By the time of the transfer of Les Misérables to the Palace Theatre on 4 December 1985 Alain and Claude-Michel were already working on an idea for a new musical. The idea stemmed from a news photograph that Claude-Michel had come across during a coffee break one autumn afternoon in Paris. It showed a Vietnamese woman parting with her child at Tan Son Nhut airport, so that child could have a better life with her G.I. father in America. It reminded him of Cio-Cio-San’s ultimate sacrifice in Madame Butterfly.
But Miss Saigon is not simply a re-telling of the Butterfly story. That was just a starting point from which to construct their own narrative, merging only some aspects of the story with their own original contemporary subject matter and contemporary characters. There was a sense of freedom in writing an original creation as compared to writing an adaptation. With Les Misérables they were tied to a fixed narrative, which was not only a great classic but a huge epic story and one which required the skilful compression of large chunks of narrative. With Miss Saigon, however, the technique was the reverse of compression, it was one of expansion. The Butterfly plot of a misunderstanding between two individuals of highly different cultures was retained but the story was projected into a tragic period of modern history when that basic misunderstanding between two people could reflect the deeper misunderstanding between their respective countries at war.
In many ways it was a very risky thing for two Frenchmen to be writing an English-produced musical of an American story about Vietnam. But Alain and Claude-Michel thrive on writing to the edge and taking risks – doing something completely new with each musical. Richard Maltby Jr. worked on the story and lyrics with Alain, and it was essential to have an American on board to inject a real understanding of American sensibility into the story. This was the first time that Alain was co-writing the lyrics in English and he found Richard an immensely sympathetic writing partner. As director, Nicholas Hytner found ways of staging seemingly impossible scenes, such as the evacuation from the American Embassy, with great imagination and visual flair.
Miss Saigon opened at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane on 20 September 1989. This is London’s oldest and most historically important theatre with a huge stage and a seating capacity of over 2,200. It was definitely the show of the moment and received mostly great reviews. Even the Guardian’s Michael Billington, normally known for his disdain of musicals, wrote that it was a first rate piece of popular theatre which proved that a musical could address a serious theme with sincerity, emotion and integrity. The show proved enormously popular with the public, becoming the longest running musical at that theatre closing only in October 1999 after a ten year run.
Miss Saigon opened at the Broadway Theatre in New York on 11 April 1991 with a record $37 million advance. But this was only after a major dispute with Equity over the casting of Jonathan Pryce, as they believed the role should be played by a Eurasian. The show’s opening was surrounded by a huge amount of hype, but with the largest advance that Broadway had ever seen it was virtually critic proof. However, with its controversial subject matter perhaps it’s not surprising that the reviews were somewhat mixed. They all seemed obsessed with the helicopter, which gave them the opportunity to delight in verbal witticisms, with headlines such as: “The chopper has landed!” But the public loved the show and it became Broadway’s sixth longest running show, seen there by more than 6 million people before closing after almost ten years in January 2001.
Miss Saigon has been opened by 26 companies worldwide. It has been translated into 11 different languages with productions in 23 countries all over the world. It has received many awards including three Tonys and two Olivier Awards and there are cast recordings in a variety of languages.
Saigon – April 1975
The show opens in Dreamland, a sleazy bar for American GI’s, owned by the scheming Engineer. The bar girls sell themselves, not just for money, but for the hope of gaining a better life in America with one of the GI’s. Chris is utterly disillusioned with this way of life and ready to go home to America but, after a fake beauty contest to elect Miss Saigon, his friend John tries to lift his spirits by buying Kim, the beautiful new girl, for him. Chris is attracted to her and recognising her innocence, he tries to persuade her to leave alone, but the Engineer interrupts and Kim leads Chris away. During their night together, they fall deeply in love and Kim tells Chris that her parents have been killed and her village burned so that she had no choice but to come to the city to seek a living in any way she could. Not wanting her to return to work in the bar, Chris asks her to live with him. Although Saigon is about to fall, they hold a blessing ceremony with the other girls attending. The celebrations are interrupted by Thuy, to whom Kim’s father had promised her in marriage. Kim refuses to leave with him, guns are pulled and Thuy leaves cursing Kim for breaking her father’s word. Kim fears Chris will leave her now but instead he promises to take her back to America.
Ho Chi Minh City – April 1978
Three years have passed and Thuy, now a powerful commissar, orders the Engineer to find Kim for him. Kim believes that Chris will return to her, not knowing that he is now married to an American wife, Ellen. Chris, back in America, is deeply troubled by nightmares about Kim. The Engineer finds Kim, and Thuy insists that she leaves with him, but she refuses. When she shows him her little son Tam, Thuy claims that the child will blight their new life together. He is about to kill Tam, but Kim shoots Thuy first. Kim goes to the Engineer for help to get to America to be with Chris, and when he realises that Tam is the son of an American Marine he agrees. He quickly realises that if he poses as Tam’s uncle, he will at last be able to get the American visa he has long dreamed of. While the Engineer goes off to arrange a passage, Kim dreams of the chance of a better life for her son in America, all the time knowing that, if necessary, she would give her life for her child. They leave the city with all the other people in search of a new life and hope for the future.
Atlanta – September 1978
John holds a concert to raise money for the Bui-Doi, the children of the Vietnamese bar girls, and is engaged in helping to unite them with their American fathers.
He informs Chris that he has a son and that Kim is alive, and Chris reminds him of how hard he tried to get back to her in the face of impossible odds. Chris then decides to go to Bangkok with Ellen and John to find them.
Bangkok – October 1978
The Engineer and Kim are now working at a bar in Bangkok. It was the Engineer who had filled in the appropriate forms, and it is John who arrives to tell them that Chris is there too. But seeing how much Kim still loves Chris, John is unable to tell her about Ellen. As Kim gets ready to meet Chris, a flashback sequence shows how they became separated during the fall of Saigon. The sequence is initiated nightmarishly by the ghost of Thuy, who claims to be the guilt inside Kim’s head. The scene clearly shows that Chris intended to marry Kim when they got to America. As the nightmare fades, the Engineer rushes in with the address of Chris’s hotel. He wants to control the situation and sends Kim to find Chris first. But the plan misfires, and it is Ellen that Kim finds in the hotel room. Devastated to find that Chris has “another” wife, when she believed herself to be married to him, Kim’s only thoughts now are for her son. She begs Ellen to take Tam back to America, but Ellen refuses to take a child from his mother. After Kim has left, Chris and John return. Ellen feels she has been misled about Chris and Kim’s relationship, and he tries to explain with great honesty what he has been through. They both agree that it would be best to support Kim and Tam in Bangkok, and only John realises that this will not satisfy Kim’s dreams for her son. The Engineer, believing that everything has gone to plan fantasizes about his new life in America where he can fulfil his own American Dream. The heartbroken Kim prepares Tam for a new life with his father. As she hears Chris arriving, she kisses Tam goodbye and sends him out to meet his father. Realising that she is the only obstacle to Tam’s future with his father, Kim takes her own life using the very gun that Chris had left for her protection. Chris finds her and as she lies dying in his arms, Ellen now accepts her role with Tam.
There have been several different recordings of Miss Saigon including The London Cast Recording, The Complete Recording and several cast recordings in other languages including German, Dutch, Danish and Japanese.
A Video of the making of Miss Saigon: The Heat Is On is available from First Night Videos.