While audiences have come away humming the tunes, they also never forget the helicopter that carries Chris away during the scene showing the fall of Saigon. The original productions used a full-scale replica of a Huey helicopter, but the whirlybirds of the touring show had to be represented by projections and lighting effects due to space and transportation issues. Not anymore.
When “Miss Saigon” got a London revival in 2014, set designer Matt Kinley was one of the people responsible for bringing a new version of the signature chopper to life — as well as its portable touring counterpart. “Nowadays, with what they do with engineering, we’re able to take it on tour,” Kinley says. “We’re able to use a real helicopter, which is fantastic.”
The aircraft has landed at the Kennedy Center, where the touring production of the revived “Miss Saigon” is running through Jan. 13. It’s not quite a real helicopter, of course, as few theaters can accommodate a massive Vietnam-era Huey. But Kinley and fellow set designer Totie Driver came up with a few tricks to make it really fly.
Back to basics
It’s not ideal to give actors buzz cuts while they’re performing, so real rotors were out of the question. “The original helicopter had tennis balls on ropes for its rotors,” Kinley says. The center piece would start to spin while the helicopter was offstage; by the time it arrived, the centrifugal force meant that the ropes were taut. “When we started on the new helicopter, we were looking at light solutions and laser solutions and all manner of effects,” Kinley says. “We ended up going back to rope because it was physical” but would collapse for storage and not shred the scenery.
A skeletal frame
What audiences see onstage isn’t an actual replica of a Vietnam-era helicopter; it’s more of a representation made out of fiberglass. It arrives during the depiction of the fall of Saigon, which is shown in a flashback. “Really, the frame is a very skeletal helicopter,” Kinley says. “Your eye puts everything together and joins the gaps. It was built so you knew what it was, but it also wasn’t the real thing — so it was obvious that it was part of a nightmare sequence.”
When Chris unwillingly leaves Kim, he travels via the chopper. To keep the actor from falling, safety measures had to be taken — though not as many as one would expect. “In terms of safety, it’s literally just a wrist loop” that the actor puts his hand through on the inside of the copter while standing on the skid, Kinley says.
A big impact
The helicopter may be a very large actor, but it has a very small part. “We see it for a minute or so during the whole show,” Kinley says. “But that’s what [‘Miss Saigon’] is known for, so we had to deliver something special.”