The musical's inspiration was reportedly a photograph, which Schönberg found inadvertently in a magazine. It showed a Vietnamese mother leaving her child at a departure gate at Tan Son Nhut Air Base to board an airplane headed for the United States where her father, an ex-GI, would be in a position to provide a much better life for the child. Schönberg considered this mother's actions for her child to be "The Ultimate Sacrifice," an idea central to the plot of Miss Saigon.
Highlights of the show include the evacuation of the last Americans in Saigon from the Embassy roof by helicopter while a crowd of abandoned Vietnamese screams in despair, the victory parade of the new communist régime and the frenzied night club scene at the time of defeat.
In April 1975 at "Dreamland," a Saigon bar and brothel, shortly before the end of the Vietnam War, it is Kim's first day as a bargirl. The seventeen-year-old peasant girl is hauled in by the Engineer, a French-Vietnamese hustler who owns the joint. Backstage, the girls ready themselves for the night's show, jeering at Kim's inexperience ("Overture"). The U.S. Marines, aware that they will be leaving Vietnam soon, party with the Vietnamese prostitutes ("The Heat Is on in Saigon"). Chris Scott, a sergeant disenchanted by the club scene, is encouraged by his friend John Thomas to go with a girl. The girls compete for the title of "Miss Saigon," and the winner is raffled to a Marine. Kim's guilelessness strikes Chris. Gigi Van Tranh wins the crown for the evening and begs the marine who won the raffle to take her back to America, annoying him. The showgirls reflect on their dreams of a better life ("Movie in My Mind"). John buys a room for Chris and the virgin Kim ("The Transaction"). Kim is reluctant and shy, but dances with Chris. Chris tries to pay her to leave the nightclub. When the Engineer interferes, thinking that Chris does not like Kim, Chris allows himself to be led to her room ("The Dance").
Chris, watching Kim sleep, asks God why he met her just as he was about to leave Vietnam ("Why, God, Why?"). When Kim wakes up, Chris tries to give her money, but she refuses, saying that it is her first time sleeping with a man ("This Money's Yours"). Touched to learn that Kim is an orphan, Chris offers to take her to America with him. The two fall in love ("Sun and Moon"). Chris tells John that he is taking leave to spend time with Kim. John warns him that the Viet Cong will soon take Saigon, but then reluctantly agrees to cover for Chris ("The Telephone Song"). Chris meets with the Engineer to trade for Kim, but the Engineer tries to include an American visa in the deal. Chris forces the Engineer at gunpoint to honour the original arrangement for Kim ("The Deal").
The bargirls hold a "wedding ceremony" for Chris and Kim ("Dju Vui Vai"), with Gigi toasting Kim as the "real" Miss Saigon. Thuy, Kim's cousin, to whom she was betrothed at thirteen, arrives to take her home. He has since become an officer in the North Vietnamese Army and is disgusted to find her with a white man ("Thuy's Arrival"). The two men confront each other, drawing their guns. Kim tells Thuy that their arranged marriage is now nullified because her parents are dead, and she no longer harbours any feelings for him because of his betrayal. Thuy curses them all and storms out ("What's This I Find"). Chris promises to take Kim with him when he leaves Vietnam. Chris and Kim dance to the same song as on their first night ("Last Night of The World").
The scene then cuts to three years later, in 1978. A street parade is taking place in Saigon (since renamed Ho Chi Minh City) to celebrate the third anniversary of the reunification of Vietnam and the defeat of the Americans ("Morning of The Dragon"). Thuy, a commissar in the new Communist government, has ordered his soldiers to look for the still-corrupt Engineer. Thuy orders the Engineer to find Kim and bring her to him. Although the intervening period is not shown, it is apparent that Kim and Chris have become separated in the intervening three years. Kim has been hiding in an impoverished area, still in love with Chris and steadfastly believing that Chris will return to Vietnam and rescue her. Meanwhile, Chris is in bed with his new American wife, Ellen, when he wakes from a dream shouting Kim's name. Ellen and Kim both swear their devotion to Chris from opposite ends of the world ("I Still Believe").
