When most people think of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s megamusical Miss Saigon, two things usually come to mind: the love story between Chris and Kim during and after the Vietnam War, and the helicopter. In fact, when producer Cameron Mackintosh approached set designers Totie Driver and Matt Kinley about working on the 2014 West End revival, one of his directions to them was this: “It would have to have a real helicopter,” recalls Kinley. “There was no way he could bring it back to the West End and not have a real helicopter onstage.” That’s no surprise considering the original production was infamous for that bit of avian wizardry.
Both set designers have had prior relationships with Mackintosh. Kinley designed the recent Les Misérables revival, while Driver has worked on three different productions of Miss Saigon. And now the two designers, who’ve known each other for almost 23 years, are bringing their latest work to the Main Stem, where Miss Saigon will begin previews at the Broadway Theatre March 2, before opening March 23. “It’s our American dream,” says Kinley, quoting the show’s 11 o’clock number.
So how do you put a flying helicopter onstage? First, you gut it, leaving only the front, the rotor, a tail light, and the cockpit. The entire thing is made of “fiberglass. And glitter,” deadpans Kinley. And it’s attached to “a big steel piece of engineering,” which allows it to land onstage, pick up the main character Chris, and whisk him off.
Even though it’s not an entire helicopter, a combination of projection, lighting, and strong fans will make audiences believe it’s the real thing. “That’s the magic of theatre, your mind fills in the blanks rather than everything being explicit,” adds Kinley.
And that’s not the only notable set piece in this new revival. The “Morning of the Dragon” number features a giant golden head of Ho Chi Minh, while “The American Dream” now contains a giant Statue of Liberty head that “vomits the [Engineer’s] Cadillac onto the stage,” says Kinley with a laugh, adding, “it is quite obscene.”
The designers didn’t want Miss Saigon to solely be defined by its gigantic set pieces. In conceptualizing the design, Driver and Kinley were inspired by the war photography of the era. “I was upset initially with all of the burnt out images of the villages that happened due to the bombings, and what it left was these skeletal shape of villages, and I always felt that these were a strong visual point for creating a world,” explains Driver.
Throughout the process, Kinley and Driver were determined not to distract from the heart of the story. “This is a love story about Kim and Chris,” says Driver. “That is the major note for us as designers: to not get carried away with scenery, to tell their story in the truest way possible.”
Adds Kinley, “It’s not a show about a helicopter. That’s what everyone thinks when they think of Saigon.” To which Driver exclaims, chuckling, “It’s something like 53 seconds of the whole thing, this sodding helicopter!”
Miss Saigon is currently playing in previews at the Broadway Theatre and officially opens March 23. Click here for tickets and information.