Skip to main content

Claude-Michel Schonberg - Miss Saigon

It was a photograph that became the inspiration for Miss Saigon, the Vietnam War set musical that ran for a decade on the West End after its original production opened in 1989. At the time, French composer Claude-Michel Schonberg and lyricist Alan Boublil were in the full throes of their success with Les Miserables, their musical version of Victor Hugo's epic nineteenth century novel, which had already been running on the West End for four years. That show would go on to be seen throughout the world, while in 2015 its London production celebrated its thirtieth anniversary.

With such a huge hit already on his and Boublil's hands, Schonberg was wanting to do some kind of adaptation of Madame Butterfly, Puccini's opera about a US Navy officer's love affair with a Japanese geisha. Exactly how he would do it, however, had yet to be worked out. The fact that Puccini had tried and failed to write an opera based on Les Miserables, but wrote Madame Butterfly instead after deciding his original idea was unworkable only strengthened Schonberg's resolve.

“I'd wanted to do an adaptation or an update of Madame Butterfly for a very long time,” says Schonberg, as director Laurence Connor's touring revival of Cameron Mackintosh's twenty-five year anniversary production of Miss Saigon arrives in Edinburgh for a month-long run. “But I didn't know where or when it should be set. Then one afternoon I was writing a scene, and I started flicking through a magazine.”

The image that caught Schonberg's eye was of a Vietnamese mother leaving her young daughter at an air base to board a flight to the United States, where her ex GI father could give her a better life in the affluent west. The narrative of the picture was a drama in itself.

“The woman had a brief affair with the girl's father, and had been looking for him for many years. Now here she was at the gate, and she knew it was the last time she would see her daughter. Looking at the picture, you knew it was a big sacrifice. That kind of parallel between what Puccini had done with Madame Butterfly and what happened after the fall of Saigon came to me when I saw this picture. I realised this sort of thing happened many times. Soldiers were engaged to Vietnamese girls, but they couldn't take them to America.”

Schonberg and Boublil came up with the story of Kim a seventeen year old Vietnamese girl forced to work in a Saigon bar run by a pimp known only as The Engineer. Into the bar and Kim's life steps American GI, Chris. The pair's already urgent love affair is ripped apart by the Fall of Saigon that marked the War's end in 1975, and for the next three years Kim embarks on an epic quest for Chris, who is unaware that the pair have a son. With English lyrics by Boublil and Richard Maltby Jr adapted from Boublil's original French, Nicholas Hytner's original production of Miss Saigon proved to be as huge as what by this time had become better known as Les Mis. Running for 4,264 performances over the next decade, the production became the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane's longest running musical.

When Miss Saigon first appeared, it was only fourteen years since the Fall of Saigon, and the aftermath of the Vietnam war was still relatively fresh. In a climate where Vietnam had already trickled into popular culture onscreen, this didn't stop the show's Broadway and West End success.

“There'd been a few movies about Vietnam by then,” says Schonberg. “There was Platoon and Good Morning, Vietnam and Full Metal Jacket, but there had never been a musical about it. Miss Saigon was the first show about the Vietnam War, and that was part of the excitement and the danger of having GIs dancing and singing onstage.”

The legacy of Vietnam's remains raw in the American psyche. A major documentary series on the War was recently screened on BBC4 after a decade in the making, and at least one new book on the subject is scheduled to be published next year.

As Schonberg points out, while Miss Saigon is set in Vietnam, “It could have been set in Grenada, where the same things had been happening, and there's still the same process going on in the wars that are happening now. I'm sure that at some point an American soldier has fallen in love with an Arab girl, and it is those stories, like the one in Miss Saigon, that touch the heart.

“It's not about which side is right or wrong. It's about the little people whose lives are destroyed by the war. We didn't want to give a history lesson about the Vietnam War. We wanted to do something that was against the war, whatever war it is.”

When Miss Saigon was first seen, it provoked controversy in some quarters regarding its casting of white actors to play some of the key Asian and Eurasian roles.

“It was another period of time,” Schonberg says. “We were making a love story, and we were employing the biggest number of Asian actors we could, but some people were getting upset.”

Almost thirty years later, things have moved on considerably, so this new production features a large multi-racial cast. This will be led by Sooha Kim, who trained in Korea, and will play the lead role of Kim, a part she has played both in London and Japan. Philippine actor Red Concepcion will play The Engineer, while a host of internationally renowned performers will appear in the show.

