Video: Miss Saigon and Les Mis composers Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil
We talk in depth to the legendary writing duo ahead of the opening of ''Miss Saigon'' at the Prince Edward Theatre
Ahead of the press opening of Miss Saigon at the Prince Edward Theatre this week, WhatsOnStage caught up with the show's composer and lyricist Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, whose other collaborations include Les Miserables and Martin Guerre.
Because we thought readers would like to see their full answers, we've broken the questions down into separate videos (with transcripts of their words below). You can see the full video, which includes a clip of Schönberg playing 'Maybe', at the bottom.
How does it feel to be back in the West End, 25 years after it premiered, with Miss Saigon?
AB: Well it doesn't feel like it was 25 years ago first, time flies as we always say. But also because it is a reinvention of this show, it's not a revival. So the pressure is the same as the first time around. The excitement is the same, the emotions that we are getting on first previews is enormous. The people seem to love the show, but more important than that, the people who come to see the show were not born when we were presenting the show the first time around. So it's a completely new generation of people who are coming with their parents, or without their parents, and just seem to love Miss Saigon from what they've been hearing from their parents or because they've been performing it, maybe at school or at University, I don't know, but there is a complete new brand of people who are coming to see Miss Saigon and that is really rejuvenating, it's exciting and more.
CMS: For us we are very proud to be back in the West End because we had more than ten years run at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and to have such a success with a revival of the show, it's the best proof that our original work had good value. So that's why we are particularly proud to have the show back and to see the reaction of the audience every night.
Back then you didn't know Miss Saigon would be a hit, whereas now the show has proven itself to be popular with so many people. Does that lend a certain pressure to revisiting it?
AB: Hit's come and go, this one seems to be enduring and what really makes us so proud about it, and so excited about it coming back to the West End is because it seems like the show was missed. It looks like from the enthusiasm from the people who want to see it and from the advance booking that this new version is getting, it seems that the show has been missed in London. And that makes us even prouder of having written it on our own, the two of us 25 years ago and we were just starting to write the first notes and words of what would become Miss Saigon, and to find, fortunately, a bold producer, Cameron Mackintosh, who accepted to put on the stage, GI's singing at the beginning of the story about Vietnam, which was happening during the last days of the Vietnam War.
CMS: And at the same time, of course you can have a success with a musical show but you don't know (if that was) because the musical was on fashion in this time, or is it timeless? We hope that with the success of the show still today, we created something a bit timeless and that will survive, even ourselves. So that is very gratifying to think about it, that it's not a show considered a good success but a little bit old-fashioned
In 1988 you cast Lea Salonga, who at the time was relatively unknown but has gone on to prove herself a stupendous talent. Was it a similar experience when you were looking for the cast to bring the show back to the West End?
CMS: It was not the same experience because at this time, we didn't know if someone like Lea existed. After running the show in England and all over the world, in the US and in Asia, we knew that there were a lot of Kim's, we knew that we can have a complete cast on stage. Before, we didn't know at all if it was possible to have the cast, 80% or 70% of Asian, who can sing on Broadway or in the West End, we were not sure at all. Thank God and thanks to the Phillipines we found it. This time, we knew that we can have a cast, what we didn't know (was) that we would have another miracle with Eva (Noblezada, who plays Kim), the same sparkle of sudden big luck having found Eva the same way we found Lea, and Alain was there in New York when she auditioned the first time.
AB: Of course, it's amazing, because you never think it's going to happen to you twice, that you are going to find such a young girl, so you don't have to compromise the idea that she would be 23 playing 16 or 17, with a voice that ranges to the high C and who can act, and Eva Noblezada is a wonderful actress as well as an incredible singer.
What has director Laurence Connor brought to this production?
CMS: We don't have a production coming out of the blue as a new production, all this is part of a chain of different productions (which) Laurence has been involved with, but it started a very long time ago, when we had a new production on tour in the US, in England, we even had a production in Hungary with a new vision of the set (that) inspired a lot of people after, and Matt Kinley (Set Design) and Mitchell Lemsky (Associate Director, Broadway 1991), they were rethinking the show, but I'm talking about six, seven years ago. Slowly there was an evolution of the set, of the helicopter scenes of every scene, and finally we are at this version, which maybe the ultimate version of this vision of the show, but it has been improving production after production, it's a very long process and it's not suddenly somebody think "Wow I have a new idea that's how we're going to do Miss Saigon", it's a slow and very unique process.
AB: And there is also a new team of lighting, new lighting designer, there is a new set designer, a new projection designer, because the show now includes projections, which are very powerful, during the helicopter scene especially. Laurence has been able, together with Cameron, they have been discussing this show together over the years a number of times, putting together a complete new team of people, who together with the old team which includes Bob Avian the choreographer and Geoff Garratt the other choreography, and Andreane Neofitou the costume designer, makes an extraordinary cocktail and gives birth to a show which, once again, is not a revival, it's a recreation.
What prompted you to write the new song, "Maybe"?
AB: Well, I think that the first idea was, we never were very happy with any of the songs, we had already tried three different songs for the character of Ellen, from the begiining, one of them never reached the stage and two of them have been sung, one after the other in the previous incarnation of Miss Saigon. I think one day it was Cameron (Mackintosh) who came up to us and said "Look, I still think we don't have the right song for Miss Saigon, think about it", and Claude Michel started to think about it and came up with this idea that maybe the song didn't have to be definitive of a character - of an American girl who just wants her husband back and nothing else, and wouldn't care about the other girl - to a song which she would have some doubts, which explains why the song is called "Maybe". From there on, the melody came up quite quickly if I remember?
