For its final production of the season, the Walnut Street Theatre is presenting a musical that was a hit in London and then on Broadway. Miss Saigon premiered in London in 1989 and ran for 10 years. When it opened on Broadway in 1991, it racked up 11 Tony nominations.
Now the Walnut is presenting its own all-new production, which opened last week and continues to July 17.
With echoes of Madame Butterfly, this love story is about an American soldier and Vietnamese girl who fall in love and then are separated during the fall of Saigon. The music is by the composers who created the memorable music for Les Miserables.
On the main stage of the Walnut, it’s the actors who bring this story to life. But the scenic design helps create the world of Saigon, including crowded streets and a seedy nightclub.
The most stunning element of the stage set is the full-scale helicopter, which appears onstage in a scene near the end of the second act. It’s been a famous part of Miss Saigon ever since the London production.
The Walnut follows tradition with an actual helicopter made in its own scene shop — the chopper carries two actors across the stage.
“It’s able to rotate and move in every direction,” said Dan Schultz, a Philadelphian who is the theater’s technical director. “The actors enter the helicopter and ride off the stage.”
The helicopter was entirely built in the theater’s scene shop at 3340 Frankford Ave. Formerly an auto-mechanic workshop, it’s now the headquarters for creating stage magic.
Inside are four rooms with offices plus spaces where the sets are built. Schultz supervises a staff of 10, including carpenters plus apprentices and a painter.
But it’s Schultz who has the starring role behind the scenes. He designed the helicopter as well as other scenic details for the Miss Saigon set, just as he does for all of the Walnut’s major productions.
For Miss Saigon, the helicopter was the major challenge. First, scenic designer John Farrell gave Schultz computer drawings of what he wanted. Schultz set to work designing the structure of a helicopter that could support two people who would fly off the stage in it.
Next, he ordered all the material — aluminum for the frame, and sheet metal for the exterior. It took three full weeks to put together a helicopter 19 feet long and 5 feet tall.
“It’s about the size of a regular car,” said Schultz.
Once it was built, it had to be transported to the stage of the Walnut Street Theatre in Center City. Usually the sets are moved by rental truck, but this was much too large.
Instead, Schultz had a towing company do the job. The helicopter was placed on a flatbed and off it went to the theater, with Schultz driving right behind. When the copter arrived at Ninth and Walnut, it was lowered on a ramp and positioned on dollies for the cautious trip into the theater and onto the stage.
This was Schultz’s first chance to see if it actually worked. “Because of its size, we couldn’t try it out in the shop,” he said. “So we were eager to get it on the stage and see what would happen. And it worked fine — better than we could have hoped.”
Although the helicopter was a major project, Schultz was also responsible for other key details, such as the large hanging panels that rotate on a track and show scenes of Vietnam, including street scenes of a seedy district replete with sex shops and strip clubs.
Altogether, Schultz and his staff made six panels, each one 7 feet by 19 feet. The panels have such elaborate lighting that it takes 9,000 watts of power just for the scenery, said Schultz.
These elements, too, had to be set in place on the stage — the wall panels, the props, the lights.
“We know from experience that there are always adjustments to be made,” said Schultz. “They’re all worked out during the hectic time known as ‘tech week.’”
This is the week of marathon hours for rehearsals when all the technical details are addressed before the show’s dress rehearsal and previews.
During previews, Schultz sits in the audience, clipboard in hand. As he watches the stage closely, he makes notes of any technical details that need to be fixed or fine-tuned at the last minute.
By opening night, his work is over. Because Miss Saigon is the final show of the Walnut’s season, he’ll now turn to preliminary planning for next season.
Schultz didn’t initially plan a career in theater. Instead, at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., he earned a degree in filmmaking. “But I had many friends in the theater program,” he said, noting that it sparked his interest.
When he settled in Philadelphia in 1996, he did freelance theater jobs while working on films. His first stage work was at the Arden Theater, where he painted a stage floor black.
“Any idiot could do that,” he joked.
But soon he was doing more, working as a carpenter at the Arden Theater and also working for several scene shops.
This is his third season with the Walnut Street Theatre, and Miss Saigon is his 15th full-scale production. Each one brings new challenges and satisfaction.
A high moment comes when he’s in the audience, watching the show unfold on the set that he and his staff built from scratch.
“That’s a very satisfying feeling,” he said. “I like the magic you can make out of plywood and paint.” ••