“More and more Asian actors have come to the fore,” says Schonberg. “Since Miss Saigon first opened in '89, a full generation of Asian actors has been created.”

While Schonberg still keeps a close eye on a show renowned for its technical spectacle, but which has retained its narrative heart throughout its life, with very few re-writes along the way.

“When we started working on it, we didn't have computers,” he says, “so that changes things in terms of technical progress. We also wrote a new song for a Dutch production three years ago. That's for Chris' wife, Ellen, who had been difficult to make a pleasant character, so we gave her a song. That gave her a life, and allowed the audience to feel sympathy for her.”

It is this sense of the everyday humanity of those caught in the crossfire of such messy conflicts as Vietnam that has given Miss Saigon a life, however reluctant Schonberg might be to identify its magic.

“It's not my place to explain what I write,” he says. “I always try to do my best, and sometimes the alchemy works, sometimes not.”

For Schonberg, it is the message of Miss Saigon that counts.

“It's a show against the war,” he says. “Any war. The misunderstanding between two countries that makes war happen. We're not making a show about a big story. It looks like it, but actually it's adopting a very simple position. It's about these two people caught up in the middle of this war who fall in love, and how they deal with that. When these two people find each other in the middle of all this madness, when they fall in love they find a way to compensate for the situation. That's universal.”

The Herald, January 2nd 2018

Miss Saigon, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, January 17-February 17.
www.edtheatres.com

ends

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Art School Dance Goes On Forever – Snapshots Of Masters Of The Multiverse

Intro – Snapshots – Deaf School

1

In 1980, the same year as the Manchester band, Magazine, released a 7
inch single called A Song From Under The Floorboards – a three verse
and chorus distillation of Dostoyevsky's novel, Notes From Underground
– an art school scandal occurred.

This scandal took place in Liverpool, and was based around a project
called the Furbelows, although it became better known in the Liverpool
Echo and other organs that reported it as the Woolly Nudes.

The Furbelows, or Woolly Nudes, were a group of artists who had come
out of Liverpool College of Art, who, dressed in grotesque woolly
costumes which featured knitted approximations of male and female
genitalia, made assorted public interventions around the city centre as
kind of living sculptures acting out assorted narratives.

The Furbelows project had been funded by what was then Merseyside Arts
Association, and, after the participants were arrested and taken to
court on obscenity charges after what…

Peter Brook – The Prisoner

Peter Brook is no stranger to Scotland, ever since the guru of European and world theatre first brought his nine-hour epic, The Mahabharata, to Glasgow in 1988. That was at the city’s old transport museum, which by 1990 had become Tramway, the still-functioning permanent venue that opened up Glasgow and Scotland as a major channel for international theatre in a way that had previously only been on offer at Edinburgh International Festival.
Brook and his Paris-based Theatre des Bouffes du Nord company’s relationship with Tramway saw him bring his productions of La Tragedie de Carmen, La Tempete, Pellease et Mellisande, The Man Who…, and Oh Les Beaux Jours – the French version of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days – to Glasgow.
Thirty years on from The Mahabharata, Brook comes to EIF with another piece of pan-global theatre as part of a residency by Theatre des Bouffes du Nord, which Brook has led since he decamped to Paris from London in the early 1970s. The current Edinburgh residency has alr…

Romeo And Juliet - Shakespeare's Globe Comes to Glasgow

Open-air Shakepeares are a summer-time perennial of the theatre calendar, attracting picnicking audiences as much as midges. More often than not, such romps through the grass are frothy, heritage industry affairs designed to be accompanied by strawberries and cream and not to be taken too seriously. Shakespeare’s Globe theatre company look set to change such perceptions when they open their outdoor tour of Romeo And Juliet in Glasgow next week as part of the West End festival.

For the two young actors taking the title roles of the doomed lovers, it will also be something of a homecoming. Richard Madden and Ellie Piercy both studied in Glasgow prior to turning professional. Indeed, Madden has yet to graduate from the acting course at RSAMD, and, as well as facing the pressures of playing such a meaty role in close proximity to the audience, will have the added anxiety of being assessed and graded by his tutors.

“This is the end of my third year,” says Madden following a Saturday mornin…