Cameron Mackintosh’s new production of Miss Saigon arrives in Bristol next Wednesday (16th May 2018) for a six-week run at The Bristol Hippodrome.

Set in the last days of the Vietnam War, the show tells the story of 17-year-old Kim who is forced to work in a Saigon bar run by a notorious character known as the Engineer. She meets and falls in love with an American GI named Chris but they are torn apart by the fall of Saigon. 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. It is based on Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly.

Miss Saigon was written by composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyricist Alain Boublil. They had previously created Les Misérables.

Vivienne Kennedy caught up with Claude-Michel recently to find out more.

Miss Saigon company

Your inspiration for Miss Saigon came from a photograph; can you tell me a bit more?

For a few years I had been wanting to do an updated version of Madame Butterfly. But I didn’t know exactly where and when it should be set. I’d been exchanging ideas with Alain and we knew it would mainly be about an American soldier not in Barbados but maybe on an island… the Caribbean… I don’t remember but we weren’t very happy.

The original story, of course, took place in Asia where the interaction between women and men is not the same.

I was working on a few changes to Les Misérables and when I broke for coffee in the afternoon there was a magazine on my table. I was thumbing through the magazine when I saw the picture – I saw a woman saying goodbye to her daughter at Saigon Airport. She had been looking for her ex-boyfriend, a G.I., so the girl could go to the United States where she was sure she’d have a better life with her father.

She knew it was the very last time she would see her daughter, a girl aged 11 or 12. I was quite shocked from the perspective of a parent, knowing how I would feel if I was leaving my children, never to see them again. And I was shocked from the point of view of the child, because how would I have felt when I was 11-years-old if that had been happening – if that was the last time you could see, or touch, your mother. I thought that was a very strong and powerful message. The mother was making a sacrifice, just like Ciocio-san in Madame Butterfly.

“Why don’t we do it during the Vietnam War? A love story between an American and this girl. He has to leave on a helicopter, not knowing that she’s pregnant with a baby.”

That was the starting point.

This was in 1985, the fall of Saigon was only 10 years before. It was still brand new but there were already movies like Platoon and Good Morning Vietnam. The American people are very quick at working through their own history, we can’t do that in France – we are still traumatised by the French collaboration during World War II or by the Algerian War, and you can’t joke with that. But in America they have that capacity to add a little bit of distance to their history.

I wanted to call it Saigon but Alain told me it was better to have the name of somebody, of a human being, and, as she was a bar girl, we were able to invent that fake pageant and called it Miss Saigon.

The show obviously has a very different feel musically to Puccini’s opera but are there key similarities and differences we should listen out for?

There is a very small tribute to Puccini in the middle of the score, but I’m not going to tell you what it is.

Madame Butterfly is an opera I know by heart, so it was quite easy for me to pick out something from the orchestration.

I have to tell you that for a strange reason we have to thank Puccini twice. First of all, he wanted to write Les Misérables but he gave up, it was too complicated, and instead he wrote Madame Butterfly. So, we must thank him for not writing Les Misérables, and for writing Madame Butterfly!

Once you’ve written a show do you then hand it over to the producer and director or do you stay very involved?

We had already been working on it for two years with Cameron on Les Misérables and one day we told him that we wanted musical theatre to be our life. We didn’t want to go back to the pop song writing we’d been doing before.

We told him we had another idea and asked if he would listen to it once we had a decent demo.

Six or seven months later we said: “we think we have an Act One”. I was playing the piano and singing in French, all the parts. In those days it was all recorded on a cassette and we also gave him a straight translation of the French lyrics into English, so he knew what I was singing.

One night we went to his house and he cooked, as usual, for us, I remember it was a wonderful lobster.

We played him the demo and he was quite surprised; it was certainly different to Les Misérables. When we wrote that show we hadn’t learnt the rules and traditions of musical theatre but like sponges we had been absorbing all the information and now knew how to structure a musical.

He asked if we were aware how dangerous it was, to have a show like that, practically in contemporary costume… having a G.I. on stage, singing and dancing…

He told us to give him two days, he needed to think about it and to listen to it many times, many times, many times.

Those two days were the most uncomfortable of our lives but then he rang us and said he loved it and we were going to do it.

A few months later we’d produced the second act, but we kept on working because a musical isn’t just written, it’s rewritten again and again.

We met Nick Hytner. He’d never directed a musical before but I remember our first meeting very well, he said: “I love it. I’m going to do it. I want to do it.”

And from this point we moved towards the final version.

>>> See what else is on in Bristol this month

Miss Saigon

That was almost 30 years ago; did you imagine then that it would still be selling record numbers of tickets now?

Of course not.

Until the day you have an audience, you don’t really know what you have written. It can be a Ferrari car or a terrible Citroen 2CV – you know what I mean?

We opened at Drury Lane, which was very dangerous. There was no preview and no tour first. But it was an overnight success and that was quite a relief.

The production coming to Bristol is a bit newer, it premiered a couple of years ago. Is it very different from the original?

Physically, yes; the score not.

Imagine, even in five years the improvements that there have been in projection, in lighting, the computerisation of everything, in the movement of the set…

For the 25th anniversary of the show Cameron wanted a new production, designed by Matt Kinley. It looks different, sometimes more realistic, sometimes more abstract.

Everything’s updated but the score is the same.

The first time I watched Madame Butterfly the singer playing Pinkerton made me hate his character so much that I found I couldn’t clap when he came on for his final bow. Your male lead, Chris, is quite different, isn’t he?

Pinkerton wasn’t very kind.

We didn’t want Chris to be a bastard. We realised from reading a lot of books that a lot of American G.I.s had to leave their wives or girlfriends in Vietnam when they returned to America; they couldn’t take them.

The woman he marries when he returns to the USA is a difficult character; she’s a trouble maker. Without her, he would have gone back to Vietnam or Thailand, found Kim and taken her back to the United States.

When we opened the show in America we met a veteran from Vietnam. He explained that 19 years before he’d had a girlfriend in Vietnam that he loved very much but he had to go back to America. Someone in the company asked him what he would do, if someone told him that day that she was still alive and where she was; he said that he would immediately take a plane, go to Vietnam, and bring her back with him. That kind of story exists.

Next year will be the 30th anniversary; is there a big party planned?

It is? Let’s see, we opened in ’89, so… yes, you are right - that tells you that obviously there are no plans yet!

That’s up to Cameron.

>>> Pre-theatre dining in Bristol

Miss Saigon

What’s your favourite moment in the show?

When you’re writing something, you try always to make it your best. If you ask me that, it’s like asking “who is your favourite child?” – I can’t answer that.

My final question; we started by talking about your inspiration for Miss Saigon – what inspires you today?

I can’t tell you because the subject is very controversial. I’m trying to finish a job, it’s not a musical, it’s a ballet. If it opens one day you will know about it.

Miss Saigon opens at The Bristol Hippodrome on Wednesday 16 May and plays until Saturday 23 June. There are evening and matinee performances including an audio described performance on 5 June and a captioned performance on the 12th.

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Miss Saigon at Bristol Hippodrome
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Miss Saigon tells the story of the last days of the Vietnam War, 17 year-old Kim is forced to work in a Saigon bar run by a notorious character known as the Engineer. There she meets and falls in love with an American GI named Chris but they are torn apart by the fall of Saigon.

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