Backstage at Miss Saigon - Civic Theatre Auckland

Wedding Scene from Miss Saigon 

Professional theatre offers great opportunities for students to gain valuable hands-on experience.  Cut Above students in the ‘Diploma in Makeup’ work as backstage crew for Amici Productions on at least two shows a year.  Following on from Cats and 42nd St in 2010, this year the class recently completed the three-week season of Miss Saigon at the Civic Theatre – and then they go into preproduction in August for the Amici production of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes – again at the Civic.

Some of us who were around in the 1970s will remember the heartbreaking images of babies, fathered by American GIs, abandoned when the men were repatriated home. It was one of these images - the photo of a Vietnamese mother leaving her baby at the departure gate at Tan Son Nhut Airbase, to give the child the chance of a better life with his ex-GI father in America –which inspired the partnership behind Les Miserables to create Miss Saigon. 

Based on Puccini’s opera Madam Butterfly, it relates the tragedy of an Asian woman abandoned by her American lover, who sacrifices her beloved son - and ultimately her own life- to ensure his future. Updated from 19th century Japan to the closing years of the Vietnam War, the ill-fated romance of Puccini’s American Lieutenant and Japanese Geisha is replaced by the doomed love affair of an American GI and a Vietnamese bar-girl, but the central idea of both tales is self-sacrifice.

Not the most cheerful material for a musical entertainment and an ambitious undertaking for a New Zealand company. But as one critic wrote, ‘the production would have received rave reviews in London or New York’. The creative team surpassed itself with the visual imagery of its set designs. 

The grim reality of the GIs fleeing from the US embassy roof, with the thundering helicopter threatening to burst into the theatre, stood in stark contrast to the gaud and glitter of Bangkok’s red-light district, and the lavish USA spectacle of a live Statue of Liberty, a stilt-walking Uncle Sam and a pyrotechnics display of red, white and blue-lit stars.

All this visual virtuosity presented a challenge for the students to match. In preparation, they researched the musical’s history, studied other productions on the internet, attended preproduction meetings with the cast and director, and produced storyboards of make-up designs for the production designer’s approval.  Led by their tutor Alison Brill, they provided hair and makeup services for pre-show publicity shoots and television interviews together with make-up application, hairstyling and dressing assistance over the full three-week season.

Miss Saigon is one of the longest running musicals of all time, and its heroine’s shift from naive country girl to courageous woman taking control of her own destiny continues to stir audiences to compassion. However, due to badly designed makeup, some of the early productions drew comparisons to a minstrel show for their unrealistic portrayals of Asian men and women. Being impossible for NZ producers to source an-all Asian cast, it was essential that the make-up was believable. 

Katy Donaldson working on a Miss Saigon cast member

Katy Donaldson working backstage on Miss Saigon lead Russell Dixon

Fortunately the techniques and materials for ethnic make-up have improved radically since Miss Saigon’s early days. There is now a far wider choice of colours, and the latest special effects products are vastly superior, but the students still spent hours practising the design and make-up application to simulate Asian features and complexions.