COVER STORY : It’s the Whopper of a Chopper : ‘Miss Saigon’ fall into L.A. with its ageless love story, high-tech wizardry and megabucks box office--not to mention all that baggage. So, wha took so long?.

<i> Jan Breslauer is a frequent contributor to Calendar</i>

The helicopter is about to land.

“Miss Saigon,” the mega-musical with the well-known whirlybird, is one of the top-grossing shows of its time. And one of the most controversial.

An update of “Madama Butterfly” set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, “Miss Saigon” represents the fusion of the venerable story of cross-cultural love with the meal ticket of modern theater--the musical spectacle.

“Miss Saigon’s” creators are the men who have helped turn theater into a transnational cash cow: It was written by the French team of Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil--the duo that also created “Les Miserables”--and is produced by Cameron Mackintosh, the force not only behind “Les Miz” but also “Cats” and “The Phantom of the Opera.”


The Bill Gates of Broadway and the Sam Walton of the West End, Mackintosh knew even before opening “Miss Saigon” that he had another world-class Wunder -show. Prior to its 1989 London premiere, “Miss Saigon” racked up an $8-million advance sale, the largest in British theatrical history (a record only recently topped by “Oliver!”--also a Mackintosh production) and had sold out its first six months.

Last month, the London production of “Miss Saigon” overtook the longstanding record for most performances in that city’s largest house, the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, a mark previously held by “My Fair Lady.”

Yet “Miss Saigon” has also been a lightning rod for controversy. It’s the show that triggered the brouhaha over the casting of English actor Jonathan Pryce, sparking a royal row between Mackintosh and Actors’ Equity in New York.

The touring production, directed by Nicholas Hytner, opens Jan. 25 as the first show to grace the stage of the Ahmanson Theatre since its recently completed $17.1-million renovation.

The show has taken four years to open in Los Angeles because the Ahmanson was Mackintosh’s choice for a venue, even though that meant waiting until “Phantom” was gone.

“There was simply no house to put it in,” says the Ahmanson’s Gordon Davidson. “And when I told (Mackintosh) that I was going to redo the Ahmanson, he said he was willing to wait.”


Davidson says he doesn’t think the delay has done the show any harm: “I don’t detect any falloff (in interest). I had some concern about that initially, but Cameron and I always felt this was a show, unlike ‘Phantom,’ that would have a finite run.

“ ‘Phantom’ has a broader-based appeal, and people can come see it again. ‘Saigon’ is a show that you see essentially once.”

Of course, there’s no way to know if “Miss Saigon’s” $10.5-million advance sale (as of last Sunday) wouldn’t have been greater had the show arrived earlier, or in a non-touring production, but this “Miss Saigon” is hardly your average bus-and-truck company, and the Ahmanson redo was accomplished in part to provide the backstage real estate this super-show needs.

“It’s the biggest show that’s ever toured,” says production stage manager David Hansen. “ ‘Miss Saigon’ is actually bigger than ‘Phantom.’ ”

Bigger seems to be better in this business.

“Musical theater is expensive to produce,” says Mackintosh, speaking by car phone en route to his London office. “That’s both its Achilles’ heel and the reason it will survive. It’s one thing you can’t cram into your video. There’s something inherently theatrical about spectacle theater that you cannot get at home.”


Set in April, 1975, shortly before the Americans pulled out of South Vietnam, “Miss Saigon” is the tale of a doomed affair between a Vietnamese bar girl named Kim and a young Marine named Chris.


Kim, orphaned and forced to leave the countryside, goes to work in a Saigon bar for a sleazy pimp called the Engineer when she first meets Chris.

“Tonight I will be Miss Saigon,” the bar girls sing. “I’ll win a GI, and be gone.”

. . . Your passport’s standing at the bar , sings the Engineer.

Kim and Chris fall in love that night, only to be separated during the fall of Saigon--a scene shown in flashback, as the famous helicopter hovers over a crowd of singing would-be refugees.

“They’ll kill who they find here,” the pack sings. “Don’t leave us behind here.”

