One of Australia’s most prominent nonbinary performers, Seann Miley Moore continues to make their fabulous mark on television—they’ve appeared on both The X-Factor in the UK and Australia’s The Voice—and on stage—most recently earning rave reviews as Angel in Rent at the Sydney Opera House. A headliner at Sydney WorldPride earlier this year, their most recent single is the disco-infused “All My Lovers” with St. Croix. Their now stepping into their biggest role yet, returning to Sydney Opera House to star as the Engineer in Miss Saigon from August 17th, 2023.
Taking some time out of tech rehearsals, Seann Miley Moore speaks exclusively with The Queer Review’s Chad Armstrong about the history of Miss Saigon, its place in contemporary Australian theatre, and the new production which they describe as “fresh as fuck: it’s pure camp cabaret; it’s fabulous; it’s a spectacle, and I’ve been ready for this all my life!”
“It was the power of musical theatre that first gave me space to dress up and perform”, shares Moore. “It’s totally normal in my mind and I have a community that does even crazier things. I don’t feel any pressure to be a role model or to be more visible. I just do what I do and it’s exciting to see the world catching up.”
Like many queer Australians, Moore spent some formative years in the UK. Things that seemed outlandish or weird in rural Australia were unremarkable in London’s diverse queer music scene.
“My time in London really gave me all of my queer liberation; the culture, the music, the melting pot of people”, Moore reflects. “The queer scene there was fantastic and like nothing I’d ever seen before. Being a part of the musical theatre and queer communities in London, and doing my music and performing at Prides all over the UK, made me the powerful queer person I am today. Now, I’m bringing that rainbow energy into this very mainstream musical. They’re allowing me to be me. It’s really fantastic how Cameron Mackintosh is championing new voices and allowing me to be queer AF. The Engineer is now the EngiQUEER and that’s fabulous!”
For the uninitiated, Miss Saigon is a reworking of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, transposing the action from turn-of-the-twentieth-century Japan to the dying days of the Vietnam War, with music by Les Miserables‘ Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, and lyrics by Boublil and Richard Maltby Jr. The Engineer is Miss Saigon’s standout role (and its most historically controversial). The part would deliver Tony and Olivier Awards to its originator, Jonathan Pryce, a white actor who initially wore eye prosthetics and makeup to alter his skin colour when the show premiered in London’s West End in 1989.
The Engineer runs the brothel, Dreamland, where American G.I. Chris meets Kim, whom he falls in love with before being forced to abandon her during the fall of Saigon. The character’s 11 o’clock number, “The American Dream”, which skewers American culture is the show’s biggest production number and now, with Moore in the role, the Engineer is getting a queer makeover by emphasizing elements that were always there.
“You meet the two lovers in Dreamland, a brothel and sex club”, offers Moore. “Our queerness is often born in underground nightlife, so for me coming in and singing this music was natural. It should have been a queer role from the start, the lyrics are camp as hell. “Fat as a chocolate eclair as I suck out the cream”?! Yes, baby!”
A magnet for controversy since the show first opened in London, Miss Saigon has been criticized for being a piece of colonial Orientalism that perpetuates the “white saviour” myth. Issues which Moore readily acknowledges. “The thing is, we live in a world where our white ancestors have stolen the land and everything is built on that privilege. That’s just how things were. But we’re living in an age of Crazy Rich Asians, peak “slaysian” power! BLACKPINK (BLɅϽKPIИK) is the biggest girl band in the world. An all-Filipino cast is bringing Here Lies Love to Broadway right now. My God, Michelle Yeoh just became the first Asian woman to win Best Actress! There’s big Asian energy on the stage right now and I think that’s what we have to focus on.”
“There is nothing submissive about these women”, Moore emphasizes about Miss Saigon’s female characters. “There’s nothing submissive about Asian women in general. My mum and my aunties are strong, unapologetic women and that’s what I saw when I watched the show. The show is about the struggle and the survival of these women trying to get out for a better life and doing whatever they can. Sex work is work! If the women in Miss Saigon are being submissive in any way it’s all an act, because they’re doing whatever they can to escape and survive. These people are survivors.”
While there are undoubtedly more queer and Asian roles on Australian TV and stages these days, the representation still lags behind the country’s demographics. “Here’s the tea, in Australia I’ll either be the Asian, the drag queen, or the Asian drag queen”, shares Moore, “but this is the arts in Australia. We need more support. We need more funding. We need more voices rising up. With Miss Saigon, yes, these white guys wrote an Asian musical, but where is the opportunity for more Asian stories right now? We need to support more Asian and POC writers so that there can be more stories than this.”
“London was my butterfly wings moment”, offers Moore. “I had to get away to flourish and now I get to be back here in Australia and bring new energy to this 30-plus year old show which is amazing. I had to leave Australia to find myself, but now we have more representation of Asianness and queerness in Australian media. Abigail Adriano who plays Kim in the show, who is ten years younger than me, is now living within this realm of Asian representation which didn’t exist ten years ago.”
“There’s such fierceness with the whole cast because we’ve got all the cultures”, declares Moore, “we’ve got Filipinos, we’ve got Koreans, and Cambodians, and we’re coming together to explode that big, “slaysian” energy in Miss Saigon! It’s all about reclaiming things on stage. There’s even a line in the show where a character says, “the war’s going to turn him queer!” That was seen as a bad thing. Not on my watch!”
By Chad Armstrong
Miss Saigon opens at the Sydney Opera House on August 17th, 2023. Tickets are available here.