CMS: Yes it came because the song was only about somebody having question mark, not being sure about herself, that'd give some fragility to Ellen, that's what she didn't have before and we thought the fact that she is doubting about the situation, would make her more pleasant or more sympathetic to see and that was the problem we had with the character, that she was only the troublemaker in the situation and didn't have a good heart, she was not a real person. So the question mark aspect was very important in the creation of this song.
TB: And I hear Tamsin (Carroll, who plays Ellen) does it full justice?
AB: Tamsin does it now full justice, poor girl, she has been assaulted with different lyrics, over the last two or three months. And she is making it hers, she is making it a scene, making it very theatrical. This songs could be done in several ways, you could even think of it like a "pop song", lets say, but what she does wonderfully well, she does it perfectly, she integrates it in that very heart-breaking moment in that hotel scene in Miss Saigon which starts with the discovery of Kim's suffereing, coming to the health room and meeting Ellen face to face and finishes with the nervous breakdown of Chris a few minutes later. So the song is compressed in between all that, making it a ten minute emotional rollercoaster at that moment of the show, just before we go to the "American Dream" which is like a moment of relief, not for long but a moment of relief. So she certainly does it wonderfully.
There's been talk of revivals of Martin Guerre..?
AB: Yeah, I mean it's a bit premature, but it's not a secret that Claude Michel and I have been working for the last two years on rethinking completely Martin Guerre and trying to start from what we have, and what we think we have is a very powerful score, which many people think is one of their favourite scores from all the musical scores we have been writing. But at the same time we know that it hasn't found its definitive form. We are still struggling, well I hope not any more, but we have been struggling for the last two years with how to reorganise this show, this story, which is a very difficult story about ambiguity, about life, about anti heroes which you must present at the end of the evening like the heroes of a story which you want to enjoy spending the evening with them. So there are a lot of parameters which are completely different from a story which is a little more black and white. So we really enjoyed and worked through that process again, got rid of what we thought was useless, to telling this story in a musical, and tried to get to the heart of the matter which is that love story between these two people, except that the one man are two, it adds a little bit of spice and complication to how to tell the story. I think we are not far from having what we think is our ideal version of Martin Guerre but it's a little to early to speak about a new production, we are still writing it.
Miss Saigon, similarly to Les Miserables, has stood the test of time. What do you think it is about these two shows in particular that has caught the popular imagination?
CMS: Frankly, I think mainly it is the book and the story. For Les Miserables we had a very famous novel by Victor Hugo, who has been already a big success when he wrote it in 1862. For Miss Saigon, we had the opera work by Puccini, Madame Butterfly, and we know it's a very heart-breaking story. At the end of the day, I think that when you are writing a show, despite the fact that you are a kind of eternal student a little bit intellectually in your approach in the way that we are living and style of life, when you are writing a show you are trying to be very honest with the story we have to tell, in terms of lyrics and music we are honest and we give the maximum of ourselves. And we try to be true to the spirit of Les Miserables, as I used to say, you can't do Les Miserables with a minimum of actor or stage, a minimised version of the show is impossible because the book itself is somebody bigger than life. When you're talking about the Vietnam War and love, and somebody being shattered by war, you have to be honest and tell exactly what you feel inside and what's your statement about the story, about the war, about the persecution and the story of the people, and simple people too, caught in the middle of the war, and that can happen everywhere in the world.
AB: And still does.
Many of your shows are often sited by composers as shows they wished they had written, but what show do you wish you had written?
AB: I wish we had written West Side Story.
CMS: I wish I had written Showboat, just to have written the song "Old Man River".
AB: But the shows we are choosing are, not by accident two shows which cross over your previous question, the people that wrote these shows were not external to the story they were trying to tell on stage. They were not writing about entertainment, they were not trying to make an entertaining evening, they were not only involved, I think they were identifying themselves to one or two or three of the characters of the story they are telling. This is exactly what happens to us, for two or three years I can be Kim, or Chris another evening, it can feel like Javert or Jean Valjean another night, we are completely involved and identified with the characters we are trying to describe, or we wouldn't be able to write about them.
Are you still writing together/have any plans for shows in the future?
CMS: For shows, I don't know. We have enough to do with Martin Guerre at the moment.
AB: Yeah, that's what we are working on at this moment and believe me it's a huge job. It will take another...
AB: Length of time, before being finished.
Finally, what would you say as an invocation to that new generation who may not know Miss Saigon, to entice them to come and see this production at the Prince Edward.
CMS: That it's only a show about love between two young people, shattered by the war. About the sacrifice of the mother for a child. As Alain said before, this is happening today in Syria, in Libya, in Ukraine maybe, everyday you have a lot of boats on the Sicillia coast with refugees coming from Africa, and that is what this show is all about, people wanting to have a better life, a good life that the Engineer saw and what he thinks it's to go to the West, to go to America, Kim is sacrificing herself for the future of her child. So it's universal and timeless I think and at the same time I hope that they have a good evening with big values in the production, because that is the story we are telling and we are not inventing it's true stories.
AB: The most heart-breaking moment in Miss Saigon I think, to me, when I watch it every evening, is at the end of act one, the boat people. When we were writing that, we thought we were writing a story about Vietnam, no-one had heard about the boat people, except that some people were paying one thousand or two thousand dollars, anything they had, giving any money, any clothes, suddenly all their savings, their life savings to "cross that ocean that's white with foam" and try to get to the other side. The problem is, that this has become an everyday story, in every corner of the globe, and that's very, very saddening, that's very sad. The fact this was an example, and it has not stopped there, is something difficult to cope with.