Three years later, in the second act, the Communists have come to power in what is now Ho Chi Minh City. Chris is home and married to a swell American gal named Ellen.

He finds out through his buddy John, who works on behalf of Amerasian, or “Bui-Doi,” children, that Kim now has a son named Tam--Chris’, of course--and is living in Thailand with the boy.


Chris, Ellen and John set off for Bangkok to find Kim, who wants to send Tam to America.

“I had a dream for my son to belong, and not live all his life in the streets, like a rat.”

Ellen and Chris offer to pick up the tab for Kim and Tam in Thailand, but they resist taking the boy to the United States. Soon after, the drama ends on a, well, less-than-sunny note.

“How in one night have we come . . . so far?” Kim sings, as the curtain falls.


The “Miss Saigon” story shares basic plot points with Puccini’s 1904 double-hankie opera, in which an American naval lieutenant named Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton nabs a meek Japanese girl named Cio-Cio San as his bride. When it comes time to head for home, Pinkerton dumps Cio-Cio San, who waits for him nonetheless while giving birth to their child. When Pinkerton finally returns with a new American bride at his side, the shamed Cio-Cio San kills herself.

The Puccini opera wasn’t original either. It was based on David Belasco’s play, which was derived from a 1898 John Luther Long magazine story. Long’s story was itself based on Pierre Loti’s 1889 autobiographical novel “Madame Chrysanthemum,” about a liaison between a French military man and his Japanese paramour.

Rodgers and Hammerstein reportedly intended to make “South Pacific” a version of “Madama Butterfly” as well but ended up switching to James Michener’s “Tales From the South Pacific.” “South Pacific,” like “Madama Butterfly” and “Miss Saigon,” also pivots on star-crossed love between people from different cultures.

But Asian characters in Western musicals--let alone realistic Asian characters--have generally been as hard to find as sushi at a Burger King. That’s partly why Boublil and Schonberg felt a need to update the “Madama Butterfly” story to cater to modern sensibilities.


“We made the choice to have a young GI and not an older man, to have a real love story between two people,” Boublil says. “There is a certain stage where each has to go back to a world he or she knows.”

Ultimately, says Mackintosh, “I don’t think this has anything to do with the war. It is about two young people who are torn. It doesn’t aim any higher than being a good story and a good musical. That’s a good aim.”


In 1985, well into the era of the mega-musical, composer Schonberg came upon a magazine photo of a Vietnamese woman saying goodby, presumably forever, to her mixed-race child at an airport terminal. That image, combined with his longstanding love of opera, was the seed for the show.

“I always wanted to try and write a version of ‘Madama Butterfly,’ ” says Schonberg, speaking by phone from his house near St. Tropez, in the south of France.

“When I saw this picture in the magazine, we thought it’s a good subject because we knew that (there) already was a work on stage by Puccini,” says Schonberg, who composed the score and co-wrote the basic book with Boublil.

They didn’t initially plan on making a Vietnam story.

Says Boublil: “It never started with making a musical about the Vietnam War. The question was to find a period in time that would reflect a tragic love story with the same kind of deep misunderstanding between two people.


“Updating it to that period of American history was a big risk. Obviously, ‘Platoon’ and the other movies about Vietnam hadn’t been made.”

But, says Boublil, whose first collaboration with Schonberg was “La Revolution Francaise,” “if there was one thing we didn’t want to do again, it was a historic French background. So we went to the other extreme.

“Not only did we do a modern story, but we dared to touch a moment of history which was not even ours. And that’s probably why we could do it, because no American would dare.”

The team decided to craft their piece in the style of a “sung-through,” or book-less, musical.

“Our ambition was to write a modern opera,” Boublil says. “If the classical writers were writing today, I believe they would be writing with the same kind of idiomatic language.”

The East-West clash had to reverberate.

“I wanted the clash between two cultures in the overture,” Schonberg says. “You have the Asian instruments, to give you the feeling that you are somewhere else, mixing with the symphonic orchestra.”



Mackintosh got into the “Miss Saigon” act when Boublil and Schonberg told him they had a new work. In 1986, shortly after the team’s “Les Miserables” opened in London, they first played a rough version of their latest project for the producer.

