In the fall of 2005, Jackie Nguyen was a senior at San Diego’s The Preuss School when a mentor from her choir program asked if she’d ever done musical theater.
Nguyen’s response: “I have no idea what that is.”
She was about to find out — courtesy of a show that would turn out not only to bear striking similarities to the story of her own family, but would become a big part of a career she had not yet even dreamed of.
It was the same show in which she would eventually mark a major milestone for cultural representation; and the one that now brings Nguyen back to San Diego for her first-ever theater performance in her hometown.
What her mentor told her that day was to go see “Miss Saigon” at the (now-defunct) Starlight Theatre in Balboa Park.
“And I was like: ‘OK,” the City Heights native recalls now of her somewhat mystified response. “One of my best friends worked at the Starlight Theatre at the time, when it was still running, and so we went to see ‘Miss Saigon.’ And it was the very first musical I ever saw.”
The impact was pretty much immediate: “I was addicted after that. I said, ‘Omigosh, I have to watch more musicals! I want to do this.’ I was so inspired seeing it.”
Nguyen did go see more musicals, including touring productions that same season of “Wicked” and “Rent” at the San Diego Civic Theatre — where the Broadway touring production of “Miss Saigon” touches down July 9.
Eventually, she also started to perform in musicals — first at California State University Fullerton as an undergraduate and then, after she moved to New York City, in numerous regional and national touring productions.
Her credits now include some five productions of “Miss Saigon.” And in 2012, at La Mirada Theatre near Los Angeles, Nguyen became the first-ever Vietnamese-American actor to play Kim, the musical’s Vietnamese heroine.
That’s quite a journey for someone who, 14 years ago, didn’t even really conceive that there was a live-theater version of movie musicals such as “Grease” and “Annie” she had seen on TV.
“I grew up just dancing,” as Nguyen explains. “My extracurriculars were choir and cheerleading. I didn’t really understand (stage musicals) to be something I could pursue.”
Now, as “Miss Saigon” comes to town, Nguyen is in the production’s ensemble — not as one of its stars, but happy to be in a show that brings her full circle in such a meaningful way.
“It’s incredibly humbling, but also just surreal,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to take a tour back home.”
Parallels to the past
For Nguyen, returning to San Diego in the show is a big moment because it means getting a chance to perform in a theater piece here for the first time in front of friends and family, who will be out in force at the Civic.
They include her mom, who still lives in town — and who, in some ways, lived the story of “Miss Saigon.”
The musical, created by the “Les Misérables” team of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, was inspired by the Puccini opera “Madame Butterfly.” It centers on Kim, a young bargirl at a seedy joint in then-Saigon during the Vietnam War.
When she meets a U.S. Marine named Chris, they strike up a love affair. Then, Chris is sent back to the States, while Kim is left to raise the pair’s child and hope the couple will be reunited someday.
Probably the show’s most famous scene is the moment a helicopter lands onstage amid a sea of desperate refugees to evacuate the last Americans from the U.S. embassy as Saigon falls.
Nguyen’s mom, too, had a relationship with an American serviceman and wound up left behind in her home country.
“My mom is Vietnamese,” Nguyen says. “I’m first-generation. When my mom was 17 — the same age as Kim is at the beginning of the show — she met her first husband. He was an American G.I. They had three children. And she ended up coming to America in 1984, a few years before I was born.
“She was there during the entirety of the war; my brothers were products of the war. So there are a lot of similarities with my mom’s story and our musical.”
Enough similarities that Nguyen’s mom has never been back to the place of her birth: “It’s really difficult for her to grasp that Vietnam is still a communist country. For her, it’s heartbreaking. She really has a difficult time discussing stories of the war or her memories (of it).”
While Nguyen’s mother and father (who have long since split up) initially lived in Florida, Nguyen has lived her entire life in San Diego — although she did pass through Vietnam once, while traveling on tour.
Nguyen has faced her own obstacles as she has made a career in the theater. In 2014, she suddenly began losing her hair in large clumps. She eventually was diagnosed with the autoimmune disorder alopecia areata, an incurable condition that is said to affect nearly 7 million people in the United States.
While she was initially terrified at the diagnosis and what it might mean for her career, Nguyen has been candid about her struggles, on social media and in blogs and interviews.
“As an actor, there’s so much of you that is exposed,” she says. “That’s not really something I can necessarily hide, especially because of the nature of my job.
“I felt it was a huge secret I was keeping. (Writing) helped me feel better about coping. And then a lot of girls reached out who were kind of hiding, and I felt like it was very important for me to be public about.”
Her hair has since grown back (although she still has patches of hair loss on occasion), and she is grateful the condition hasn’t proved an obstacle to her career.
