The worlds of cinema and stage have always overlapped and writers, actors, directors and producers (etc.) have moved between the two. As, of course, have audiences. In the musical theatre most of the great musicals – from Showboat to Phantom – have been filmed, usually successfully. Despite this, the worlds of stage and screen are distinct art forms requiring different creative styles and focus. Theatre is claustrophobic and intimate – even when extravagantly staged as is usually the case with the works of Lloyd-Webber or Boublil and Schönberg. I remember the first production of Miss Saigon in the autumn of 1989 and whilst there were some fine performances from the likes of Jonathan Pryce and Lea Solonga it was the staging and the special effects which caught the breath and brought in the punters. The helicopter and the rest! Film is different. And today’s cinema especially so. Film opens up the story and the staging with on-location filming and the huge range of visual perspectives from ultra close-ups to tracking and long shots. But the one-dimensionality of the movie has never been changed (3D hasn’t really ever taken off) nor has the overriding sense of safety. There is never in the movies the danger that there is in live performance! Never a fluffed line or a “dry” or a “corpse”! We take extraordinary special effects for granted in the movies these days – it seems that there is literally nothing that cannot be done on film. But it is often just a tad synthetic – which live theatre rarely is.
A crucial difference between movies and theatre is that the former nearly always have to be star vehicles. As long ago as 1964 Julie Andrews had to give way to Audrey Hepburn for the movie of My Fair Lady and three years earlier Natalie Wood had to impersonate a Puerto Rican in West Side Story – they were seen as box office and that was that. Stars can be made in the musical theatre of course – Funny Girl launched Barbra Streisand’s career – on Broadway in 1964. But very often great musicals do not feature headline stars in the way that films of them are seen to need to. I recently saw the truly astonishing production of Into the Woods by the American “Fiasco Theatre” at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Quite superb theatre and not a “Star” in sight. The movie of the same great Sondheim musical appeared in 2014 with Meryl Streep and a true galaxy of stars in it. It was fine, but for Sondheim, my choice would be live theatre and a star-free stage. This (finally!) brings me to the film of Miss Saigon.
Miss Saigon although now 25 years old has never been filmed. That certainly does not mean in never will be – it took nearly twenty years to make a movie of Phantom and even longer before the film version of Les Miserables appeared. But Miss Saigon has hitherto been a theatre only phenomenon. And what a phenomenon! Record breaking runs, huge critical acclaim and the rest. In September 2014 there was a special 25th Anniversary staging of the show at the Prince Edward Theatre. This included an emotional reunion with the original cast on stage after the performance. The whole evening was filmed and when producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh saw the results he felt that they were so “astonishingly cinematic” that with the filming of some “additional covering shots” he would be able to create a special cinema experience.
The live telecasting of theatre, opera, ballet etc. to cinemas is a big growth area in the Arts with the National Theatre, the Metropolitan Opera, the Royal Opera House and many others augmenting their income by transmissions to movie theatres around the world. The quality is excellent with clever camera work and sound recording making the experience enjoyable for audiences in cinemas at a fraction of the ticket cost of attending the actual live performance ( as well, of course, of allowing audiences almost anywhere in the world to watch them).
However, this film of Miss Saigon is a step beyond that. What has been achieved is a merging of live theatre and film in a way that is I think unique. You feel that you are in a theatre from the start, which in a sense you are. This was one performance – not the edited highlights of several – and the continuity is just that – at no point did the Director say “cut” and ask for another take! But the camera work and the editing are truly cinematic. Quite how many cameras were involved I don’t know but the camera angles and viewpoints seem almost unlimited. Aside from the fact that there was no location filming this is “Miss Saigon – the movie” in every way. Indeed to my taste, I much prefer this treatment than if there had been a conventional movie made. It is tight, continuous, tense and a genuine performance art with no post-production contrivances or tricks. This is how it was.
This film has had a limited cinema release this autumn and is now available on Blu-ray Disc. Included will be the post-performance celebrations which united the current cast with that of 25 years ago – and very moving and entertaining that was as well. But 25 years ago, as now, Miss Saigon was not really a star vehicle (though the award-winning Jon Jon Briones as The Engineer has unmistakable star quality – as did Jonathan Pryce in the original production). Miss Saigon has always been ground-breaking in many ways. Now it is no exaggeration to say that it has created a new medium – a surprising and exceptional hybrid of theatre and cinema.
Review by Paddy Briggs
“THE BEST LIVE FILM OF A STAGE SHOW THAT I’VE SEEN” Baz Bamigboye, Daily Mail
THE LEGENDARY MISS SAIGON The spectacular, sell-out 25th Anniversary Gala Performance of this acclaimed new production of the global stage sensation was described as “the most thrilling, soaring and emotionally stirring musical with magnifi cent performances” by the Daily Telegraph and “the greatest musical of all time” by the Daily Mail. The epic love story tells the tragic tale of young bar girl Kim, orphaned by war, who falls in love with American GI Chris – but their lives are torn apart by the fall of Saigon. The special gala fi nale also features appearances by the original cast including Jonathan Pryce and Lea Salonga. INCLUDES THE BEHIND THE SCENES DOCUMENTARY ‘THE HEAT IS BACK ON: THE REMAKING OF MISS SAIGON’ BONUS MATERIAL Gala Finale (34 minutes) The Heat is Back on – Behind the Scenes of Cameron Mackintosh’s new production