“When I heard the first act in May of 1986, I thought, ‘This is dangerous,’ ” Mackintosh recalls. “Every member of an audience has seen scenes from this war on television. It would have to tread a razor-sharp line.”

Mackintosh was soon ready to go ahead. He brought in lyricist Richard Maltby Jr. to collaborate with Boublil on adapting the lyrics from the original French.

“Miss Saigon” was Boublil’s first work as an English lyricist, and the teamwork also gave the American characters more depth, Boublil says:

“I was born in Tunisia--where fatalism means so much--which made me understand the Asian characters. When it came to Chris and John, Richard Maltby helped me to understand what a young American boy could feel when the Vietnam War was raging.

“Chris’ nervous breakdown would not be the same without Maltby. Chris was not such a complex character (in the original French).”


Mackintosh also enlisted the services of several “Les Miserables” veterans, including set designer John Napier, lighting designer David Hersey and costumer Andreane Neofitou.

Notably absent from the “Les Miz” pack was director Trevor Nunn, a longtime Mackintosh associate who had been key to making “Les Miz” an international hit. Instead Mackintosh brought in the then-33-year-old Hytner, who was at the time a promising talent in opera and British repertory theater, a decision that caused a rift between Mackintosh and Nunn.

As the opening neared, anticipation among the press and public ran high, based largely on the huge box-office success of “Les Miserables.”

After four years in the making and more than $5 million in production costs, “Miss Saigon” brought in $8 million in advance sales by the time of its premiere at the Drury Lane theater in September of 1989. It was generally well-received by the London press and dubbed best musical by the London Theatre Critic Circle Awards.

The cast was headed by then 17-year-old Lea Salonga in the title role and British actor Pryce as the Engineer.

The original cast album quickly went gold.


The transfer to Broadway’s 1991 opening hit a roadblock in the summer of 1990. Protests, spearheaded by some Asian American theater artists, decried the casting of Pryce in what they thought should be an Asian role. (The Engineer is actually Eurasian, according to the lyrics.)


Among the protesters were playwright David Henry Hwang, author of “M. Butterfly” (which is also a version of the “Madama Butterfly” story) and actor B. D. Wong, who appeared in Hwang’s play. They argued that there are so few opportunities for Asian American actors that a role like the Engineer ought to go to an Asian performer.

That August, Actors’ Equity agreed. The union said Pryce could not repeat his role in New York, even though he had previously been certified as an international star--he won a Tony in 1977 for his first Broadway outing, “Comedians”--which should have exempted him from the union’s normal restrictions on non-American actors performing in the United States.

The day after Actors’ Equity announced its decision, however, amid a continuing hue and cry, a publicly steamed Mackintosh announced that he was going to cancel the Broadway opening, despite the huge advance ticket sales.

Not long thereafter, following negotiations on other casting matters, Equity responded to pressure, including petitions from some of its members, and reversed its ruling barring Pryce.

Then in September, about a month after he’d said it wouldn’t happen, Mackintosh said the show would go on after all, seemingly putting an end to the debate.

Only three months later, however, objections were also raised to Salonga, a native of the Philippines. After Equity’s rejection of the actress, Mackintosh defended his choice by saying that he had conducted extensive auditions in the United States and seen 1,200 Asian American actresses, none of whom he considered up to snuff to play Kim.


Finally, in April, 1991, “Miss Saigon” opened in New York at the Broadway Theatre, with Pryce and Salonga re-creating their London roles. After all the free publicity, the show had a $37-million advance sale, which was the largest in Broadway’s history, and double that of “Phantom.”

The New York critics were not as enthusiastic as the London critics. Frank Rich wrote in the New York Times that “for all that is indeed simplistic, derivative and, at odd instances, laughable about it--this musical is a gripping entertainment of the old school.”

Pryce went on to win a Tony, as did Salonga, although the show lost its best musical bid to “The Will Rogers Follies.”


For all the fuss over Pryce and Salonga, “Miss Saigon” is more about spectacle than it is a star vehicle.

