Neil Cooper

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 19th 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 30th 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.

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“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 25-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 17-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 14 years since the Fall of Saigon, and the aftermath of the war was still relatively fresh and Vietnam had already trickled into popular culture.

“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 30 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, 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 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.”

Miss Saigon, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, January 17-February 17.

www.edtheatres.com