In 1991 Miss Saigon premiered on Broadway. Based on the opera Madame Butterfly, it has an Act II set-design of a chain-link fence that comes down from the fly rail above and tops a gated fence on the ground which entered from stage right and left, meeting in center stage. A dramatic entrance for an elaborate set piece. This fence in total then would enclose the U.S. Embassy and helicopter pad, reflecting the one once situated in Saigon. Artistically, this gated fence dramatized through set-design the division of one from another; the American soldiers, and the Vietnamese. In this scene the fence separates the helicopter that lands on the pad, (allowing the occupying American soldiers to evacuate safely) from would-be refugees. Ironically, the top portion of the fence was designed to corral the chopper blades of an 8,000 pound helicopter; a safety feature in all actuality, from the audience. The helicopter blades were crafted from nylon rope bearing a heavily-weighted ball on one end that circularly rotated above the cab. The fence was there in case the rope snapped and the weighted ball flew out into the audience, the result of centrifugal force gone awry. In any event the fence had a technical error during the performance and could not lower from the fly rail down to the Embassy gates, the helicopter effect would be aborted and this spectacular special effect could not be used. The performing cast had contingency staging whereby they would run up several steps to a landing and pretend to jump into a helicopter not there. Extra fog would be dispensed and added flashing lights alighted the audience, and hopefully no one felt they missed out.
The lower portion of the fence was designed to open and turn once it aligned at center stage. Visually and choreographically what this entails is twofold; first the audience is with the Vietnamese looking upstage through the fence toward the U.S. Embassy base where helicopters are departing, then the fence opens spinning sideways and reverses the scene. The Vietnamese rush through this opening while the American soldiers go around it running downstage. The audience is now with the Americans evacuating. The desperation of the Vietnamese rushing the closing fence, pleading to be freed, are upstage, facing the audience and the Americans, begging to be taken to a place of safety and freedom. Desiring refuge. To not be excluded, left behind, negated. Lastly, the original scene is returned once more and the fence opens. The Vietnamese run downstage through the opening changing perspective with the American soldiers, and the audience is with the Vietnamese looking through the fence as the last remaining GI’s board the helicopter. The helicopter flies up and out of the sight-line of the audience into the fly-rail, leaving the Vietnamese behind. The fence silently remains. Would-be refugees are alone on the stage, kept out from a vacated U.S. Embassy base. But kept out from what? From evacuating also? Evacuating to where, and leaving what behind? Why did they rush the fence? What were they wanting, needing, desiring, and asking for? What was the fence to them and conversely for the American soldiers? What does it mean to be deserted, left behind?
In A Chorus Line, the Pulitzer Prize awarded musical created by Michael Bennett in 1975, the dancers stand on a white line near the downstage lip of the stage as they audition for one of eight spots in a show. For two hours as the story unfolds, the dancers are put through their paces in ballet, jazz, and tap routines the choreographer Zach teaches them. While this for any audition is enough from which to cast the best, Zach wants to go deeper and has the dancers stand on this white line downstage, inviting them to expose personal stories of their lives, sharing their collective struggles, hopes, dreams, failures, and desires. Why do they dance? Why do they want this job? Zach’s questions probe the dancers to reflect on intimate details of their lives. Putting them on the line personally and professionally, literally and figuratively, in his quest for the perfect chorus. God I hope I get it, they sing in the show. Ultimately the question is, why should Zach cast one of them over the other one? It is not enough to perform the routines with skill, professionalism, sex appeal, and any other charms a stage performer must possess and display when called upon. They must also for this show evidence something deeper: their soul; their demons, their vulnerabilities, their excesses. All are gathered for Zach to sift through in his hands, searching for the grains he deems worthy of his time and effort. Who will brightly shine under his spotlight? There is no Human Resources department governing this job interview. No protections act is in place from which to refer unfair, sexist, ageist, racist, misogynist, or etcetera-ist, hiring practices. The question begs, why would anyone allow themself to be maligned and humiliated in such a way? How could any one job, director, or choreographer, be worthy of such desire? How does the line they stand upon in search of this job embody their desire for something as ineffable, elusive, and illusory as a moment in the spotlight? Does this story reach into the truth of a dancer, an actor, an artist, and is there a kind of line from which all artists subject the self in search of the dream to share and expose oneself so explicitly?
In Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity, which opened at the Palace Theatre in New York City on January 18th, 1966, the Fan-Dango Girls, as they are known in the Playbill synopsis, stand at a velvet cushioned waist-high rail and sing Big Spender. This rail separates the Fan-Dango Girls; taxi dancers as they are commonly known, as they advertise their wares, from the unseen men who patronize the club, just below. Do you wanna have fun…how about a few laughs…I can show you a good time, they sing. The song embodies the taunt they offer the men looking to hire one or more of the many girls for a ten-cent dance. This “dance,” a gentler evocation of the world’s oldest profession, situates the dancer in separation as commodity of re-sellable flesh from the would-be customer, the “John,” who desires companionship. The rail evidences needs the ladies must socially and economically struggle with. This is explicitly elaborated through Fosse’s choreography; they pose, snap, present, shimmy, writhe, and gyrate behind the velvet rail as they perform this famous number. A number not just for the men at the Fan-Dango Ballroom, but the audience who participates in enjoying the body in performance. They meta-sell youth, beauty, sex-appeal and sex, spotlit and available for the right price. But what price? How much is their need worth? Desire will pay for, and also cost much; needs, wants, hopes, dreams…relationship, a home, safety, inclusion, refuge. The refuge of a warm body in close companionship; perhaps a dance, not unlike the dance we all perform in life as we search and work toward many of the same basic wants and needs, dreams and desires.
I worked on the original Broadway production of Miss Saigon. It was an untenable time, the early 1990’s. It was a time when gay men and minority drug-users bodies were let and left behind, a result of the Reagan Administration’s policies of inaction toward life-saving health care initiatives or pharmaceutical developments. There were members of the cast and crew; some HIV positive and fighting for their life, working alongside virus-free company members. I thought of their personal struggle while performing would-be refugees; running up against a fence, hoping for a place better than where they were. Begging for help. The performance of a vulnerable body seeking refuge, and the performer, made vulnerable from a lack of governmental care. HIV-positive bodies seeking refuge also, but no helicopter could free them, and the proverbial fence was resultant of social stigma and minority oppression. The line between life and death did not cross the edge of a dark stage, it was imminent and real. No rail was cushioned in velvet providing rest. The Miss Saigon Broadway cast performed eight times a week with the fence, an object of resistance. The fence evidenced an engineered division and as such cultivated the embodiment of exclusion and then conversely, solidarity in desire the cast confronted. Personally, I wondered toward a time when a kind of resolve would provide the care these bodies needed. Care in action from a government who initiated concern for all who resided upon their shores. Not excluding anyone out with a fence and thereby also not confining anyone within. I found myself looking to a future I had better hopes for. Many times since then I believed we were getting there, but these last few years I am no longer as sure.
The Best New Musical for 2019 on Broadway was awarded to Hadestown with music, lyrics, and book by Anais Mitchell. In this show the actor Patrick Page plays the role of Hades, and asks the chorus whom he addresses as Children in song, Why do we build the wall, my Children, my Children?…how does the wall keep us free?…who do we call the enemy? To Hades the Children sing in response, poverty. I cannot think of a more succinct or explicit embodiment in word denoting how otherness is warped by greed and fear and then excluded, separated, dismissed, impoverished, and ultimately, let. Let to wither, disintegrate, fail, and die, inconclusive of their potential to be. How it is expressed whether artistically, or in day to day reality, this word poverty simultaneously seems to be performed with a fence, a line, a rail, and a wall.