“There are more crew members than performers, which shows you how big it is,” says production stage manager Hansen. “We have work call (technical crew sessions) every week just to keep it working. There’s always something that’s going to pop up.”

The sheer scope of the physical production made “Miss Saigon” a Broadway landmark.

“When it opened, it was the largest computerized show ever to have been done,” says technical production manager Jake Bell, a veteran of “Cats” and “Les Miserables.” “There isn’t another show that has this many automated effects.”


No automated effect is more complex, or more famous, of course, than the helicopter. The 8,000-pound bird provides a climactic moment when it descends in a scene recalling the fall of Saigon.

It’s there, Schonberg says, “to show why Chris didn’t take Kim with him.” And the chopper has also become a kind of image for the show, whose logo is a stylized black graphic of a helicopter that also looks like a Chinese alphabet character.

With a cab only 10% smaller than that of a real Huey transport, “the helicopter is the most complicated piece ever to be computerized, and this one is actually better than the one in New York,” Bell says of the touring version.

It takes seven different automated effects to create the impression of a helicopter flying in. It has to rise and lower and swing from side to side, and the chopper cab also has to rise, lower and tilt.

There is an automated pilot that has to be integrated as well, and each piece of this operation is separately programmed. The impression of chopper blades is created by thin cords that, when moving at full speed, look like blades.

Besides the helicopter, there are several other notable set pieces during the course of 22 scene shifts. There’s a life-size Cadillac replica (a real car in the Broadway production) and an 18-foot-high, 700-pound statue of North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh.


“People think, ‘Oh, I’m going to see the helicopter,’ and they come away saying there’s scenery everywhere,” Hansen says.


Other Saigonalia:

* There are 44 people in the cast, including two kids; three stage managers; a 40-person crew; two company managers; 27 musicians in the pit and one poor schmo (the “Tam wrangler”) to ride herd on the kids playing the kid.

* There are about 375 costumes.

* The show uses 350 focusing lighting instruments, 30 moving light curtains, 26 computerized Vari Lights, four follow spots and an unspecified number of patrons with purse flashlights who use the wands to find their seats after braving the line in the women’s john during intermission.

* Each performance scarfs up 300 pounds of dry ice, thanks to fog and smoke machines in the Cadillac and on the deck.


* The show uses 45 guns.

* There are 25 radio microphones and 30 headsets used by the “Miss Saigon” running crew.


It is, at least technically, a better “Miss Saigon” spectacle on tour than in New York.

“Cameron is in the forefront of saying, ‘I don’t want a less acceptable show (than what was) in New York,” Bell says of the touring production. “We were given the opportunity to make changes, to take it a step further.”

The set is actually larger and the scenery moves more quickly and with greater facility in the touring version.

“We’re able to get the scenery closer to the audience,” Bell says.

Yet the techno-wizardry has also been consolidated for the touring production. A show that started out with 100 effects has been reduced to 59 and spares for the road. (Compare, for example, the touring “Phantom,” which had 26 such effects.)

Thus “Miss Saigon” travels light, relatively speaking.

Says Bell: “With automation and high tech, we are able to move a show faster and more economically. If you go back a few years before computers, it was just impossible to tour. Everything was still being run manually, so it ended up being too expensive.”

The tour can also adjust to what each house has to offer, he says: “The thing that makes (the physical production design) unique is that it’s adaptable. We can go from 47 feet of (stage) depth to 65 feet and utilize all that depth. When we cut it down, we take an empty section of deck out of the middle.”

The technical team also has the quick move down to a science. “There are pieces we are able to duplicate and hang in (advance),” Bell says. Then we close and take all that’s not duplicated and ship it.”


Says Hansen: “It’s two weeks to 10 days to set up the show. We have 10 trucks in the advance (shipment) and 17 to 18 that go show-to-show. Big tours (of other shows) are seven to 10 trucks (total).”

Of course, there are also actors to go along with the killer gadgets.

Among the most notable in the touring company is Jennifer Paz, playing the title role. Her only previous theater experience was working with a small Asian theater company in Seattle, but Kim-watchers have touted her as one of the best yet.

