“The main thing we have to worry about is leaving guns and drugs on stage!”

“Our poor Assistant Stage Managers came straight from Mary Poppins, so they were so used to being in that fantastical world… and then on the first day here they were making fake joints!” 

Welcome to Dreamland. 

We’re backstage at the Birmingham Hippodrome, a couple of hours before curtain up, being shown the magic, mayhem and meticulous attention to detail that goes into putting Schönberg and Boublil’s musical epic Miss Saigon on the stage in its latest UK tour.

Company Manager Neil White, a veteran whose career includes such major musical hits as Ghost the Musical, Oliver! and the aforementioned Poppins, is guiding us on this special look behind the scenes, alongside Zoë Doano (Les Mis, Death Takes A Holiday, Grease) who plays Ellen in the show.

Before we even enter the cavernous expanse of the Hippodrome’s backstage village, we’ve made a stop to look at the extensive warnings and ‘do not’s’ for the company and crew.

Social media is a big no-no in Saigon, particularly with a group of creatives as proud and excited to be on the project as this.

“We have to ban anything like that,” White explains, “because our company - anything they can photograph or put on social media, they will. It’s amazing.”

“It’s probably all me!”, Doano jokingly chimes in.

Then it’s back to the guns and drugs: a bold, red-splashed print-out boldly reminds (demands?) all cast members to ‘LEAVE YOUR GUNS AND DRUGS ONSTAGE’.

It’s with good cause, as Doano quickly highlights with a memorable anecdote.

“I have gone home with a fake bag of cocaine in my pocket!”

“In Dreamland [at the start of the show] I double up as ensemble so I play a barmaid, and I keep the drugs in my bra.”

“I got home, found them and thought ‘Oh dear God, what if I get stopped!?”

It’s a story that gets plenty of laughs, and from the outset it’s clear an additional printout - ‘No Facebook, No Instagram, No Twitter, No FUN’ - is at least partly tongue-in-cheek.

In fact, as White, Doano and the show’s Dance Captain Gavin Tsang (who joins us a little later on in the visit) point out, Saigon is a surprisingly upbeat and fun show to work on, despite its central narrative and premise circling around such themes as war, murder, suicide, abandonment and loss.

“It’s normally on the more laughable or funny shows where people get fed up, or say ‘right, I’m tired of smiling on stage!’”, Tsang explains.

“It’s so much easier working on a miserable show,” White agrees, half laughing.

“The thing is, if you do a happy show, everyone’s got to be out there and be happy, but in this show, at least people don’t have to go out and do jazz hands.”

“Also, any anger or emotions they’re feeling, they can take that emotion on stage and channel it.”

And what a stage it is.

There’s always a slight reticence in going backstage and exploring the nooks and crannies of such a visually arresting production as Saigon. It’s such a big, opulent treat of a show to watch, there’s always the very real risk that peeking behind the curtain and seeing the joins might shatter - or at the very least hamper - the illusion somewhat.

No such worry here. As lavish and impressive as the production may be for those sat in the audience, it is just as astonishing and impressive to take a look from the other side - not least of all in getting up close and personal with the astonishing amount of detail, craft and artistry that goes into practically every inch of the staging, costumes, props and technical design.

There’s the usual plethora of production facts and trivia that range from fascinating to mind-blowing - the 2700 man hours it takes to assemble the set at each venue, including individually fitting each of the hundreds of LED bulbs, lamps and Chinese Lanterns that adorn the stage (and then removing them all over again for the next move!), how individual items such as the Dreamland girl’s shoes, Kim’s costumes and the various bikinis are all made separately by the same independent craftspeople that have been working on the show since its 1989 premiere, and the incredibly (yet slightly terrifying) fact that all of the military and GI outfits seen in the show are genuine, combat-worn military attire.

Ashley Gilmour’s (who plays Chris in the show) gilet even sports a few genuine bullet holes of its own. And weighs what feels akin to a small car.

Then of course there is the staggering helicopter rig - a huge mechanical construct which, in conjunction with some powerful projection, lighting and sound design, helps sell one of musical theatre’s most iconic sequences to jaw-dropping effect.

We’re understandably not allowed to photograph her (you don’t want that scene spoiled, above any), but she’s an almost intimidating spectacle to behold.

“From the front it’s so impressive, but it’s absolutely terrifying being backstage during that sequence,” White explains with palpable awe.

“She weights three and a half tonnes, and the cab is actually only 5% smaller than a real helicopter. The rotors move so quickly, and the speed it moves up and down the stage is just incredible.”

And from the big, audacious set pieces to the tiniest pieces of the set, Saigon impresses.

As we enter the set for Kim’s dressing room in the show, the explanation for a few words scrawled on a mirror - that few, if any, in the audience would be able to translate or potentially even see -  speaks volumes about the heart and craft poured into the show.

“Our designer’s mom told her that every morning she should look into the mirror and tell herself she was beautiful, so she brought that into the show.”

“So on Kim’s mirror, every time she looks at it, is says ‘I Am Beautiful’ in Thai.”

Beside the mirror, a tiny snow globe holds an even tinier Statue of Liberty.

“That’s there deliberately, too, the Statue of Liberty. It’s all to show part of Kim’s dream to take Tam to America.”

Elsewhere, a podium that features in the stirring ‘Bui Doi’ Act II opener yet doesn’t even face the audience, is adorned with fully written, dated and authentically designed government documents complete with Department of Defence Logo and Joint Chiefs of Staff instructions.

