Pierre Loti

From Madame Chrisantheme to Miss Saigon

So, at the end of 1985, Claude-Michel and I had a heartbreaking photograph and a potential connection with a famous opera to start from. We realized that setting a musical at the end of the Vietnam war was probably unsuitable (this was long before the successful movies about Vietnam had been released); but in the midst of the enthusiasm and doubts that accompany any new project, a few unexpected signs came along to confirm that this was to be our next work.

Starting research, I learned that the American play by David Belasco upon which Puccini based his Madame Butterfly was itself based upon an American magazine adaptation by John Luther Long of a French novel by Pierre Loti. I hadn't read this novel; in fact I didn't know the title but it was the first good news: the source was French! Then in January 1986 on my way to the Palace Theatre, where Les Misérables had just transferred, I noticed in a Tottenham Court Road bookstore window a book called Madame Chrysanthemum. The title leapt out at me. I went closer to the window and, as you've guessed, the name of the author was Pierre Loti. Finding in Madame Chrysanthemum the story of an affair between a French naval officer (Pierre Loti himself) and a Japanese Geisha, somehow completed the circle. In a curious way the story had been returned to us. It freed us from Puccini and, at the same time, freed us to write a story that begins in the Saigon of 1975 - since it must not be forgotten that Vietnam was a French colony and a French mistake before it became an American one.

From that moment Claude-Michel and I resolved to write our own story, retaining Butterfly's basic plot of a misunderstanding between two individuals of different cultures, but projecting it into a tragic period of modern history - a time when that basic misunderstanding between two people could reflect the deeper misunderstanding between their respective countries at war.

So we started work. Claude-Michel and I always write the basic book together and don't write a word or a note of music until we have finished telling each other a story that both of us believe belongs on a musical stage. (Quite a few potential projects ended up in the archives over the past few years by failing that test.) We started to build the story around an American G.I. and an Asian bar girl. We didn't want a Pinkerton type (sexist middle-aged officer); instead we wanted a young man whose life would be instantly transformed by meeting a young girl during the crucial last three weeks before the fall of Saigon.

Little by little from a secondary character in Butterfly, called Goro, we conceived the Engineer, the half-French, half-Vietnamese wheeler-dealer, an actual Vietnamese type that many French and English journalists have encountered, who became a pivotal character in our story. Day after day we moved further from our source, a process that continued over the next three years with the accurate suggestions of, in order of appearance, Cameron Mackintosh, Richard Maltby and Nicholas Hytner.

At the end of 1986, the first draft in French was complete. As a lyric writer I have gone through an unusual experience with Miss Saigon: I have written this musical twice, in two different languages. So, at the beginning, I retired to a small cold village in Brittany to draw myself into the heat of Vietnam. There I tried to put myself into a world of signs linked to the sky and planets in which religion, mysticism, and a permanent sense of fate are interwoven with that practical sense of survival that victims acquire in times of war. To my surprise, I found myself going back to my own roots. Born and raised in Tunisia, I had learned a sense of fatalism under another Oriental hot sky, which had survived my coming to live in the European world. In fact this show helped me to free some forces that I had more or less buried inside myself since my youth. Kim and Thuy are familiar to me, like a friend's sister and a cousin. They pray to other Gods with other words but they believe, as people I knew from my childhood believed, that the world proceeds from the same organized miracle which, good or bad, is far beyond our understanding. I also felt very clearly that the American Dream probably meant for the Vietnamese exactly what it meant to me and my school friends in Tunisia.

had a more difficult time developing the American characters, as I wished to avoid 'good or bad' cliches of American movies and could not rely this time on my own experience. Therefore I treated Chris, John and Ellen as three young friends from the Western world living a story for which none of them was prepared. I trusted that the American vocabulary which was to come later would make them specifically American. In 1987 Richard Maltby joined us and with him I went back to work in English this time. The decision to co-write in English was made for me by Claude-Michel and Cameron who were convinced that I was now ready for this next step.

Richard's first quality as a human being is patience and I have certainly taken my toll on his. Our first working sessions were brain-damaging for me and probably even more so for him. We rediscussed the dramatic plot and operatic intentions of the show endlessly before going to work, improving both and giving me time to feel more secure in my new language. I want to thank him for never, never abusing his linguistic upper hand in the first stages of our collaboration and for his everlasting respect for the 'first impulse' and 'the original concept' expressed in the original French lyrics. Amid all these emotions, Miss Saigon has fulfilled two private obsessions. I had always imagined doing a beauty contest in a musical and, after The French Revolution and Les Misérables, I was eager that Claude-Michel and I write a show that required an original title. In the opening scene we had only a bar and a bargirl. Obsession one recurred; I thought again of my beauty contest, not a real one here but the sort of vulgar imitation that a character like our Engineer might invent as a come-on to American soldiers. Suddenly, obsession two was fulfilled: we had our title, Miss Saigon.

Article from "Miss Saigon"

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  • Madame Chrisantheme
  • Madame Butterfly
  • Miss Saigon
  • Miss Saigon

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