He’s appeared on our screens in Game of Thrones and the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, but Jonathan Pryce still has a soft spot for his big musical debut.
Now 25 years on, the West End musical Miss Saigon still captures hearts with its passionate and profound tragedy. A special anniversary documentary takes viewers backstage and behind the curtain in an intimate exploration of how this powerful performance is brought to life.
Recorded in one take, Miss Saigon 25th Anniversary is a must-see for musical theatre fans. The DVD is out on November 16.
Jonathan Pryce from the original cast of Miss Saigon shares his take on the musical and why the role of The Engineer remains a special one for him.
When you were first asked by Cameron MacKintosh to play The Engineer in Miss Saigon, what was your reaction?
I wanted to do a musical after seeing Les Misérables, which I went to see because Patti LuPone was in it and we’d done a play together. Musicals were never part of my life; but I went to see it purely to see Patti. I was completely blown away by it and by her – and by Colm Wilkinson and I thought this was something I wanted to do.
Through a series of events Cameron became aware that I could sing and when Nick Hytner (Director, Miss Saigon, 1989 – 1999) said to him ‘what we need for this role is Jonathan Pryce … if only he could sing’, Cameron said ‘well he can!’ So they sent me the demo tape, which I listened to and thought it was really exciting and quite different from anything else I’d heard.
Then they started talking about the possibility of my doing it and coming in to sing for them. By then I was doing Uncle Vanya in the West End and I knew the composers were coming to see a performance of Vanya before I sang for them.
There was a small song I performed as Dr Astrov in Uncle Vanya – a drunken song – that became an audition piece! It got longer and longer and longer till the night they came to see it … I eventually went to sing onstage at the Palladium for them and they offered me the job.
What was it about the role of The Engineer that appealed to you?
The Engineer is an extraordinary character with great songs, including “The American Dream”. That song was very much up for grabs when we started rehearsing it: how it would be performed, how it would work; it was all those dreams of being a pop star or a crooner or somebody who worked in Las Vegas – they’re all there in that number.
Jonathan Pryce singing 'The American Dream' for a performance in 1998
Was he based on anyone you knew?
No! It was obviously a character of the author’s experience and imagination and it was just incredibly well drawn; it’s an easily recognisable, identifiable figure. But it’s also a figure of a very desperate person who wants to get out of this very desperate situation and I think that’s one of the reasons it was a relevant musical then; post-Vietnam was still fresh in our memories about people trying to get out of the city, trying to get out of the country to escape the war and the children being the victims.
And I think that’s why it continues to be relevant; sadly possibly even more relevant today given the political situations around the world where people are forced to flee and become refugees and migrants and people constantly trying to stop them.
What are your memories of the first time you stepped in front of the audience?
It felt quite dangerous but very exciting and I think the excitement of it all took care of any nervousness. There was a long rehearsal period and a long technical period so we spent a long time working on the music and seeing it all come together.
I thought less about me and more about the show, which I was very confident about – I knew it would be criminal if the show wasn’t a success and I think that’s what my overriding emotion was. To actually perform it was very exciting; what I really couldn’t believe was that it continued to be exciting for the two years I did it and that has everything to do with the show and, especially, the music, which I’d never experienced before.
And what about returning to the stage for Miss Saigon: The 25th Anniversary Performance special finale – how was that for you?
It was a lovely occasion and not overly sentimental; it was great to see Lea Salonga (Kim) and Simon Bowman (Chris) sing and to be with all the other members who came back for the ensemble. And how was it singing that song again? It was great! It’s a stand-alone song and it’s great to do whether you’re free to move along with the music or not! I enjoyed it – I had a great time.
What is your favourite Jonathan Pryce musical?