Miss Saigon opened at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane on 20th September 1989. Simon was cast in the role of Chris, the young, disillusioned American GI who falls passionately in love with a young Vietnamese girl Kim. The show was originally going to open in New York but there weren’t any suitable theatres available and then Drury Lane came up and so it was decided to open in London first. There was a very long auditioning process, especially to find Kim, and there were several Americans going for the part of Chris.
Simon: At that time I had already played Marius and was about to start in Just So and I asked Cameron if I could be seen for the role. He was very helpful and explained to me what kind of character they were looking for. It was actually on the last night of Just So at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury that Cameron came up to me in the bar afterwards and offered me the role. However, I think that when Alain and Claude-Michel saw me playing Kangaroo they did wonder how I would play Chris! Of course I had really long hair then and I had it cut short, but they kept wanting it shorter and shorter so it felt really weird.
At the beginning they never imagined the role to be what it turned out to be as they thought it would be a much smaller part. When rehearsals started the text wasn’t fixed and it was often a case of trying things out to see what worked. I love being directed, and Nick Hytner is a fantastic director; he’s got a great eye for detail.
Richard Maltby gave us a lot of background and we watched films like The Killing Fields and even some live footage of the helicopter evacuation. There were a couple of guys in the cast who had actually got out themselves that day in the helicopter and had to leave their families behind. As they watched that footage they were going through it again and crying. So it made it very real and emotional for all of us.
When you’re starting from scratch you have to find your own interpretation of a role. I did my research and I talked a lot to Richard Maltby. Chris is pretty screwed up. There’s guilt and a lot of complex emotions, but there’s also an innocence about his falling for Kim. The song ‘Why God Why?’ is a major statement about his character and it lets you know who he really is.
If you’re putting over a touching story through music it must be believable, and I think it is, if you can create a sense of intimacy as though you’re on screen, never mind that 2000 people are watching you. You go through a lot of emotions when you start – finding the person, finding their feelings. And of course there’s a powerful sexual chemistry between Chris and Kim, which must have been convincing because some people thought it was real, but of course it wasn’t. Lea Salonga was only 17 and from a very sheltered background – I mean she’d never even kissed a bloke before! But we’re great friends and we still keep in touch.
The show developed through the rehearsal period, and the sitzprobe, where orchestra and cast come together for the very first time, was pretty spectacular – listening to that great music and wonderful songs was very powerful. On the first night everyone was really nervous as we expected to get slaughtered by the press and that the helicopter would take all the headlines, but that didn’t happen.
The show was really well received and for a lot of people it still remains their favourite show ever. I received a lot of letters from Vietnam vets and sometimes they would come and see me after the show. They were particularly moved by the breakdown scene when they saw me on stage letting out what they had actually felt. So they completely related to my character and I had some really lovely letters thanking me for doing a good job on their behalf. There were a lot of Americans coming to the show, in fact one night Tom Sellick was in the audience and he sent a message backstage to me to say that the arrows on my lapels were the wrong way round!
I played opposite a lot of different Kims in the show, the original Kim, Lea Salonga, of course, and then there was Monique Wilson and Joanna Ampil. Claire Moore, who played Ellen in the original cast, became a very good friend. She’s a real favourite of mine and apart from being a lovely lady she’s so talented, she can sing everything – she’s the real deal. We’ve worked together a lot, she was also Christine to my Raoul in Phantom and we’ve done many concerts together. I love working with her because we always have the biggest laugh and I love her to bits!
I had an amazing time doing Miss Saigon and I was very lucky to have the opportunity to create an original role. It was a very special time and it was very exciting to create a role that nobody has done before and that you will always be remembered for.
Miss Saigon opened with a five million pound advance, which was enormous at that time, and expectations were running sky high. The first night was a huge success and the reviews were excellent too with Simon being widely praised for his interpretation of the role. He played Chris from September 1989 to September 1992, continuing after many of the original cast had left. Then he returned for a brief stint in the autumn of 1993. Simon is on the original London cast album, which was awarded a gold disc for selling 150,000 copies within three days of its release and it subsequently went platinum. This photo was taken at the presentation of the Gold Disc and these leads were also presented with a disc. Simon can also be seen in the video/DVD The Heat is On about the making of Miss Saigon.