The heat is truly on in Saigon. It’s early June, we’re in the rehearsal studio for Cameron Mackintosh’s new tour of Boublil and Schönberg’s now-legendary riff on Madam Butterfly, and there’s just over a month to go until the show opens in Leicester.

If the windows are shut, it’s because Masterchef is filming right beneath us, we are told.

The cast and company are in the thick of their first ever run-through of the show, and tomorrow the producers arrive to begin their involvement in the rehearsal process.

So the heat is indeed on, and you’d be forgiven for expecting cast and creatives alike to be in the height of nervousness and mid-rehearsal madness, but in reality the atmosphere in the room is a mix of passion, excitement, yet also decided calm.

“We’re where we should be, I think. We have a show, it’s up on its feet, and that’s important. I’ve still got dramatic work to do, but we’re in not too bad shape.

I’m kind of happy today.”

Associate Director Jean-Pierre Van Der Spuy laughs as he accounts for the current state of play. 

Having just watched the entire rehearsal run-through of Act II, his words seemed laced with modesty; what we press and media were treated to seemed taut, gut-wrenchingly emotional and without a fumble or misstep in sight.

Still, Van Der Spuy has the experience and resumé to back up his critical eye. He’s no stranger to getting big budget vehicles up on their feet, having previously worked with Mackintosh on the likes of Barnum and Phantom of the Opera both in the West End and on tour.

“I’ve known companies where they’ve only just got to know the show and then they’re straight out of rehearsals.

I wanted to give these guys a good chance at starting to own it in this rehearsal space, because once we get into the theatres and go into tech especially you sort of feel like you abandon them dramatically.”

It’s an admirable and understandable stance to take, especially with Miss Saigon, which depicts a doomed love story between Chris (Ashley Gilmour) and Kim (Sooham Kim) in the height of the Vietnam war.

In many ways the epitome of the fan-favourite musical, Saigon is cherished by many in the theatre community, whilst also boasting a healthy collection of accolades and awards - not least of all the record-breaking nine publicly-voted gongs the recent London revival (from which this new tour stems) claimed.

The public love for the show is not lost on Van Der Spuy or Mackintosh.

“There are no corners cut with a Cameron Mackintosh show - people will get everything that they expect and pay for, and for us that’s a big responsibility. 

Cameron demands everything from us to ensure that the product is never compromised. And you know, that can be tough, but it’s also why I keep working for him. I love the fact that he is demanding. I love the fact that he pushes me to be better than even sometimes I might.

I love the fact that he deeply cares about the public and that he deeply cares about what they see.”

Saigon last toured the UK - including a stay at the Birmingham Hippodrome - back in 2006. Since then, though, the show’s profile has been raised significantly, and actor Ashley Gilmour, who plays the lead role of American GI Chris in the show, explains the pressure that has put on the cast to ensure that they’re bringing their all to the tour.

“It’s really hard in some ways, because we’ve just had the anniversary performance in the cinema, there’s been a new cast recording [from the London production] and it’s just gone to Broadway, so people are very aware of Miss Saigon, and they’re expecting it at that standard, so we have to make sure that we come in at that level.”

It’s an exciting step up for Gilmour, who previously played younger roles such as teen crooner Link Larkin in the most recent UK touring production of Hairspray.

“It’s quite nerve-wracking - it’s such a massive step up, playing Chris, but it’s been amazing, and it’s really what I needed at this point in my career so I could make that change from a juvenile to a more mature leading role. 

You have to change the way you sing, change your voice, change your physicality. Everything has to change.”

It’s true that Chris couldn’t be much further from Larkin, nor indeed Saigon from Hairspray. Indeed, the show’s historical backdrop lends an extra sense of responsibility and focus to all involved.

“It’s a reminder of what war does to people,” explains Red Concepcion, the Filipino actor taking on the iconic role of the wheeler-dealing, charismatic ‘Engineer’, made famous by the likes of Jonathan Pryce and Jon Jon Briones in previous productions.

“When we started rehearsals, we watched a lot of documentaries and read the books about what happened. The War, the suffering of Vietnamese people. 

And when you realise what the show is really about, then you wouldn’t ever slack off, with either the physicality or the emotion.

You have to take it there. Not doing so would be to not honour what those people went through.”

