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The Broadway revival's set changes everything
The way the design team of Miss Saigon sees it, they will only have done their jobs correctly if the audience doesn't notice their work at all.
"People shouldn't sit back and go, 'That was a great piece of scenery!'" says Totie Driver, the co-set designer for the current Broadway revival of the 80s blockbuster musical, which is now in previews at the Broadway Theatre. "The focus should be on Kim's pain and heartbreak."
And there is plenty of that. Set in Vietnam during the final days of the everlong Vietnam War, Miss Saigon pivots around Kim, whom we first meet as a 17-year-old peasant girl whose family was killed in a village blast and must now work as a barmaid in a Saigon brothel in order to survive. It is there that she meets and falls in love with Chris (Alistair Brammer) – only to lose him when the two are separated during the fall of Saigon.
While this is the same plot as the original production of the show – which ran on Broadway from 1991 to 2000 and which librettists Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil adapted from the Puccini opera Madama Butterfly – Driver says this production marks a departure from Adrian Vaux's original, sleek set design. It aims instead for a grittier feel that more accurately reflects Kim's dire straits.
"The original was highly operatic, and it was during that era where shows were all about incredible scenery," Driver says. "I remember seeing it and thinking, 'That was incredible scenery, but I don't remember Kim's story.'
"One of my big points was that [this production] couldn't be grubby enough. We've worked really hard on a seamless transformation between scenes, where it's all in darkness. We're not impressing upon the audience, 'Oh, look at this amazing scene change.' I wanted to focus on the dirty, seedy aspect of being a sex worker and the environment that Kim's been forced into because of a war-torn situation."
"It's much more human that way," says co-set designer Matt Kinley, agreeing with Driver that subtler set changes can radically alter the musical's impact. "The audience won't be [distracted] watching a massive truck come into view. They'll see a line of soldiers, and then suddenly they will see a refugee camp. It's really a much grungier world onstage than the big operatic show that it was."
Driver and Kinley also worked to make the pain of Chris and Kim's separation palpable during the show's coup de théâtre, a harrowing second-act sequence in which, just as in the original production, an actual onstage helicopter lifts Chris to safety from the American Embassy rooftop, leaving Kim (among countless others) behind. The goal of this revival is for the emotional resonance to trump the physical spectacle.
"The chopper is certainly the biggest challenge to deliver," Kinley says. "But this time it actually carries people, which it did not in the original production. We wanted to see the pain of Chris being carried off and having to leave his love behind. We wanted to hold on to that pain. We also have all of the people who got left behind standing in front of the gates, which is really powerful."
Kinley agrees with Driver that the design only succeeds if it serves the narrative. "It's great when people get wrapped up in that scene," he says. "But it is important you really feel for Kim and her journey."
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Production photos by Matthew Le Poer Trench and Matthew Murphy. Top photo: The helicopter scene.