Sir Cameron Mackintosh: Miss Saigon stirs my emotions – even after all these years
When you sit in a theatre and wonder at the spectacle before you, do you ever stop and think who’s responsible for bringing it to fruition? Who had the ideas, the foresight and the skills to bring a superb exhibition of talent to life?
Described as the most influential and prolific theatre producer of our time, Sir Cameron Mackintosh is that man.
A production of Salad Days at Drury Lane, London, on which Sir Cameron worked as a stage hand, was the inspiration which launched a career of a lifetime. He’s gone on to bring pleasure to audiences worldwide; educating and enthusing theatregoers with some of the greatest stories ever written for stage including Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera.
While his productions run around the globe, Sir Cameron still manages to retain a family ethos to Cameron Mackintosh Ltd and, whenever possible, can be found at press events and opening nights, to demonstrate his involvement in every production.
And now it’s the turn of Midlands audiences to share in Sir Cameron’s exceptional theatrical flair, as one of his most successful shows, Miss Saigon, opened at the Birmingham Hippodrome this month and runs until September 26.
“This version is by far the best we have ever done,” says Sir Cameron.
For me, having last seen Miss Saigon in 2003, the latest production is much more gritty and realistic.
“The world has sadly got worse, not better and we are indeed in gritty times and I think that is what has made the show feel even more contemporary than when it first came out nearly 30 years ago,” he continues.
I wondered if the reinvention of the production to reflect more recent times was a conscious effort by the directors of the show.
“Well it’s a slightly different team from the original and the new design of it and, of course, Laurence Connor’s direction is very much of the moment and what the world is now seeing,” he says, “whereas originally it was only 14 or 15 years after Vietnam, which changed the psyche of America because it was the first war they ever lost.
“We all knew about it, but we were observers. Now, most countries in the world, but particularly us, have got involved in so many similar conflicts and we are seeing this on TV being reported and many British people have been affected by the wars and people have lost friends and loved ones. It is very much of this time,” he says.
“Who would have thought when this show first came out, that the refugee problem of the Vietnamese going to Thailand would be far more starkly realised, with people trying to get into this country and the walls that they clambered to get on the last helicopter, are the walls that have been erected all over the place. There are so many elements to the story which have contemporary parallels which didn’t exist 30 years ago.”
Miss Saigon has been produced in an incredibly respectful way, as you would expect when dealing with such delicate subject matter.
Sir Cameron says it’s very rare that theatre producers have the opportunity to create a musical from such recent, contemporary historical events.
“When I first heard the first draft with Claude-Michel and Alain back in 1986, it was still in French and we didn’t even have the lyrics, but the phrase I used then was ‘doing this musical is like dancing on a razor blade’; you have to be utterly truthful and it has to deliver the power that only musical theatre can do, but everything had to come from the truth.
“Bob Avian, the original choreographer of Miss Saigon, was in Vietnam, so he actually experienced what it was like to be there. It was therefore second nature to him to bring his skills to storytelling about something that was very vivid to him. In fact, all the people who have seen the show who were in Vietnam have all come back to us and said, ‘my God you really captured what it was like to be there’. That’s why it’s so powerful, because it is so truthful.” Having seen the show so many times, I asked Sir Cameron if it still stirs his emotions. Yes of course,” he says. “When you get a good, new cast, they bring something different to it. For example, Red Concepcion is our first new Engineer for many years and he’s unlike any of the ones we’ve had before. I can see he’s going to have a completely different take on it.”
Having spent some time with the new cast, I remarked on how special the leading lady, Sooha Kim was. Sir Cameron agrees.
“Sooha was only about 16 when we first saw her,” he says, “and when you get them very young, you need to grow their stamina so they can cope with the huge demands of the show.”
So how does Sir Cameron know when he has found a wonderful Kim?
“It is when you get that Mother Earth feeling that they really are prepared to do anything to bring their child through this and that they can do it with a simplicity; so, it’s a strength and simplicity and it has to be pure because she is a 16 or 17-year-old girl in the story and you have to feel that she is surviving in life, but she’s still an innocent creature. Her soul has to be there.
“And with the leading man Chris, both men and women have to have sympathy with his plight. If he’s too macho, he’s a pig but if he’s too soft, you don’t believe in him. You need to have empathy for someone who has got lost in the most unexpected way and has a genuine dichotomy, because of the circumstances in life. He loves both women and that’s the tragedy. He’s completely unwitting in his situation. He would never ever have married another if he thought that Kim was still alive.”
The show features some amazing stage effects and none more so than the helicopter which lands and takes off again on stage. It’s seen in a flash back scene in Kim’s nightmare.
“It’s the best of all the versions,” said Sir Cameron. “Thanks to the sophistication of the control system, we can make it more hallucinatory but it isn’t just a fabulous object. It’s a hugely important storytelling device which shows up the awfulness of having to leave Vietnam.”
“Matt Kinley is a brilliant designer and this has come out his collaboration with Totie Driver. This is something completely new and considerably different from the one John Napier did back in 1989.
“We all decided that we didn’t want it to be a completely formed object and wanted the feeling when you have a black and white negative of something in a nightmare, with a shutter over it so it flickers and you were creating it in your mind.”
There must have been so many incredible moments in Miss Saigon over the years, but I ask Sir Cameron for his favourite. “It was the time when I took the original team to the Philippines, having auditioned this show around the world,” he says. “We had had some success in a few places, but we knew we had not completed cracked the casting. Claude-Michel had said at the beginning, ‘I have a feeling our journey will end in Manilla’. And he turned out to be completely right.
“There is something in the Filipino make up. They speak fluent English, but at the same time they haven’t lost their sense of Asia. They still retain that sense of mystery, which is completely necessary in the telling of this tale because it is about the misunderstandings that can easily happen between two different points of view. They also, unlikely many other Asian countries, can sing Western music completely naturally. That is partly because it was a Spanish colony for so many years and then they became an American colony, plus there is an inherent musical ability throughout the entire nation. They can sing pop music or theatre music. That is exceptional.
“So, discovering just how talented a whole nation is, was an extraordinary moment for the whole team,” he says. “Wherever we have taken this show, there has been Filipino talent and, more recently, Korean talent. Musicals have started to go to South Korea now. The world is changing and it’s very exciting for us to have this growing pool of talent for which we are eternally grateful to the Filipino community for what they have brought to Miss Saigon.”
This wonderfully wise, talented producer is bringing Miss Saigon to the fore once again for everyone to enjoy; creating a completely unmissable piece of theatre.
He certainly is an incredible man.
Catch Miss Saigon at the Birmingham Hippodrome from now until September 23. For tickets, visit www.birminghamhippodrome.com or call 0844 338 5000.