A devastating, 20-year long conflict between Northern and Southern Vietnam which ran from 1955 through to 1975, the Vietnam War was a bleak period in the Country’s history, and one that was only escalated by heightened US involvement in the early 1960s.

It’s a sombre setting for such a charged, emotional musical, which further underlines the team’s desire to respect what those involved went through.

“Some of the GIs who fought in this war didn’t even know what they were fighting for,” explains Zoë Doana, who plays the role of Ellen in the show.

“They were just lost. All they knew is they had guns in their hands and they were fighting.

Who was the enemy? They never really knew.

So it’s very important we tell that story with respect, you know. It’s heavy stuff; those lives mattered and we have to honour that completely.”

Hearing stories of exercises that the cast were asked to do in the first week of rehearsals, including writing a letter home from the war (in character), and communal viewings of documentaries where the cast were all ‘bursting into tears at the same moments’ underlines just how seriously the historical context of Saigon has clearly been taken here. 

They’re not PR-friendly soundbites or fluff, either; it’s palpable that the real-life events from which the show is sprung matters a lot to all involved.

Of course, when you circle history you run the very real threat of becoming overwhelmed by it, but whilst Saigon goes a long way in reflecting the horror and reality of its contextual backdrop, there is a lot more to it than just honouring that struggle.

“We start with the content - we start with the war, we start with what happened,” continues Jean-Pierre, “and it’s about that responsibility to know where all those thoughts come from, knowing what has inspired those bits of storytelling.

And then the wider themes within the show are ephemeral, aren’t they? 

Motherhood. Love. Death. 

The big themes that people relate to. And it’s my job and the job of the actors to make those themes ring out in a very truthful and honest way.”

There’s no denying that Saigon is an intensely emotional experience. Whilst it is bookended with two particularly upbeat, show-stopping numbers in ‘The Heat is On in Saigon’ and ‘The American Dream’ - the latter of which we had the joy of seeing Red Concepcion and the company rehearse - for the most part the show is buoyed by Boublil and Schönberg’s signature power ballads and character numbers. 

‘The Movie in My mind’, ‘Sun and Moon’, ‘Bui Doi’ and ‘Last Night of the World’ - Schönberg reaches for the heartstrings and rarely lets go. They are big epic tentpoles of musical numbers, much like the duo’s iconic pieces from their other celebrated masterpiece, Les Mis.

The importance of the show to composer/songwriter Claude-Michele Schönberg has been clear. In fact, he has played a very active role in the rehearsals, an honour rarely afforded productions, touring or no.

“You never have that in a show,” Ashley Gilmour excitedly explains, “You never have the composer sitting there, going ‘Oh I want to the change this, I want to change that, can we do it it likes this?’

That’s what nice about Claude-Michele Schönberg; he’s in all the time. It’s really nice.

Scary, but really nice.”

“You can tell he really loves it and cares for it,” Red adds.

Understandably, the cast are full of admiration for the composer, and are not shy in expressing their love and admiration for the incredible, affecting music they are now getting to work with on a daily basis, and what audiences will be treated to when the tour lands.

For Ryan O’Gorman, who plays ‘John’ in the show, it’s difficult to pick a favourite in such an enviable collection of numbers.

“I think Saigon is like that for so many people, you can just go through the show periodically, all through Act 1 and Act 2 and just go ‘oh, that one!’, or ‘oh no, that one!’.

It’s just got so many typical Claud-Michel and Alan Boublil moments. Their writing, their show-stoppers - you sit through the show and end up realising how many great songs you’d forgotten about.

I thought I knew the show pretty well, and then coming into rehearsals and really getting to know it all, even the incidental music that plays off a scene is just so good.

And of course lyrically it is all stunning as well.”

Zoë Doano jokes about some of the songs almost being too emotional:

“There are numbers I can’t listen to before I go on stage because I know I’m going to be a mess. I’d just be there, crying in the wings!

‘Sun and Moon’ is one of them. There’s something about the way that those lyrics are written that make you really tune in to the two different worlds of Chris and Kim - ‘You are sunlight, and I am moon.’

The words, the phrasing, the lyrics; it’s so broken up but perfect for these two people falling in love when they’re from two different worlds.

It melts my heart every time.”

The powerful historical context. The clear sense of responsibility and duty to honour it. The impact of Schönberg and Boublil’s music and writing, which are still being refined and updated to this day.

