad, I have had opportunities to write sooner than tonight but I hope you will understand that writing about an unpopular war like this one is not easy…

“None of us here like this war, especially after seeing a friend or a fellow Marine wounded or worse, but a majority – I hope for the sake of democracy – believe in fighting off Communist aggression in a weakened country…

“I had an interruption just now. Our lieutenant passed me word that we go in at 7:30 a.m. tomorrow. None of us want to go, but that’s our job and I pray I will never fail to do it…

Your Marine Son,

Neil

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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