Following an incredible residency in London’s West End, Sir Cameron Mackintosh’s multi award-winning Miss Saigon is embarking on a major UK tour.
Ahead of the production coming to Birmingham Hippodrome on July 26, I took a trip down to London to get a sneak peek behind the scenes of one of the biggest touring shows of the year.
It’s mid-morning when I step into the rehearsal room, but the cast is so immersed in performing their first full run through of the show that they bearly notice myself and the rest of my group take our seats. And so we sit and watch in amazement as they step back in time to the Vietnam war, into a time where prostitution was not uncommon as women sold their bodies to simply get by.
An hour later, we’ve sat through the entire Second Act – we’ve laughed, we’ve cried but there’s little time to pull ourselves together before we’re whisked off to a separate room where the cast and creatives soon join us.
Winner of nine WhatsOnStage Awards, including Best West End Show and Best Musical Revival, Miss Saigon tells the tragic story of 17-year-old Kim, who’s forced to work in a Saigon bar run by a notorious character known as The Engineer.
It’s here that Kim meets and falls in love with an American GI Chris, but they are torn apart by the fall of Saigon in the closing days of the Vietnam War. Over three years, Kim goes on a journey of survival to find her way back to Chris, who has no idea that he’s the father of Kim’s son.
Returning to the Hippodrome for the first time since 2006, Associate Director Jean-Pierre (JP) Van Der Spuy will be bringing this spectacular production Birmingham audiences for nine weeks.
No stranger to Cameron Mackintosh’s productions, having worked on Saigon as Associate Director during its last West End run in 2014/16 and Barnum (2014/15) and Phantom of the Opera (2011/15), JP’s knowledge and involvement in Saigon has allowed him to craft the show into one of the highest-grossing theatre productions of all time.
It’s the history, JP tells me, that draws him to the show. “I think Saigon has a lot to say about where we are in our world today,” he says. “I love tethering everything we do from the piece to the root of where all of these stories come from. Sometimes, looking at something through a slightly different prism is good for people because they’re seeing it from a distance. But actually, when we look at the state of our world at the moment, it’s easy to see that we need to keep telling these stories.”
Poignant to a very dark time in Vietnam’s history, for JP ensuring both the cast and creatives have a clear understanding of the show’s history is something of great importance.
Ninety per cent of the cast is new, which gave JP the chance to rebuild the show from scratch. “On the first day of rehearsals there was around 30 per cent of the cast who had done the show before, and I said ‘to those of you who have done the show, you need to forget the minds of what the show was, we’ve got to start all together on page one with no idea of what it is,” he says.
“On our first week of rehearsals we did this insane exercise where JP got us to write a letter as our character during that specific time period,” says Zoë Doano, who plays Ellen.
“I think emotionally attaching yourself to what happened whilst people were fighting wars, and some not even knowing what they were fighting for is very important; it’s important that we tell that story with respect.
“Whenever we use any Vietnamese language JP tell’s us we have to get it right. It’s heavy stuff, those lives mattered and we have to honour that completely.”
Playing Saigon’s characters comes with huge responsibility, something that the cast feel they have to respect in each show they perform. “JP tells me we should always be true to the character and the story because we should give justice,” says Ryan O’Gorman, who plays John.
“It really happened, and right up until now it’s still happening,” adds Gerald Santos (Thuy). “It’s really a challenge for us. For me, for the role of Thuy is really hard, the difficulty level is so high.”
It’s not just the supporting cast that are feeling this pressure, it’s something that Ashley Gilmour (Chris), Sooha Kim (Kim) and Red Concepcion (The Engineer) are all experiencing too. As previous members of the ensemble in the Prince Edward production, both Ashley and Kim are honoured to be returning to Saigon as the leading roles. But this new found pressure is something that Ashley especially is learning to deal with.
“There’s a lot more on my shoulders and I’ve got to tell the story,” he says. “Not that you don’t when you’re ensemble, but it’s just the story you’re telling is more in the limelight, everyone’s watching us.
“There’s a sense of pressure, but it’s been really good, it’s been a great challenge. In the four weeks of rehearsals I’ve learnt so much and I will continue to learn more and more throughout the whole process,” he adds.
Sooha’s experience of the show has been completely different. Having made her professional debut at the Prince Edward Theatre, she joined the production as Kim for its residency in Japan. “The fact that I can return to the country where I made my professional debut was the biggest merit for me,” she says.
The show moves at such a rapid pace, from laughing at the incredibly witty American Dream to watching Kim’s life fall apart when she loses control of everything that she holds dear.
“The show is a rollercoaster,” says Red. “Once it begins there’s really no stopping until that curtain drops, so you have to bring the audience through that ride. There will be moments for the audience that’s like, “what’s happening?” They will be experiencing so many different emotions; I guess some never know that they can sympathise with certain members of the cast.”
Through its structure, setting and story, Miss Saigon reign’s as one of the most captivating musicals of all time. The set is one of the most iconic, making the show both immersive and cinematic through it’s compact and bright design.
“The design is the same as it was in the Prince Edward,” says JP. “There are big set pieces that we had before – the helicopter will still feature. The show will continue to have that moving, breathing quality.”
But a touring show doesn’t come without its challenges, and moving to a different theatre every few months means taking the set apart and rebuilding it with minimal time. “The design team are pretty brilliant,” JP adds.
“They go around and get the footprints of all the theatres around the country that the show is booked into and then they work out along the site lines and everything the optimum space. Then, when we go to each venue we will tweak it according to that space because every theatre’s different, they all have different atmospheres,” he continues.
“We try to keep the floor space as consistent as possible in order to maintain the quality of it, because if you’re having to re-stage numbers for each venue that becomes very tricky and time-consuming, and then people don’t feel confident in what they have to deliver in quite a quick turn around.”
A year after celebrating its 25th anniversary, Miss Saigon is showing no signs of slowing down, and its cast and culture is something that keeps drawing JP back to it every time. “Saigon is kind of unique as a director because you get a range of people from all over the world coming together from completely different cultural backgrounds.
“It really is challenging, having to deal with a lot of difficult topics and difficult things in terms of asking people what to do, but it’s quite thrilling when you start to buy into that and start to really draw the cast into the production by investing in the characters, their story and making them our own.
“A lot of it is the people to. I’ve worked on other shows and it’s a completely British Caucasian cast and they’ve been brilliant and I’ve loved it, but Saigon just has a little more depth. I get to work with these amazing people to who come from different cultures. That’s kind of special, you don’t always get that.”