Sisters hope their story of reunification will encourage others to never give up searching
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story’s Maria and Tony, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby and Daisy, and Wuthering Heights’ Heathcliff and Catherine. Tales of star-crossed lovers — and families ripped apart by war — are about as common as those of mistaken identity, especially in theatre plotlines.
Composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyricist Alain Boublil, famous for Les Misérables in 1980, reinvented the star-crossed lovers’ plot with their musical, Miss Saigon. This timeless theme is set in 1975 Viet Nam where an American GI falls in love with a Vietnamese prostitute only to be ripped apart from each other during the fall of Sài Gòn.
Drawing their inspiration from a photograph Schönberg found as well as the 1904 opera by Giacomo Puccini titled Madame Butterfly, the duo created what is still today the 13th longest-running Broadway show in musical theatre history.
The photograph (shown at right) shows a Vietnamese woman sending her daughter, an Asian American child, to live with her ex-GI father in America in hopes of giving her daughter a better future.
In a 2014 interview, Schönberg said, “this photograph was for Alain and I the start of everything. … This silent scream is the most potent condemnation of the horror of that war.” The mother, knowing she will likely never see her daughter again, performs the ultimate sacrifice to provide for her child.
The story of Chris and Kim and their son, Tam, is just one of thousands of stories of separation and sacrifice. During the Viet Nam War, approximately 50,000 children fathered by American soldiers were left behind. Many mothers gave up their children in hopes of giving them a better future. This war, as with all wars, tore families apart, many of whom are still trying to reconnect after 45 years.
In February, Denver’s CBS4 ran a story about a local woman, Berni Slowey, who reunited with her sister after being separated as toddlers. During the chaos leading up to the fall of Sài Gòn, there were rumors that Asian women with children fathered by American soldiers would be tortured.
The family was eligible to be airlifted out of the country before it was overrun by the Northern Vietnamese. During the evacuation, 2-year-old Rose wandered off and, with little time left, Berni’s mother had to make a decision: Stay and face unknown consequences or flee with Berni. The U.S. evacuated Berni and her mother, leaving Rose behind.
Berni, her father, and mother eventually settled in Colorado. As it turned out, Rose was found wandering the streets of Sài Gòn when a woman took her in, renamed her Vannessa and raised her as her own, never telling her the truth of her origin. A few years later, they emigrated to the U.S.
In summer of 2018, Vannessa’s mother told her the truth. She immediately began searching for her birth family. Berni, similarly, had been searching for her sister, even returning to Viet Nam.
After a DNA test revealed that she had relatives in Colorado, Vannessa contacted Berni and the two reunited in Denver.
“This is a dream,” Vannessa said. “I’ve been wandering for 43 years. … I found my way home.”
The sisters hope their story will be one of encouragement to never give up searching.
In the show Kim, like Berni’s mother, is forced to make a difficult decision for her child, a sacrifice that she believes will protect and provide for him.
About the author: Madison Stout is a staff member at the Denver Center of Performing Arts currently working as a receptionist. She is passionate about the performing arts and recently co-founded the Somerset Editing and Company. Inspired by Jane Austen’s hometown for the latter part of her life, Somerset is a resource to help authors, small businesses and nonprofits market themselves through multimedia campaigns, blog and grant writing, professional editing and research. She was the Entertainment Editor for the award-winning student newspaper The Collegian at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. Read more from Madison: Tales and tips about disability interaction
Miss Saigon in Denver: Ticket information
This is the story of a young Vietnamese woman named Kim who is orphaned by war and forced to work in a bar run by a notorious character known as the Engineer. There she meets and falls in love with an American G.I. named Chris, but they are torn apart by the fall of Sài Gòn. For three years, Kim goes on an epic journey of survival to find her way back to Chris, who has no idea he’s fathered a son. Featuring stunning spectacle and a sensational cast of 42 performing the soaring score, including Broadway hits like “The Heat is On in Saigon,” “The Movie in My Mind,” “Last Night of the World” and “American Dream,” this is a theatrical event you will never forget.
- Writers: Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, with lyrics by Boublil and Richard Maltby Jr. It is based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly
- Director: Laurence Connor
- When: September 10-22
- Where: Buell Theatre
- Age advisory: Miss Saigon contains some scenes and language that might not be suitable for younger audience members, including scenes of a sexual nature.
- Tickets: Available by calling 303-893-4100, in person in the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex at 14th and Curtis streets or, online by clicking here:
Photo gallery: Scenes from Miss Saigon
Photos by Matthew Murphy. Click on any photo to see a larger version.