A week later, Thuy's soldiers find the Engineer somewhere up north. For the Communist Party, he goes by the name "Tran Van Dinh" and has spent the past three years working in the rice fields. The Engineer takes Thuy to where Kim has been hiding. Kim refuses Thuy's renewed offer of marriage, unaware that his men are waiting outside the door. Furious, Thuy calls them in and they begin tying up Kim and the Engineer, threatening to put them into a reeducation camp. Kim introduces him to Tam, her three-year-old son from Chris. Thuy calls Kim a traitor and Tam an enemy, and tries to kill Tam with a knife, but Kim pulls out a gun and kills Thuy ("You Will Not Touch Him"). She flees with Tam ("This Is the Hour") and tells the Engineer what she has done ("If You Want to Die in Bed"). The Engineer refuses to help her until he learns that Tam's father is American ("Let Me See His Western Nose") – thinking the boy is his chance to emigrate to the United States. He tells Kim that now he is the boy's uncle, and he will lead them to Bangkok. The three set out on a ship with other refugees ("I'd Give My Life for You").
In Atlanta, Georgia, John now works for an aid organisation whose mission is to connect Bui-Doi (from Vietnamese trẻ bụi đời "street children," meaning children conceived during the war) with their American fathers ("Bui Doi"). John tells Chris that Kim is still alive, which Chris is relieved to hear after years of having nightmares of her dying. He also tells Chris about Tam and urges Chris to go to Bangkok with Ellen. Chris finally tells Ellen about Kim and Tam ("The Revelation"). In Bangkok, the Engineer is hawking a sleazy club where Kim works as a dancer ("What A Waste"). Chris, Ellen, and John arrive in search of Kim. John finds Kim dancing at the club, and tells her that Chris is also in Bangkok. He then tries to tell her that Chris is remarried, but Kim interrupts. She is thrilled about the news and tells Tam that his father has arrived, believing that they are to go to America with Chris. Seeing Kim happy, John cannot bring himself to break the news to her, but promises to bring Chris to her ("Please", replaced with "Too Much for One Heart" [same melody] in 2014 London revival).
The Engineer tells Kim to find Chris herself, because he doubts that Chris will come ("Chris Is Here"). Kim is haunted by the ghost of Thuy, who taunts Kim, claiming that Chris will betray her as he did the night Saigon fell. Kim suffers a horrible flashback to that night ("Kim's Nightmare").
In the nightmare/flashback to 1975, Kim remembers the Viet Cong approaching Saigon. As the city becomes increasingly chaotic, Chris is called to the embassy and leaves his gun with Kim, telling her to pack. When Chris enters the embassy, the gates close, as orders arrive from Washington for an immediate evacuation of the remaining Americans. The Ambassador orders that no more Vietnamese be allowed into the Embassy. Kim reaches the gates of the Embassy, one of a mob of terrified Vietnamese trying to enter. Chris calls to Kim and is about to go into the crowd to look for her. John is eventually forced to punch Chris in the face to stop him from leaving. Chris is put into the last helicopter leaving Saigon as Kim watches from outside, still pledging her love to him ("The Fall of Saigon").
Back in 1978 Bangkok, Kim joyfully dresses in her wedding clothes ("Sun and Moon [Reprise]") and leaves the Engineer to watch Tam while she is gone. She goes to Chris's hotel room, where she finds Ellen. Ellen reveals that she is Chris's wife. Kim is heartbroken and refuses to believe Ellen. Ellen asks Kim if Chris is the father of Tam, and Kim confirms that he is. Kim says that she does not want her son to continue living on the streets and pleads that they take Tam with them back to America, but Ellen refuses, saying that Tam needs his real mother, and Ellen wants her own children with Chris. Kim angrily demands that Chris tell her these things in person, and runs out of the room ("Room 317"). Ellen feels bad for Kim, but is determined to keep Chris ("Now That I've Seen Her", originally "Her or Me", replaced with "Maybe" [completely new lyrics and melody] for the 2011 Dutch revival).
Chris and John return, having failed to find Kim. Ellen tells them both that Kim arrived and that she had to tell Kim everything. Chris and John blame themselves, realising that they were gone too long. Ellen also tells them that Kim wants to see Chris at her place, and that she tried to give away her son to them. John realises that Kim wants Tam to be "an American boy." Ellen then issues an ultimatum to Chris: Kim or her. Chris reassures Ellen, and they pledge their love for each other. Chris will leave Tam and Kim in Bangkok but offer them monetary support from America. John warns that Kim will not find it acceptable to have Tam stay in Thailand ("The Confrontation"). Back at the club, Kim lies to the Engineer that they are still going to America ("Paper Dragons"). The Engineer imagines the extravagant new life that he will lead in America ("The American Dream"). Chris, John, and Ellen find the Engineer and he takes them to see Kim and Tam.