Everywhere you look, the attention to detail and authenticity is meticulous, beautiful and resonant. 

For the cast and crew, though, it is all part of honouring the reality and responsibility of the real-life events that Saigon is set around - namely the ending of the Vietnam War, and the fallout and displacement that followed.

“It’s a real story and you have to respect that,” Doano explains, “If we don’t go into that level of detail then we’re just touching the surface, and I don’t think that’s fair.”

Neil agrees, adding that the importance of authenticity was embedded in the company from the very outset.

“The first couple of days of rehearsal were really upsetting, actually. We watched all the war footage and films, and then the rehearsal room walls were plastered with press articles, pictures and all of the reference material, and that goes through to the design, too.”

“We weren’t just coming in and doing a musical, we were coming in and hopefully showing a bit of respect to this story that is real, and about real people. This particular situation isn’t real, but it possibly could have been.”

“It all goes back to that photo [composer] Claude-Michel Schönberg saw of someone trying to give away their own child. That’s sort of what it’s all about.”

It’s a reverence and sense of responsibility that is both admirable and quite rare, even in such big budget productions. 

But even pushing aside its respect for the history that inspired its central story, there’s another reason as to why the current touring production boasts such impressive production values and attention to detail.

Sir Cameron Mackintosh.

The legendary producer, with his CV and musical theatre back catalogue the envy of practically everyone in the industry, is a noted champion of the touring process, with a particular bent for putting major shows on the road with little-to-no compromise, and in some cases even improving upon what can be seen on Broadway or in the West End.

“We’ve actually got more scenery than they had in London!”, White adds, “they added some for Broadway and so then we’ve had more.”

“It’s a typical Cameron [Mackintosh] tour; ‘Let’s not cut it down, let’s add more!’. He doesn’t want it to ever look like a touring show. That’s why every time we move, the designer, the director and choreographer will visit every venue we go to first and they will put it into that theatre as if you’re going into the first run.”

He goes on to explain how Mackintosh and his team do not view the numerous touring venues that Saigon will be playing, Birmingham included, as just pit stops or part of a greater whole. Rather, each destination is considered an individual ‘season’, with its own preparation, design adjustment, rehearsal, previews, press nights and tinkering throughout.

“He won’t ever have the attitude of ‘this is just another venue on the tour’. It’s ‘This is the Birmingham Season, then it’s the Dublin Season’, and everyone makes sure it is treated that way.”

“It’s great because it keeps us on our toes and we can never relax. Everything’s got to be done in a certain way and a certain style.”

“And then you look and see he is planning 13 productions over the next 4 years, and giving that attention to each of them, and it’s amazing.”

“You’d think at 70 he’d slow down a little, but no!”

As we continue to duck and weave through the treasure trove of iconic staging moments or set pieces - the Engineer’s White Convertible from ‘The American Dream’, the imposing effigy of Ho Chi Minh that looms ominously over proceedings in ‘Morning of the Dragon’, the sight of fried snakes and crickets for sale at one of the Bangkok street vendors of ‘What A Waste’ - we’re told of another tale regarding Mackintosh and his love and passion for the shows he works on.

If backstage at Miss Saigon represents a stunning ‘Dreamland’ of its own for musical aficionados, there’s an even bigger one out there; in his own back yard.

“The great thing with Cameron is he never throws anything away. Everything - every set and piece of costume - goes back into store, so if there’s something that can be re-used it will go into future productions.”

“And that’s the thing - in his garden he has a massive barn that he stores all of his productions in! So you’ll walk around and there are three Oliver! sets in there, there’s a Phantom set, a couple of Les Mis sets. Oh, and there’s the elephant from the Les Mis movie in the garden! And everything - all of the costumes, the props, the pieces - they’re all perfectly preserved.”

“You could have the best fancy dress party there.”

It’s an enticing prospect - a musical theatre wonderland from a true mogul of the industry.

But whilst Mackintosh’s home remains, mercifully, out of bounds to the wider public, they for now have the thrills, tears and stunning craftsmanship of Saigon.

Going behind the scenes and getting to look at the almost labyrinthine complexity with which certain pieces of the set has to slot together (two of the separate beds being stored on top of one another and winched away when necessary, for instance), the sheer time it takes to go through every one of the hundreds of props, wigs, accessories and costumes to make sure they are all in place before each performance, right down to other more personal touches, such as Mickey Mouse plush toys and glow-in-the-dark stars in a special ‘kids corner’ so that the young 4 and 5 year-olds playing ‘Tam’ in the show do not get scared, all just compound upon the already mammoth picture being painted.

Miss Saigon is a huge show.

It is a huge show overseen by a team of creatives who aspire to make every production, every venue, every performance the best they possibly can be. The level of detail and passion painstakingly poured into even the tiniest nuance and detail on the set has a reason, tells a story, and helps sell the authenticity of a beautiful, resonant piece of theatre. And in no small way because everyone involved understands the history and importance of the message it communicates.

The artistry on display is stunning across-the-board, and the scope and accuracy razor-sharp, from the colossal and iconic helicopter lift down to the tiniest detail in a snow globe.

As said, rolling back the curtain and seeing what goes into making the magic on stage can be a surprising, revealing and occasionally even disappointing experience. 

Here though, as with everything pertaining to this new production of Miss Saigon, though, it goes above and beyond, shattering expectations, just as the show is shattering audiences, with it sheer scope, ambition, detail, craft and heart.

Welcome to Dreamland.

There’s no other word for it.


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