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Moongate & ESEA Representation in Musical Theatre

Si Long Chan reflects on ‘Moongate Mix Salon Session #10: From Chorus Line to Spotlight’ on 11th September 2023. Content advice: racism, sexism, misogyny.

Published onOct 02, 2023
Moongate & ESEA Representation in Musical Theatre

As part of the London Cultural Diversity Laboratory research into the concept of ‘diversity’ across the UK Creative and Cultural Industries (CCI), our research team are attending and reflecting on a range of events connected to the project’s theme. In the ‘Cultural Diversity’ section of the upcoming CIRCE London report, the representation of East and Southeast Asians in the CCI is a key discussion. In this blog, I offer reflections on representation and cultural diversity which emerged from the Moongate Mix Salon Session organised by Moongate in conjunction with City University, ESEA Online Hub and Urdang.  

On 11th September 2023, I attended the Moongate Mix Salon Session #10: From Chorus Line to Spotlight event at Omnibus Theatre, in Clapham, London. This was the first of two events which spotlighted ESEA (East and Southeast Asian) themed musical performance excerpts and panel discussions (in addition to being part of a regular salon series). The 11th September event sold out, welcoming a predominantly East and Southeast Asian (ESA) audience with delicious food from Bear Bao, and botanicals prepared with care by HAG.  

4 singers from Urdang are stood in a line behind three music stands and microphones. The two singers on the outside of the line are looking in the direction of each other, whilst the two singers in the middle of the line are looking down at sheet music on the music stand.

ⓒ Si Long Chan

The event began with performances of songs by Hilmi Jaidin, Maryhee Yoon, Nemo Martin, Daniel York Loh, with musical direction by Amy Hsu and performances from professionals from Urdang Musical Theatre School. Whilst I have seen several musicals, I have never attended a live performance of musical theatre that centres ESA experiences. As someone with a queer wasian identity based in the North East England, I am very aware that the production of ESA musical theatre here, and particularly queer ESA musical theatre, is scarce. Having the opportunity to attend the Moongate event in London and be immersed in performances which, at times, spoke to queer ESA experiences was extremely moving and exciting for me. The performances were beautifully sang and demonstrated the talent of ESA creatives as well as the diversity of experiences of ESA people.  

In the centre of the image is a wooden table, with three microphones placed for four speakers who are sat at the table. From left to right, Dr Diana Yeh, Maryhee Yoon, Nemo Martin, and Hilmi Jaidin are sat next to each other with their faces turned to the left, appearing to look at something or someone who is outside of the photograph. They are sat in front of a window and walls with posters that are on display.

ⓒ Si Long Chan

Following on from the musical performances was a panel chaired by Dr Diana Yeh, including the following speakers: Hilmi Jaidin, Maryhee Yoon, and Nemo Martin. I will firstly spotlight the work of the contributing panellists, followed by a discussion of Miss Saigon and challenges to ESA representation in musical theatre, and finally, what can be done to address harmful representations of ESA people in musical theatre; all of which emerged from the panel discussion.  

Spotlighting ESA musical theatre:  

Hilmi Jaidin: Hilmi started writing parodies and then songs and whilst he studied law at university, it never occurred to him to create musical theatre professionally during this time. Since Hilmi started creating musical theatre, he has co-founded the Musical Writing subreddit where artists can develop their craft, as well as having two shows produced by ALP musicals: Shift+Alt+Right, and Cruel, Inhuman & Degrading.  

Maryhee Yoon: Maryhee is a queer Korean American playwright and actor whose work tells stories that uplift and honour our communities. Maryhee highlighted the importance of acknowledging our histories, and nurturing healing through her work. Maryhee shared an excerpt of her collaboration with Cara Baldwin Tokyo Rose, and is working on a musical exploring the experiences of a women’s internment camp in Indonesia under Japanese rule, where the women here formed a choir.  

Nemo Martin: Nemo is an award winning London-based writer whose work explores how colonial thought is embedded in 19th century popular culture, and contemporary audience responses to this. They shared excerpts from Asian Pirate Musical, and spoke about the importance of fun outlandish shows where gender diverse experiences are represented, educating people that these experiences have existed throughout our histories. Nemo is working on a romantic musical centering the stories of lesbians of colour.  

The problems with Miss Saigon: 

The panel responded to the performance of Miss Saigon at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, July 2023. The Miss Saigon musical is a musical intended to explore the ‘Vietnam War’, known as the American War in Vietnam. However, since the first performance of Miss Saigon in London, 1989, this musical has been problematic in the representation of Southeast and East Asian people. For instance, problems include but are not exclusive to, the use of yellowface, the hyper-sexualisation of SEA (Southeast and East Asian) women, othering portrayals of Vietnam and SEA people, as well as the promotion of white-saviourism. These representations perpetuate racism, imperialism, and misogyny which have violent consequences for SEA communities, and particularly for SEA women and femme presenting people. Whilst the recent performance at Sheffield, was at least directed by someone with SEA heritage and included SEA people in the cast, the perpetuation of racist, imperial, and misogynistic tropes remain. These tropes have not gone unchallenged, and performances of Miss Saigon have been met with protest from SEA communities since the first performance of this musical. Responses have included counter-narratives, such as the Untitled F*ck M*ss S**gon play, which address the harmful tropes in the Miss Saigon musical.  

However, the question remains: why are performances such as Miss Saigon being spotlighted on mainstages, and not the talent of ESA artists whose work diversifies the stories and representations of ESA people? Dr Diana Yeh voiced this concern to the panel at the Moongate Mix Salon event who highlighted several issues, including: 

  1. The lack of funding for theatres who have faced harsh budget cuts across the UK, particularly in the context of Austerity, Brexit, and the Coronavirus pandemic, which leads to less theatres ‘taking risks’ to spotlight new performances. The implications of this are that typically underrepresented and ‘emerging’ artists have fewer opportunities for their stories to be performed on the main stage of theatres, and thus discouraging diversity in the representation of stories for typically underrepresented communities.  

  1. The issue of autonomy for artists who face ethical dilemmas due to the precarious nature of work and lack of funding for their work. Artists are faced with questions of whether to take on roles which offer an income and opportunities in musical theatre, whilst these roles do not necessarily align with the values or representational desires of artists. Funded opportunities that support artists to take control over their own narrative are very much needed.  

What can be done? 

The panel went on to discuss what can be done to address representational challenges in musical theatre, the most obvious one being addressing structural issues of funding in the arts. The speakers also highlighted the need for more ESA people creating musical theatre and working in decision-making positions to influence production. Although, there is a need to highlight that this representation should echo the diversity of experiences and identities within ESA communities, including (but not exclusive to) LGBTQIA+, neurodivergent, disabled, and working-class artists; there must be a sharing of power and solidarity with non-ESA communities in production to pave the way for truly diverse representations in musical theatre and the arts more broadly. Hilmi Jaidin highlighted the need for more events such as the Moongate Mix Salon; spaces where we can have dialogue about representation in musical theatre are important for a continuous reflection and working towards diversity not only on stage, but in all aspects of the UK CCI.

For aspiring musical theatre makers, Nemo Martin encourages artists to ‘not be afraid to be bad at musical theatre’, echoed by Maryhee Yoon, ‘if you have a story and something you care about it’s very possible’.  

The message of the panel is clear; never mind getting ESA people onto the side stage, we want the main stage.  

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