These are all core components of the Saigon experience, but to some extent have been since its inception in the late 1980s.

But what of this new touring production in particular? Is there a desire to bring something new to the table for audiences already familiar with Chris and Kim’s story?

“There is,” explains Jean-Pierre, “and it’s not just to do something different for the sake of it.

The people in the show ultimately make the show what it is, and so the desire to do something new is to empower them with the story and, by proxy, you get a slightly different feeling to what has ever been done before.

With the characters we’ve sort of gone right back to the beginning to rediscover who Kim is from the actresses' point of view, and who Chris is, and the Engineer.

You go back to the drawing board - what does the script tell us? What does history tell us? What does the research tell us? And then you start to paint a picture of these people.

So yes, it will feel different to other versions of the show, but it will still feel like the Miss Saigon that everybody knows and loves.”

For Korean-born Sooha Kim, who plays the lead role of Kim, it’s a similar experience. She is one of the few in the company who have already been in the show, having played cover Kim in London and been part of the Tokyo production last year.

“The cast have changed a lot [from London]. For the main cast, except for myself, it’s the first time that they are doing these roles.

But the rehearsals were very organic for me. There have been certain moments where things have happened that I never thought would, things like the chemistry between us actors.

There’s so many different areas where it’s going to be different and fresh, where it’s going to be a completely new show to watch.

So even if you’ve seen the show before in London or not, it’s going to be a great experience.”

And, of course, by dint of going on tour, audiences across the UK who would perhaps never get the opportunity to see the show are now going to get the chance to be swept up by it, another responsibility the team take on board, as Ryan O’Gorman explains.

“It’s super important to us. Going to London and seeing a West End show costs a lot, especially if you are living regionally.

So if you’ve got a show of this quality and this size coming to a theatre near you, as a kid or as an adult, it’s the dream. It really is.”

For Jean-Pierre, though, it also provides an opportunity to return to one of his favourite venues in the form of the Hippodrome, and a return to the joyful ‘culture shock’ of Birmingham and the Midlands.

“It’s one of my favourite theatres in the Country. I always have a brilliant time there - I put Brian Conley into Oliver! at the Hippodrome, and we rehearsed there for three or four weeks with him.

But I just like Birmingham anyway. I’m from South Africa originally and then I lived in the South here in England, so when I first went to Birmingham, it was sort of like a culture shock to me, but in the most wonderful, positive way!

I’ve always had the most wonderful time. People in Birmingham have got a brilliant sense of humour, are a lot of fun. They don’t take themselves too seriously, but are equally very proud of their City.

I love Birmingham, it’s a cool place.”

With just a short handful of weeks to go now until Miss Saigon begins its nine-week long Summer tenure at the Hippodrome, a role previously filled by other theatrical heavy-hitters such as Wicked and Mamma Mia!, the City is equally excited. 

A new production, a new cast, mixed with the same heartbreaking story and exquisite music, and all being delivered with Cameron Mackintosh’s trademark determination to take West End-worthy standards on the road; there is a lot for Birmingham and the other UK venues of the tour to be excited about.

But perhaps most importantly, for all of the show’s dazzling technical and artistic achievements, there remains an important message underlying it all, one which Jean-Pierre believes keeps the show as relevant today as ever, and will be an important part of taking the show to audiences across the UK.

“Look at what’s happening in our world. Miss Saigon reflects that.

War reaches far beyond anything we can assume. This story shows that the Vietnam War affected an unborn child, and that has very lasting ramifications.

People forget that. Peoples memories are short.

We’ve got a British-born Vietnamese girl in the show, but her grandfather was one of the boat people who left Saigon in the 70’s. She went and spoke to him and he gave her information and told her stories, and the production becomes richer for it.

You align it with our show, you sort of ensure that the story you’re telling is vital, and I think that’s important.

I think we’re lacking empathy in society nowadays; we can be quite cold and brutal. 

So I do think this show has something to say, and it’s something relevant and powerful. And if it can let people look at those things through a slightly different prism; if they can see the world through our show, you can maybe make them think about the choices that they make in their everyday lives, and maybe even broaden their empathy a little.”

It's a bold, admirable statement, but one that, judging by the powerful impact of getting to see the rehearsals alone, will no doubt resonate with audiences Birmingham and beyond when Miss Saigon opens later this month.


Tickets: 0844 338 5000​  / Official Website: click​