In her room, Kim tells Tam that he should be happy because he now has a father. She tells him that she cannot go with him but will be watching over him ("This Is the Hour [Reprise]", referred to as "Little God of My Heart" on the 2014 London revival recording, though those words are not contained in the lyrics). Chris, Ellen, John, and the Engineer arrive just outside her room. The Engineer comes in to take Tam outside to introduce Tam to his father. While this is happening, Kim steps behind a curtain and shoots herself. As she falls to the floor, everyone rushes into the room at the sound of the gunshot and find Kim mortally wounded. Chris picks up Kim and asks what she has done. She asks him to hold her once more and repeats something that he said to her on the first night they met: "How in one night have we come so far?" and dies in his arms ("Finale").Kim – A seventeen-year-old girl, recently orphaned and forced to work at "Dreamland." She corresponds to Butterfly in the original opera.
Christopher "Chris" Scott – An American G.I. sergeant about to leave Saigon to return to America. He corresponds to Pinkerton.
The Engineer, a.k.a. Tran Van Dinh – The sleazy hustler and owner of "Dreamland." He is half-Vietnamese and half-French. He corresponds to Goro.
Ellen – Chris's American wife. She corresponds to Kate.
John Thomas – Chris's friend, also a G.I. He corresponds to Sharpless.
Thuy – Kim's cousin and betrothed, to whom Kim's parents promised her when the two were thirteen. Has since become an officer in the Communist Vietnamese government. He is a composite character, corresponding in part to both The Bonze and Prince Yamadori.
Gigi Van Tranh – A hardened Saigon stripper; initially voted as "Miss Saigon".
Tam – Kim and Chris's three-year-old son. He corresponds to Dolore, or "Sorrow".
Miss Saigon premiered in the West End at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane on 20 September 1989 and closed after 4,264 performances on 30 October 1999. The director was Nicholas Hytner with musical staging by Bob Avian and scenic design by John Napier. In December 1994 the London production became the Theatre Royal's (Drury Lane) longest running musical, eclipsing the record set by My Fair Lady.
The part of Kim was originated by Lea Salonga, who became famous because of this role and won the Laurence Olivier Award and Tony Award. The Engineer was originated by Jonathan Pryce, who also won the Laurence Olivier Award and Tony Award for the role. The part of Chris was originated by Simon Bowman.
The musical débuted on Broadway at the Broadway Theatre on 11 April 1991 and closed on 28 January 2001 after 4,092 performances. Directed again by Nicholas Hytner with musical staging by Bob Avian, scenic design was by John Napier, costume design was by Andreane Neofitou and Suzy Benzinger and lighting design was by David Hersey. As of September 2015, Miss Saigon is still the 13th longest-running Broadway musical in musical theatre history.
Preview performances for the anticipated West End revival in the show's 25th year began in early May 2014 at the Prince Edward Theatre. It was produced by Cameron Mackintosh and directed by Laurence Connor. Auditions for the role of Kim were held from November 19–22, 2012 in Manila, Philippines. On November 21, 2013, it was announced 18-year-old Eva Noblezada was cast as Kim. Other cast members included Kwang-Ho Hong as Thuy, Jon Jon Briones as the Engineer, Alistair Brammer as Chris, Hugh Maynard as John, Tamsin Carroll as Ellen and Rachelle Ann Go as Gigi. The official opening night was 21 May. On the 22nd September 2014, a special 25th anniversary gala performance was held. After a full performance of the current show, Lea Salonga, Simon Bowman, Jonathan Pryce and many of the original 1989 cast joined with the current cast for a special finale. The finale started with Lea Salonga leading the ensemble with "This is the Hour", Lea and Rachelle Anne Go performed "The Movie in My Mind". Lea, Simon Bowman, Alistair Brammer and Eva Noblezada performed "Last Night of the World" before Jonathan Pryce took to the stage for "The American Dream" and was later joined by Jon Jon Briones. The West End production closed on 27 February 2016 after 760 performances. The cast also performed a "Muck-Up Matinee" on the day of closing, where many understudies came to the stage for one final bow, including Tanya Manalang (Alternate Kim), Christian Rey Marbella (Understudy Engineer), before the main cast in the evening. Cameron Mackintosh announced a cinema screening of the 25th Anniversary Gala along with a movie at a later date, a brand new UK Tour, and plans to transfer to Australia, Germany, and Broadway in the next two years. The revival closed to make way for the London transfer of the Broadway best-selling show Aladdin in May 2016, with former understudy for Thuy, Ethan Le Pong, understudying the lead role of Aladdin.