Paz was born in the Philippines and reared in Washington state; she won the part at an open-call audition in Vancouver when she was a 19-year-old freshman at the University of Washington.

“I found similarities with my character,” says the now 21-year-old actress, speaking by phone on New Year’s Day from Las Vegas, where she and some friends had traveled on a lark the night before.

“My parents wanted to come here to give us a better life,” says Paz, the youngest of four children, whose family emigrated when she was 5. “Kim wants the same thing for her child. She suffers a lot, but she managed to maintain that plan to give her child a better life.”

The U.S. tour was launched in 1992 in Chicago, where it played for a year before hitting the road that is now to bring it to Los Angeles. Paz joined the show in 1992, as the alternate for the national tour and was moved up into the role in April, 1993.


Connecticut native Peter Lockyer, 21, played Chris on Broadway and has been repeating his role opposite Paz for about a year now. (Kevin Gray plays the Engineer.)

“Chris is a frustrated guy, at his wit’s end with the war, ready to get out,” he says.

Unlike Paz, though, he didn’t find a personal tie-in with his character right away.

“At the time of the show, I was 2 years old,” he says. “The whole cast watched news footage and spoke to veterans and tried to get a feel of what was it like.

“When I first started the show, I couldn’t have imagined being in a war. But after talking to people, I realized they couldn’t have imagined it either.”


‘Miss Saigon” is currently running in both Tokyo and Toronto--the former production was launched in 1992, the latter in 1993. Others are slated for Germany and Australia.

There are three Mackintosh-launched “Miss Saigon” schools--in London, Australia and Manila--established to train farm teams of Asian actors for work in “Miss Saigon” and the theater in general. In North America, New York-based casting directors nurture potential “Miss Saigon” cast members by regularly holding open-call auditions in a number of cities and conducting follow-up sessions with performers who show potential.

“We started the school before we did the show in London,” Mackintosh says. “There was no reason to suspect there would be lots of Asian performers in London, because they didn’t have work to do. It’s got to be a profession for people.”


Moreover, Mackintosh is confident that there will be plenty of work for the grads, since the interest in “Miss Saigon” appears to be holding: “The rare thing about ‘Miss Saigon’ is that a musical about a real subject has become a success in its own time.”

He remains unconcerned that his shows have often been criticized for turning the contemporary stage into a showcase for pricey special effects.

“I can’t do anything about the fact that people like my musicals,” Mackintosh says.

What’s more, it’s a matter of offering a product for which there clearly is a market.

“If these shows didn’t exist, there would be a vacuum,” he says. “It isn’t as if a lot of shows have been kept out of New York. The thing about New York is that there isn’t much new material coming up.”

From Mackintosh’s point of view, the future of the musical theater comes down to supply-side economics: “We’ve got to structure our economics for a younger audience,” says the man whose Broadway production of “Miss Saigon” nonetheless set a still-standing record-high ticket price of $100 for some seats.

“In Britain, people are more likely to buy the cheaper seats than in America, where everybody wants center orchestra,” he says. “I’ve had $15 tickets made available for my shows. We did a ticket sale with a $30 top and it was a huge success, which does prove that there is an audience that would love to go, if it was cheap enough.”

He may even test this theory with his next show--Boublil and Schonberg’s “The Romance of Martin Guerre”--which he hopes to open in about a year, provided a venue can be found.


“Unfortunately there isn’t a theater available (in London) because all my shows are still running,” he says.

Meanwhile, Mackintosh is in the process of making a symphonic album of “Miss Saigon” on Geffen Records. He and Boublil and Schonberg also keep watchful eyes on each new incarnation of the boffo hit that has audiences in several countries leaving the theater humming the helicopter.

Now and then, they even fantasize about taking their great success one step further--into what might be truly risky territory for the top-dollar threesome.

“One day,” Boublil muses, “ ‘Miss Saigon’ will be played without the helicopter.”

* “Miss Saigon,” Ahmanson Theatre, the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. Jan. 25-Oct. 14. Tuesday-Sunday, 8 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 2 p.m. $45-$65. (213) 365-3500.