“The biggest obstacle of all is your confidence,” Nguyen says. “I mean, with theater you’re able to wear makeup and wigs and all that. The biggest obstacle was getting over myself. There were days that I was so nervous. But the community itself was embracing and totally accepting.
"(Alopecia) was not a hindrance to my ability to get work. It was fine. It was more about my personal battle.”
Meanwhile, Nguyen still fights the same battle most other actors of color do: to get work. A report released earlier this year by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition found that just 7.3 percent of roles on and off-Broadway went to actors of Asian heritage in the 2016-17 season (the one the group studied).
“It’s very slow,” Nguyen says of progress toward more inclusion. “There is work there for us, but it’s so limited.
“Right now, we’re the only major Broadway touring musical that has a majority of Asian actors in it. A few years ago on Broadway we had (the Old Globe-bred) “Allegiance,” we had “The King and I,” we had a lot of other shows that gave us opportunities. But it’s very sparse now.”
As intimately familiar with “Miss Saigon” as she has become, Nguyen also knows plenty about the controversies the show has faced over the years — starting with the high-profile row over the show’s original Broadway casting in 1991, when the white actor Jonathan Pryce played the French-Vietnamese pimp known as the Engineer.
And the musical continues to be criticized for what some see as stereotyped portrayals of Kim and the other Vietnamese characters, and the way Chris is positioned as the hero or savior.
“I do 100 percent understand when people criticize it — everyone’s obviously entitled to their perspective,” Nguyen says. “But being in this moving piece, I don’t necessarily see that (interpretation). And I hope we don’t portray that either.
“What we’re trying to do is portray is the truth. And represent a small piece of what did happen back then. We’re not saying this is what every woman had to do.
“This is also a story about a war. I think people oftentimes misconstrue that, and misunderstand the love story. Our story is also about survival. There were bar women back in Vietnam. There were G.I.s who fathered a lot of orphaned children. This is real.
"(So) I totally understand the controversy. But the piece is still really beautiful to me. I encourage people to come see our version, and then the dialogue can be open.”
For Nguyen, the show’s run in San Diego will be a chance to reconnect with the place where she first discovered a passion for acting — and with the people who were important to her young life. Mom foremost among them.
“I try to visit my mom as much as I can,” Nguyen says. “She’s a little older, and I’m the only girl in my family, so I’m a mama’s girl. And I can’t really resist San Diego, especially when it’s winter in New York.
“I’m definitely a San Diego girl at heart. It’s still home to me.”
When: Opens July 9. 7 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday; 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Friday. 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday. 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Through July 14.
Where: Broadway/San Diego at the Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave., downtown.
Tickets: About $22.50 and up
Phone: (619/858/760) 570-1100
Jackie Nguyen’s San Diego
While Jackie Nguyen — a City Heights native now living in New York City — still gets back to San Diego to visit family on occasion, the touring visit of “Miss Saigon” represents the first time she’ll be here with a show. So it’s her first chance to play host to fellow actors from around the country and world.
“I’m excited to show my cast the best tacos, my favorite Vietnamese spots — and obviously Coronado and the beach and Balboa Park,” she says.
A few go-to locations she name-drops:
Vietnamese food: Pho Ca Dao on El Cajon Boulevard
Mexican food: Lolita’s, and Tacos El Gordo in National City.
Burgers: “Obviously In-N-Out — we have a lot of people from the East Coast who haven’t had their In-N-Out experience yet.”
Scenery: “I’m a huge fan of Sunset Cliffs. There’s so much!”
Miss Saigon’: The controversies and responses
- The 1991 Broadway debut of “Miss Saigon” — after the show’s successful premiere two years earlier in London — caused a sensation, and not necessarily for all the right reasons. The production hired the white actor Jonathan Pryce to reprise his turn as the Engineer (a conniving Eurasian pimp), setting off protests that nearly derailed the show’s Broadway plans. The actors union eventually retreated from its opposition to the casting.
- In 1993, the Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang (“M. Butterfly”), who had helped lead the “Miss Saigon” protests, wrote “Face Value,” a play inspired by the casting furor. It closed in previews on Broadway. But almost 15 years later, Hwang was named a Puliter Prize finalist for “Yellow Face,” a comedy based in part on both the “Miss Saigon” controversy and the failure of “Face Value.”
- In 2017, “Miss Saigon” was revived on Broadway, with a cast made up predominantly of actors of Asian heritage; that’s also true of the touring version headed to San Diego. But the show continues to receive criticism over what’s perceived as racial stereotyping and one-dimensional treatment of its Vietnamese heroine, Kim; her dependency on the white American G.I., Chris; and other issues.