It was announced on November 19, 2015 that the West End production of the show will transfer to Broadway in March 2017 for a limited engagement through January 15, 2018. The production will star Eva Noblezada as Kim, Jon Jon Briones as The Engineer, Alistair Brammer as Chris, and Rachelle Ann Go as Gigi, all reprising their roles from the 2014 West End revival. Other cast members will include Katie Rose Clarke as Ellen, Nicholas Christopher as John, and Devin Ilaw as Thuy. A U.S. national tour is planned thereafter. On August 4, 2016, it was announced that the revival would play at the Broadway Theatre, the same venue the show played at for its Broadway debut. Preview performances began on March 1, 2017, with an official opening set for March 23.
Since its opening in London Miss Saigon was produced in many cities around the world including Stuttgart from 2 December 1994 till 19 December 1999 and Toronto, where new theatres were designed specifically to house the show. In the small island community of Bømlo, Norway with only around eleven thousand inhabitants, the show was set up in the outdoor amphitheatre by the local musical fellowship and ran from 5 August to 16 August 2009. The local musical fellowship brought in a Bell Helicopter for the show. According to the Miss Saigon Official Site, Miss Saigon has been performed by twenty-seven companies in twenty-five countries and 246 cities, and it has been translated into twelve different languages. Arlington Virginia's Signature Theatre 2013's production was the US debut with the inclusion of the new song 'Maybe' (which replaced the prior song 'Now That I've Seen Her) which would be integrated into the West End's 2014 revival.
After the London production closed in 1999 and also following the closure of the Broadway production in 2001, the show in its original London staging embarked on a long tour of the six largest venues in Britain and Ireland stopping off in each city for several months. The tour opened at the Palace Theatre, Manchester and also played in the Birmingham Hippodrome, the Mayflower Theatre in Southampton, the Edinburgh Playhouse, the Bristol Hippodrome and The Point Theatre in Dublin. This successful tour drew to a close in 2003 and a brand new production was developed by original producer Cameron Mackintosh on a smaller scale so that the show could be accommodated in smaller theatres. This tour started in July 2004 and ended in June 2006.
The first US tour started in Chicago, Illinois in October 1992 and was then expected to travel to those cities that could accommodate the large production. The tour also played venues such as the Wang Center in Boston from 14 July to 12 September 1993, the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, Florida in the Spring 1994, and the Kennedy Center, Washington, DC in June 1994. Cameron Mackintosh said: "Corners haven't been cut. They've been added. There are only a dozen theaters in America where we can do this."
A second National US tour launched in Seattle in early 1995 and would close very successfully in August 2000 in Buffalo NY after playing engagements in most major US and Canadian markets, including Honolulu HI, San Francisco, Toronto, and return engagements in Boston (twice), Chicago and West Palm Beach. The tour originally starred DeeDee Magno as Kim (later Kristine Remigio, Kym Hoy, and Mika Nishida), Thom Sesma as The Engineer (later Joseph Anthony Foronda), and Matt Bogart as Chris (replaced by Will Chase, Steven Pasquale, Greg Stone and Will Swenson). This production boasted all the original design and creative elements of Broadway, but on a scale that most major market road houses could accommodate.
A non-Equity North American tour began in summer 2002 to spring 2005, playing such venues as the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Newark, New Jersey in November 2003, Raleigh, North Carolina in February 2005, and Gainesville, Florida in November 2003.
There is a planned UK tour for 2017/2018 to open at the Curve in Leicester and will also tour to the Birmingham Hippodrome, the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in Dublin, the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff, the Edinburgh Festival Theatre and the Mayflower Theatre in Southampton.
Miss Saigon has received criticism for what some have perceived as a racist or sexist overtone, including protests regarding its portrayal of Asians and women in general. Originally, Pryce and Burns, white actors playing Eurasian/Asian characters, wore eye prostheses and bronzing cream to make themselves look more Asian, which outraged some who drew comparisons to a "minstrel show".
Hubert van Es, a Dutch photojournalist who recorded the most famous image of the fall of Saigon in 1975 (a group of people scaling a ladder to a CIA helicopter on a rooftop), considered legal action when his photograph was used in Miss Saigon.
In the London production of Miss Saigon, Lea Salonga originally starred as Kim, with Jonathan Pryce as the Engineer. When the production transferred from London to New York City, the Actors' Equity Association (AEA) refused to allow Pryce, a white actor, to recreate the role of the Eurasian pimp in America. As Alan Eisenberg, executive secretary of Actors' Equity explained, "The casting of a Caucasian actor made up to appear Asian is an affront to the Asian community. The casting choice is especially disturbing when the casting of an Asian actor, in the role, would be an important and significant opportunity to break the usual pattern of casting Asians in minor roles." This ruling led to criticism from many including British Equity, citing violations of the principles of artistic integrity and freedom. Producer Cameron Mackintosh threatened to cancel the show, despite massive advance ticket sales.
