For a man who's just been told that his longest-running show — indeed, the longest running musical in British theatre history — is to close, lighting designer David Hersey appears remarkably sanguine. “Cameron called this morning and said, ‘Make sure you're free on May 11, it's Cats' 21st anniversary, there's going to be a big party,’” Hersey says. “Then he said, ‘and after that, we're not going to do the show again!’ But I don't think we can complain: 21 years is a pretty good run!”

If Hersey doesn't appear disappointed perhaps it's because he's become used to the eventual demise of the blockbuster British musicals of the 80s, most recently with Starlight Express closing after 17 years in London this January. But it's equally possible that he knows good shows never go away for long — and if evidence were needed, the recently launched UK tour of Miss Saigon provides it. The followup to Les Misèrables by composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyricist Alain Boublil, Saigon first appeared at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 1989 with an epic John Napier design that filled every inch of London's biggest stage. The same basic design was scaled down slightly to fit into the Broadway Theatre in New York, and though the look has remained the same, it has been shrinking through subsequent productions ever since. Now the new UK tour, which opened at the Palace Theatre in Manchester last November, crams it into the smallest space yet.

Audience members who've seen the show before will find much familiar, though: an inverted “U” shape of 15 white blinds textured by bamboo poles, each individually motorized so that the main performing area can be contained within a white box, opened up to a black void, or defined by other shapes “sculpted” by running the blinds to different heights; a downstage run of blinds serves as a frontcloth. Into this abstract space, Napier brings realistic trucks — electricity pylons, bedrooms, hotel rooms, a Saigon nightclub — and flown pieces, including bullet-riddled painted cut gauzes for Vietnam and flashing neon signs for the show's later Bangkok scenes, which, along with Andreane Neofitou's costumes, define location and period. Then there is the famed helicopter scene, one of the more memorable coups de théàtre in recent memory.

The scenery for the UK tour was gathered together by production manager Simon Robertson from redundant productions around the world, with new and resized elements built by Terry Murphy Scenery. Automation control is by Stage Technologies, using an Acrobat console, which drives 21 of the company's new Little Tow winches moving the blinds, seven Big Tow winches moving other flown scenery and trucks, and the eight-axes hydraulic helicopter.

The lighting may seem familiar to fans of the show — but in fact the lighting rig has undergone the biggest change in its history. The original London production marked one of the very first uses of Vari-Lite's Series 200 equipment in theatre: a rig of nine VL2B luminaires and 10 of the then-new VL4 wash luminaires, all controlled from an Artisan console. Hersey recalls, “We had budget restraints and I couldn't afford the number of moving lights I needed, so we devised a system of tracks to move the moving lights.” London also saw Hersey adding color scrollers to the long PAR-56 motorized light curtains that he'd been using for some time, most notably on Les Miz. “When I first saw John's design for Miss Saigon, the white gauze box and the blinds with the textured horizontals, I thought this has to be done with light curtains, and because I knew I had to have the color option, we persuaded Rainbow to make a scroller for them,” Hersey says. Here, too, budget constraints set in and money wasn't available for runs of light curtains to light the side blinds. The rest of the rig, controlled from a Strand Galaxy console at Drury Lane, was a huge assortment of then-current equipment, principally CCT Silhouettes and PAR cans topped with some of the earliest examples of Rainbow color scrollers. Remarkably, Saigon pre-dates the now-ubiquitous ETC Source Four, though they are the ellipsoidal of choice for the tour.

Photo: Ivan Kyncl

Changes Afoot

When the show opened to enormous acclaim and huge advance bookings, a New York production was confirmed; this allowed improvements to be made. “Bobby Fehribach, the New York electrician, saw the London show and was very complimentary; I kept saying yes, it's OK, but what I really need is…and he said, ‘Why don't you build them for the New York version?’” Hersey says. “And I thought, why don't I?” So, over the next nine months, the DHA Digital Light Curtain was born, with the New York production expanding the light curtain coverage to the side gauzes. Subsequent tours also added extra Vari*Lites, with it becoming cheaper to add more lights in place of the tracking system. VL5 wash luminaires and VL6 spot luminaires appeared alongside the VL2s and VL4s; control continued to be from an Artisan, programmed by Aland Henderson, with an ETC Obsession running the conventional rig, a Macintosh running the Light Curtains, and a PC running the slide changers on the Pani projectors, used to dress the blinds with artwork. Indeed, Saigon is such an intricate show that Hersey recalls, “It wasn't until Chicago, which was the fourth or fifth major go at it, that we got a version that started to work.”

But when the tender for the UK tour went out, with a projected five-year schedule, Vari-Lite suggested that the VL2 and 4 would cease to be supported products during the run. Hersey, his associate Jenny Kagan, and production electrician Alistair Grant began to look at alternatives; they didn't have to look too far to find the VL2202 spot and VL2402 wash units. Comparisons suggested that these lights would work for the show, though careful color selection was required for the VL2202 to ensure that it could match the wide range of colors (particularly some friendly warm tints of the kind that many moving lights fail to achieve) supplied by the VL2. Custom colors were provided by Rosco and Vari-Lite, and colors were loaded into both the color and gobo wheels of the 2202s to provide some level of color mixing. Though hard work, the result has been very satisfactory. The 2202s and 2402s are now used everywhere in the rig, replacing VL2s, 4s, 5s and 6s; the show uses 18 spot units and 24 wash units.

