BWW Interview: Alistair Brammer Talks MISS SAIGON 25th Anniversary Broadcast
Alistair Brammer played Chris in the acclaimed West End revival of Miss Saigon at Prince Edward Theatre in 2014. During his run, the show celebrated its 25th anniversary with a gala performance, including a special finale featuring original cast members Jonathan Pryce, Lea Salonga and Simon Bowman. The filmed performance was recently broadcast in the US, and appears in UK cinemas for one night only on 16 October.
Had you seen Miss Saigon before you went into it?
I'd never seen it before, or since actually! But I knew the soundtrack like the back of my hand. I heard it for the first time when I was about 16, and I had it on repeat constantly - I couldn't get enough of it. I made a promise to myself then that I would one day play Chris.
What did you love about the show?
There's something so exciting about it. I love the music and the high drama. Actually those are one thing, as the drama has that power because the music fuels it.
Did you do much research into the period and what Chris experienced?
I did, yes. I did lots of reading and watched loads of Vietnam films - things like Born on the Fourth of July, The Killing Fields, Hamburger Hill. We also watched a lot of documentary footage in the rehearsal room. I think it's vital you do that work for something based on real life. Chris would have known these things and lived in these places, so you have to really get what he's gone through.
It's a really meaty role
Definitely, people might mistake him for the winky prince, but he's very troubled at the start of the story - he's really lost all hope. Then he meets someone who changes everything and gives him purpose. And then life in America is so tough - as it was for Vietnam veterans returning home, who were really hated. But he finds this woman who loves him and understands him, and that's really needed, though I believe and the audience likes to believe he still has this place in his heart for Kim. So there's all these layers to it - it's a joy to play.
What was your favourite number to perform?
"Last Night of the World" I really love. It's when things are going right for him, or least he's at the peak of that happiness, making a promise to her and finding this hope. The way the music soars really feeds that high romance.
Do you think the story still has resonance?
The story is completely timeless - it's a love story. You can't beat a really good love story! Everyone's felt love, so they can relate. If you're young watching it's in hope that you'll fall in love like that, and if you're older and you've been with someone for years, it might take you back to the start, when you were making all those passionate discoveries. It really does appeal to all ages.
But as well, with what's going on in the world right now, it's certainly relevant. You take those images of the Vietnamese trying to flee Bangkok, hanging onto the edges of planes - they were so desperate, they weren't even thinking about what would happen if they got off the ground, whether they would survive that journey. Now you have people fleeing these awful war-ravaged places, throwing their children onto boats in the desperate hope of getting them somewhere better.
Is there pressure telling a story that has such deep meaning for people?
There is, but the best you can do is research as much as you can. You need to find what it might be like to be a in country rife with war, with bullets flying past your head - that's our job as actors to understand a true experience and know what our character has experienced.
And any pressure going into such a long-running show?
Actually no. I really like to forget the show's been done before and just do my version. I'm not one of those people who will go off and listen to Simon Bowman or John Barrowman - I'll read the score and sing it my own way. Otherwise theatre will never be fresh or grow.
The broadcast is surprisingly cinematic. How did you pitch that performance?
It was really interesting - we had all these men in black clothes with big cameras, so you were very much aware of it. I've done a bit of TV and film in the past, so I really thought about reining it in slightly and expressing more through the face and eyes. But otherwise we all gave the same performance, and it really captures the theatre production that people loved, just in a way that works for a cinema audience.
What's the response been like to the broadcast?
I've had so many nice Tweets from people saying how excited they are and how great it was to get to see the production. No one's said "Oh, that was underwhelming", thankfully - everyone's been really blown away. I've had quite a few messages from American viewers asking if I'm going to go to Broadway.
And would you like to?
I'm tempted, definitely! It's not up to me, but if the opportunity was there - yes, in a heartbeat.
What was it like having the original company members there for the 25th gala?
I actually shared a dressing room with Simon [Bowman], and we're old friends - we did Les Miserables together six years ago, when I played Marius and he was Jean Valjean. So we just hung out and chatted and played guitar together. It was amazing having Lea Salonga there - I was a bit starstruck meeting the woman who did the voice of Jasmine in Aladdin! My 14-year-old self was screaming "Oh my god, you're kissing Princess Jasmine!".
That was such a special night. I had my family down, and my now wife Rachel - we got married at the end of August - and her brother Michael. And there were all these celebrities, like Michael Ball and Anneka Rice, the original company members, Cameron Mackintosh, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil. Everyone was just so excited and joyful, getting to celebrate together. We had this special finale, singing with the original cast. Eva [Noblezada] and I did "Last Night of the World" with Simon and Lea in a special four-part harmony version - that's something I'll never forget. And then the incredible Jonathan Pryce came on and did his thing.
Was it intimidating performing with the original cast there?
I've been doing this job long enough not to worry about that too much. We're all just actors in the same boat, and no one's there to cast judgement. You'll always be aware of comparisons, but you can't worry about filling other people's shoes - you've got to find your own path. Once you've got your head round that, it takes the pressure off.
What was it like working with Jon Jon Briones and Eva?
They're great - they bring very different energies. Jon Jon is more reserved and private, and then he brings it all on stage, while Eva just bounds in with this endless energy, so you had quite different experiences in the rehearsal room. But both were an absolute joy to work opposite. They're such generous actors, and if you do something new they'll really go with it - that helped keep fresh over a long run.
Was that a challenge?
Actually this score has such breath around everything - it's not constant bombardment. So there are lots of places, as a performer, to find something new. There's room to grow and change. That keeps you on your toes, and makes the show the best that it can be. You can change things up within this incredible framework, and be brave and strong in your choices.
What have you got coming up?
I've got a manager in LA now, so I'm doing audition tapes out there, and I've just done a stint in Casualty. I'm really ready to do whatever the world wants me to do. I'm very happy to do more musicals - whatever will further me as a performer.
Do you have any dream roles?
Chris! Honestly, that's the one - if you asked me when I was 17, that was always my dream role. I'm maybe not the best singer on the planet, but I've always known this would sit really well in my voice, touch wood, and I really enjoyed singing it. It was such a perfect experience I'm a bit worried about finding something to top it!
Would you like to perform in other countries or go out on tour?
I don't like to tour as much now that I'm married. But I'm actually going to Dubai to do Les Miserables for a month in November and my wife is coming with me, which is kind of a fun trip for us early in our marriage. It's always great when your job takes you to interesting places. So if the right thing came up somewhere else, I'd be happy to think about it.
Finally, what do you think audiences will take from the Miss Saigon broadcast?
I hope it moves them. I hope their view of war and the people in it changes - I really see that as the main aim of the piece, alongside the love story, to illuminate the aftermath of war. Really, war is the only enemy in the show. I want people to come out changed, even if it's only for a little while, and to think about what that must be like for people. It's such a human tale, and it's so powerfully and beautifully told. It's been a real honour to be part of it.
Miss Saigon: The 25th Anniversary Performance is in UK cinemas for one night only 16 October, and on Blu-ray and DVD 24 October
Photo credit: Richard Davenport