Though there had been a large, well-publicised international search among Asian actresses to play Kim, there had been no equivalent search for Asian actors to play the major Asian male roles—specifically, Engineer (Pryce) and Thuy (Keith Burns). However, others pointed out that since the Engineer's character was Eurasian (French-Vietnamese), they argued that Pryce was being discriminated against on the basis that he was Caucasian. Also, Pryce was considered by many in Britain to have "star status," a clause that allows a well-known foreign actor to recreate a role on Broadway without an American casting call. After pressure from Mackintosh, the general public, and many of its own members, Actors' Equity was forced to reverse its decision. Pryce starred alongside Salonga and Willy Falk (as Chris) when the show opened on Broadway.
During the production transfer from West End to Broadway, a lesser controversy erupted over Lea Salonga's citizenship, as she was neither British nor American. Salonga is Filipina, and the AEA wanted to give priority to its own members and so initially prevented her from reprising her role. However, Mackintosh was unable to find a satisfactory replacement for Salonga despite the extensive auditions that he conducted in several American and Canadian cities. An arbitrator reversed the AEA ruling a month later to allow Salonga to star.
Community members have organized against the play in many different cities over the years, citing that the production is racist and misogynistic. 2010 Fulbright Hayes Scholar D Hideo Maruyama states, "it's time to see the real Vietnam, not the Miss Saigon version. Whether or not America is ready to see the real one is up to question." American artist and activist Mai Neng Moua states, "I protested Miss Saigon back in 1994 when the Ordway first brought it to town. I was a college student at St. Olaf and had never protested anything before. I didn’t know what to say or do. I was scared people would yell or throw things at me. Then I met Esther Suzuki, a Japanese American woman whose family survived the racist U.S. policy of internment camps. Esther was about my size – which is small – but she was fearless. Esther protested Miss Saigon because, she better than anyone, understood Dr. King’s “No one is free until we all are free.” I stood with Esther, protesting Miss Saigon, and drew strength from her. We protested Miss Saigon because it was racist, sexist, and offensive to us as Asian Americans. Nineteen years later, this hasn’t changed." Vietnamese American activist Denise Huynh recounts her experience attending the production and the stereotypes making her feel physically ill. Sarah Bellamy, co-artistic director of the Penumbra Theatre, dedicated to African American theater, states "It gets a lot easier to wrap your head around all of this for folks of color when we remember a key point: this work is not for us. It is by, for, and about white people, using people of color, tropical climes, pseudo-cultural costumes and props, violence, tragedy, and the commodification of people and cultures, to reinforce and re-inscribe a narrative about white supremacy and authority."
Though the show has received awards and acclaim, it lost the Best Musical Award at the 1989/1990 Laurence Olivier Awards to Return to the Forbidden Planet in London.
Upon its Broadway opening in 1991 the musical was massively hyped as the best musical of the year, both critically and commercially. It broke several Broadway records, including a record advance-ticket sales at $24 million, highest priced ticket at $100, and repaying investors in fewer than 39 weeks.
Miss Saigon and The Will Rogers Follies led the 1991 Tony Award nominations with eleven nominations. According to The New York Times, "'Will Rogers' and Miss Saigon had both earned 11 nominations and were considered the front-runners for the Tony as best musical. But many theatre people predicted that Miss Saigon, an import from London, would be the victim of a backlash. There is lingering bitterness against both the huge amount of publicity Miss Saigon has received and the battle by its producer, Cameron Mackintosh, to permit its two foreign stars, Mr. Pryce... and the Filipina actress Lea Salonga, to re-create on Broadway their number one award-winning roles."
The show lost to The Will Rogers Follies for nearly every major award, though Lea Salonga, Jonathan Pryce and Hinton Battle all won awards.
On 21 October 2009, a film version of the musical was reported to be in "early stages of development". Producer Paula Wagner was reported to be teaming with the original musical producer Cameron Mackintosh to create a film version of the musical. Filming locations are said to be Cambodia and quite possibly Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon).
Cameron Mackintosh reported that the film version of Miss Saigon depended on whether the Les Misérables film was a success. In August 2013, director Lee Daniels announced hopes to get a film adaptation off the ground.
On 27 February 2016 at the closing night of the Miss Saigon London Revival, Cameron Mackintosh hinted that the film adaptation was close to being produced when he said "Sooner rather than later, the movie won't just be in my mind". As well as this, the 2014 "25th anniversary" performance of Miss Saigon in London was filmed for an Autumn cinema broadcast. In March 2016, it was reported that Danny Boyle was in talks to direct the film.