Why Puccini would love 'Miss Saigon'

Based on the opera 'Madam Butterfly', Cameron Mackintosh's new production of the musical 'Miss Saigon' - from the creators of 'Les Miserables' - is the hottest ticket in London's West End. But would Puccini approve?

It’s the heartbreaking story of a doomed love affair between an Asian girl – forced into prostitution by family poverty – and an American military man, stationed temporarily in her country. He returns home, she has his child – and then waits patiently for his return…

And you know the rest because it’s such a famous tale. But you may be surprised to learn that I’m not talking about Puccini’s Madam Butterfly, but rather Miss Saigon, the hit 1989 musical that has been revived in London’s West End.

Miss Saigon - The musical in pictures >

Before the classical purists accuse Miss Saigon’s creators, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, of plagiarism, let’s be clear that it’s an unashamed tribute to Butterfly, successfully relocating the action from 19th-century Japan to 1970s Saigon during the Vietnam War.

Watching this slick, spectacular show, brilliantly staged and sung – and deeply moving at times – I couldn’t help but think how cleverly its makers have managed to take what some might call an untouchable classical masterpiece and refashion it into another, hugely successful piece of theatre for our times.

And to those who think that you just shouldn’t go there, I’d say there’s nothing new about more than one composer being inspired by the same story. Butterfly was preceded by another opera titled – less alluringly – Madame Chrysanthemum, which also drew on the tragic tale that originally appeared in the autobiographical journal of a US naval officer stationed in Nagasaki.

Admittedly, while Miss Saigon has a host of original and well-written numbers, there are moments that ring a few temple bells and conjure up the ghost of Puccini - and even the Kurt Weill-tinged menace of Cabaret. But that’s nothing new either; composers have always drawn inspiration from others, and there’s certainly no plagiarism here.

And so far as incorporating classical works into musicals is concerned, well, the Broadway hit Kismet reworked Borodin. And Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty, with added lyrics, gave Disney a number of well-loved songs for their animated version.

Puccini was the undisputed master of verismo - the style of opera that depicted the realistic, sordid and sometimes violent everyday life of ordinary people. I have no doubt he would have been thrilled by Miss Saigon, and not a little envious of what modern stagecraft can do to bring a story to life. 

What next, then? I, for one, would love to see La Traviata brought up to date. Violetta as a high-class escort in Las Vegas? Alfredo, the promising son of a Republican Presidential hopeful? Come on Cameron Mackintosh – work your magic! And I’ve no doubt that Verdi would be flattered too.