Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Heat Is On: The Making of Miss Saigon


Here is one of the Broadway smash hit musicals I’d most like to see. No movie has ever been made from it (nor Sunset Boulevard, as well), unlike The Phantom of the Opera and The Producers. I recently saw a story that suggested the investors are waiting to see whether or not Les Misérables is a hit or a flop before proceeding with it. I’ve got my fingers crossed.

Meanwhile, this will have to do. I love behind the scenes documentaries about movies and plays. This is one of the best. It follows the creative process from the very beginning, with Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil discussing with Cameron Mackintosh this idea they’ve had to follow up Les Miz with an adaptation of Madame Butterfly, moved from China to Southeast Asia at the end of the Vietnam War. We see everything from the early designs for the poster and models of the stage right up to backstage on opening night when we hear what’s happening out front as the numerous chorus boys and girls frantically change for the next scene. And everything that happened in between.

The highlight, of course, is the casting for the part of Kim. She must be Asian and about seventeen, so Patti LuPone is right out. In fact, every female star is right out. It’s a hell of a job, finding the right unknown. They travel from London to New York to Honolulu to Manila, looking at and listening to every plausible Asian performer, and are never satisfied. Nobody clicks. Until little Lea Salonga walks in to the audition hall and shyly asks Schönberg for his autograph on a program from Les Miz. Slightly taken aback, he signs it. And then she stands by the piano and sight-reads “I’d Give My Life for You,” and it’s as if an angel had entered the room. The hard-faced audition panel smiles, to a man. They later said that within the first bar of music, they knew they had their Kim.

(These things always involve broken hearts, too. Lea’s childhood friend, Monique Wilson, is sort of first runner-up, and ends up with a secondary part and the job of understudy to Lea. Which is why you’ve heard of Lea but probably not Monique.) (Lea was not a complete unknown. She had records in her native Philippines, even her own TV show, but it’s a whole ‘nother level to be known in New York and London.) (And Monique’s story is not a downer. She’s had a great recording career, and only about a month ago came out as a lesbian, a brave thing to do in Manila.)

As well as all that, we see the rehearsals from the very first run-through with pianos and everyone seated, to the blocking of the dance numbers, to trying to bring it all together on a stage that, one of the producers admits to the cast, can be a death trap if the timing isn’t right. Big stuff is moving around all over the place, and you could get squashed. Altogether, an exhilarating show to watch, that captures the frenzy, incredibly hard work, and joy of working together on such a massive project. If I had it all to do over, I think I might choose to work in the theater. Electrician, stage hand … who knows? Even director …