As Miss Saigon returns to Birmingham, producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh is busy breaking several of his own records, writes Terry Grimley...

There are some things - computers and mobile phones, for example - which become more compact and user-friendly as they evolve. But can the same be true for blockbusting musicals?

The production of Miss Saigon which opens at Birmingham Hippodrome tonight is technically a much simpler version than the one which played for 16 weeks at this theatre in 2003, when it was seen by 20,000 people. But producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh argues that it has lost nothing in quality.

"The physical production is completely different to the one we toured before," he told me last week. "It's a version which we've completely reinvented, rather than just scaling-down the show. I wanted to find a new way of doing it.

"What we've got now is a much bigger permanent set for both both Ho Chi Minh City and Bangkok. It clears the wings for parades and street scenes and things like that. The costumes are the same, and so is the the American Dream sequence with the Cadillac. We have used a lot of back-projection and sound effects and my view is that it has made the show more intimate and more powerful.

"What I didn't know was that fans of the show would embrace it, but I haven't met one person who hasn't liked it as much if not more than the original. If the material is good, you can re-stage it. The key thing it has done is open up the show to theatres and cities that could not stage the original version.

"It has not been done in that many countries because it was so difficult to move it and to find a multi-racial cast. This show will move in under 48 hours, so it doesn't have to stay in a city for ten weeks just to pay its moving costs."

Paradoxically, now that the show is so much more transportable, opportunities to see it in Britain will become scarce after the next few months.

"It can't be done in this country for a few years because it is going to finish its national tour in, I think, July and then the entire production is going to be shipped to Australia for their spring. It was an enormous success in America and it's about to open in Korea, South America, Germany and Japan."

If anyone was seriously predicting the death of the modern musical a year or two ago, they will clearly have to wait a while yet. And meanwhile Sir Cameron, a producer nearer to having the Midas touch than any other of modern times, is enjoying a series of leap-frogging successes.

In January, The Phantom of the Opera became the longest-running show in Broadway history. And, barring unforeseen accidents, October will bring two more milestones as Phantom celebrates 20 years in the West End and Les Miserables becomes London's longest-running musical.

Ironically, the show which Les Miserables will displace in the West End record books is another from the Mackintosh stable, Cats.

"Cats ran for 21 years in London and people ask me if I'm not sad to see it lose the record," says Sir Cameron. "But I say well actually, not really. I don't mind which one goes into which position at which time.

"Phantom is by no means losing any steam at all, so I've no doubt it will break the record. Les Mis seems to have had a completely new lease of life in the last six months. People born when it first came out are now a theatre-going audience, and there's not a tinge of nostalgia about it. So in a way I've got the best of all worlds with Saigon being almost like a completely new show."

The West End is always a sensitive barometer of the national mood, reflecting financial security or lack of it, a mood for escapism or direct threats like the July 7 bombings.

"It had a very, very rocky autumn after what happened in July, but it had been doing well until then. Then we had a record Christmas and January to March has been better than any of us expected."

These may be nervous times in many respects, but then so were the 1930s, a golden age for musical theatre. And, recalling that its setting against the last days of America's ignominious withdrawal from Vietnam originally made Miss Saigon a hard sell on that side of the Atlantic, I asked Sir Cameron if he could ever imagine a musical set in Iraq.

"Listen, in ten years time Bloubil and Schonberg could easily have set this story in Iraq. When we did it originally Vietnam was the closest war, so it was nearly contemporary in the way that South Pacific was nearly contemporary in the 1950s.

"I think what's happened since Iraq is that America and the rest of the world have put Vietnam back into history. But I also think we all have a stake in the Middle East in a way that I don't think we quite did with Vietnam, though we observed it and had points of view about it.

"But the centre of this show is a story about two people caught up in tragic events. That's the key to it."

* Miss Saigon is at Birmingham Hippodrome from tonight until April 29 (Box office 0870 730 1234).