With DMX lights now in use, the opportunity was taken to rationalize the control. A Vari*Lite Virtuoso was considered, but in the end a Strand 500-based system was chosen, since the latter console is well established in the UK, has coped with many shows of this scale without complaint, and is familiar to the show's crew. One 520i now controls the entire rig, including Vari*Lites, 30 Digital Light Curtains, ETC Smartrack dimmers driving ETC Source Fours, PAR cans, and L&E M-16 battens, Strand LD90 dimmers driving the Devon Glass-colored Coda floods set into the floor, 45 Rainbow scrollers, six Pani BP2 projectors with PIGI single film scrollers, a DHA Yoyo+ gobo indexer plus Wybron CXI color changer, used to project a rising sun onto the front gauze during the overture, Anytronics dimmers built into the set trucks, Smoke Factory Data smoke and Le Maitre LSG low smoke machines (the Datas running through a Howard Eaton-built, DMX-controlled damper box allowing smoke to be directed to different parts of the stage as required), and even a PC providing a video file to an Electrohome VGX2500 video projector adopted as a more reliable replacement for a 16mm film projector used during one number in the show. A 510i rackmount console provides backup. Conversion from the American tour show files was carried out by hand via a variety of offline editors; it provided a solid starting point for the show's lighting. All of the lighting equipment for the tour is from White Light and the Moving Light Company in London, which even had to provide some retro-engineering, creating a DMX-controlled indexing color wheel to replace the CCT MX color wheels used in the nightclub scene of the original production.

“When we started talking about the tour, I was pretty precious about the Vari-Lite cues, because it had taken so much work to get the show to the state it got to. Dealing with the moving lights used to be really hard work,” Hersey recalls. “But now the technology has moved on; we didn't have to start again from scratch, the programming appears to be more transparent, and it was no problem. I didn't have to worry. I'd do it again. That's quite an interesting discovery, and has a lot to do with the way technology has developed in the last 10 to 15 years.”

Saigon Surrounded

If lighting technology has moved on since 1989, sound has perhaps taken even greater strides and, as usual, sound designer Andrew Bruce and his co-designer Nick Lidster, who was one of the sound operators when the show first opened, have incorporated the very latest. In particular, Saigon is now the first theatrical production to receive Dolby 5.1 surround-sound certification. “This is the first time we've done this show with real surround on every level,” Lidster explains, “and we chose to use a TCS Electronics S6000 licensed Dolby 5.1 processor.” More often used for film and DVD mastering, it appealed to Lidster because “it gives us very precise control, with different reverb and delay settings for each of the outputs rather than just feeding ordinary stereo reverb into the rears, all from one unit.” The system is configured around the S6000 to allow any sound — vocal, band, or effect — to be sent to any part of the system, “which has allowed us to put the band through the surround system, so that everyone in the audience gets the kind of wide sound that normally only the people sitting near the front get, so hopefully they don't feel so remote from the stage.” The combined systems also allow greater control over the bass, according to Lidster: “In London, there were separate 650s as sub-bases in the auditorium boxes for the helicopter. Here we wanted to combine the music and helicopter sub-bases so they could sell the boxes, so we have Martin Audio WSX subs on the pros and as part of the flown cluster. Having them there, between the stalls and circle MSL-2s on the pros and with the UPA-1s and UPA-2As in the cluster means that the system is much more musically coherent. We're then using Meyer DS2 mid-bass boxes, which give the helicopter sounds a real kick-in-the-chest quality; in one fly-by you can almost smell the exhaust!”

As usual, the Autograph designers prefer to use tools because they are right rather than just new, so the Dolby processor sits beside a 91-channel Cadac E-type mixing console, sections of which already survived a tour of duty on the show in London. Lidster notes that they had to re-varnish the wooden armrest after 10 years of constant use, however. The Cadac marshals inputs from 26 Sennheiser radio microphones plus the orchestra pit and sound effects, routes them through XTA-226s for EQ and delay and then out through Amcron amplifiers in shock-mounted racks to the loudspeakers. The front-fill feeds bypass the amplifiers, since here Lidster has used Meyer's Self-Powered UPM-2Ps. “One of the major problems with Saigon is that the orchestration is so heavy, often we haven't been able to crank the front fills high enough to get over that,” he says. “The UPM-2P has a horn-loaded tweeter, it can throw sound like a UM, so we've been able to generate more level from them, skimming it over the orchestra pit without killing people in the pit with the high levels.”

Production sound engineer Sean Lawler and his team provided wireless network access to the system so that Lidster could make adjustments from his laptop while prowling the theatre. “That certainly makes life much easier than 10 years ago,” he notes. “We could actually look at the desk, see what the operator was doing, from anywhere in the theatre.”

So, the latest technology has allowed the faithful reproduction of an old classic, while allowing those involved to add extra detailing, extra precision, and a new feel to some scenes, or “re-invent the show for the new Millennium,” as the producer so memorably put it — all in a version capable of being packed up and moved around the country quickly. The first test of those capabilities — to a venue where the fit will be even tighter — comes in July, when the show travels to Dublin.