Miss Saigon first erupted into the global consciousness in 1989, when Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, together with Richard Maltby Jr and producer Cameron Mackintosh, took Puccini’s Madame Butterfly and updated it with multi-textured music to cast a visceral, human, emotional, angry eye over the plight of those caught up in the Vietnam War. Under the direction of (now Sir) Nicholas Hytner, a multi-national cast, led by stage veteran Jonathan Pryce – in his first musical – and entirely-new discovery Lea Salonga, took audiences on a whirlwind ride through one of the most tortured periods of modern international history. The audiences adored them for it and the show ran in London for ten years.
A quarter-century later, in 2014, a new production with a new director – Laurence Connor – and a new cast hit the Prince Edward Theatre in London’s West End and stayed put for nearly 800 performances. On Sept 22, 2014, the 25th anniversary of the show was marked with a gala performance, and this performance, filmed on the night with additional cover footage taken this January, will be given a cinematic release for one day on October 16 ahead of its release on DVD and Blu-Ray.
Without wishing to betray too much the fact that – even at 32 – I am probably among the oldest contributors to VultureHound, I do remember a time when gala performances – or indeed any night at the theatre – was an excuse to dress up so one is immediately struck by the proliferation of t-shirts, jumpers and jeans on display during the initial sweep across the audience, but of course one quickly remembers that times have changed and, in any event, there is nothing glam about the content of the show.
For those unfamiliar – I’ll be quick: GI Chris Scott falls in love with Kim – a country girl who has lost her family in the war and been forced to work as a prostitute in a Saigon bar, run by lovable/sinister rogue The Engineer. The fall of Saigon forces Chris to leave without Kim. Three years later, Chris’s former war buddy John – now the chairman of a charity seeking to find the fathers of the many children brought about by the GI presence in Vietnam, locates Kim and, with her, Chris’s child, in Bangkok – the Engineer still in tow trying anything to get an American visa. But Chris is now married to Ellen – what will happen? Actually, any vague knowledge of Madame Butterfly will tell you what will happen, but never mind.
This 2014 production, which I saw twice in situ, is an absolute showcase for the sort of big, bold, busty musicals that Cameron Mackintosh has the power and bunce to produce. It assaults you from the off – Kim’s scooping up from her burning village by the Engineer almost instantly bursts forth into his seedy Saigon bar, filled with horny GIs and needs-must call-girls in the big opening number The Heat is On in Saigon, calming down in that first fifteen minutes only for the solo The Movie in My Mind, sung by veteran escort Gigi (Rachelle Ann Go) as she sings eloquently and movingly about the life she dreams of when she’s being forced to sleep with yet another heartless soldier. Every kind of sexual encounter is occurring in the shadows around her, but her peace and stillness and anguish cry de profundis and set up the audience for a show of many emotional responses.
Alistair Brammer, as Chris, and Eva Noblezada as Kim (again, an 18-year-old neophyte like Lea Salonga before her) give breathless and breathtaking performances in the central roles. Noblezada particularly has a voice whose range and power come out of nowhere and belie her tiny stature, while Brammer – vigorous, muscular, drippingly masculine – is capable of the most extraordinary vocal delicacy and sensitivity.
But, like Jonathan Pryce in 1989, it is Jon Jon Briones who steals the show as The Engineer. Briones, who has worked in one guise or another on every major production of Miss Saigon since its inception in 1989, uses his intimate knowledge of the show to tease and weave and shape performative moments you would never have dreamt were there. His set-piece numbers enchant – from the long, narrative If You Want to Die in Bed to the second act masterpiece The American Dream, where excess piles upon excess to an almost orgasmic climax proving conclusively what Liberace used to say, that too much of a good thing is wonderful.
Of course, anyone who has had even the barest brush-by with Miss Saigon will know that it is a towering colossus of musical theatre mastery, and the 2014 production was aided by an enhanced and developed set design by West End design maven John Napier. From a ginormous golden bust of Ho Chi Minh to simple, shape-shifting sets used to expert effect and, of course, the world-renowned helicopter for the Fall of Saigon scene (you won’t feel it on the DVD obviously, but the wind machines in the stalls of the theatre to herald the chopper’s arrival were pretty intense), this is, even when portraying grinding poverty, a visually opulent experience.
Rendered onto film, this is also still a very theatrical experience, and the decision was made not to hide the actors’ microphones, overdub the vocals or try and pretend it was anything other than a filmed live performance, but the multi-camera set-up, the cinematic post-production process and the taking of further covering footage allow for a sumptuous edit with some seriously impressive intercuts and overlays.
Be warned if you go to the cinema to see this – the show ain’t over when the play finishes. After a rather sudden and awkwardly-timed fifteen-minute intermission, there is a special half-hour-ish finale containing… well, go find out.
As with anything involving a live show being filmed, the camera does take away one’s agency to look where you want and pick up on the many, many other things going on away from the main action. For instance, the Bangkok nightclub scene doesn’t once show us the burgeoning love story that goes on between a leather-hot-panted pole-dancer and an increasingly drunk Mormon missionary at extreme stage left, but we see enough to know that this is a special show and one to be cherished at home in mid-priced disc form – but of course, that’s what Cameron’s been aiming for, Engineer-like, all along!
A real feast for the eyes and the emotions. Go. Enjoy. And then just take a deep breath and buy the DVD and sundry merchandise – sometimes one just needs to forget about sticking it to The Man.
Production Dir: Laurence Connor
Music: Claude-Michel Schönberg
Lyrics: Alain Boublil, Richard Maltby Jr
Prd: Cameron Mackintosh
Cast: Eva Noblezada, Jon Jon Briones, Alistair Brammer, Rachelle Ann Go, Hugh Maynard, Tamsin Carroll, Kwang-Ho Hong, guest appearances by Lea Salonga, Jonathan Pryce, Simon Bowman et al
Miss Saigon: The 25th Anniversary Gala Performance is being screened in cinemas nationwide on October 16 only and will be released for download and on DVD and Blu-Ray on October 24 2016.