Original London Cast Recording inlay photos
|Andrew Lloyd Webber (1984)|
Starlight Express began life in 1973. I was asked to compose the music for a series of cartoons for television based on the “Thomas the Tank Engine” stories, which are something of a British equivalent of “The Little Engine That Could”. Nothing then came of the project.
Two years later my life was complicated by meeting a soul singer who had the unusual gift of being able to sing three notes at once in the exact pitch of an American steam whistle. Meanwhile I had been approached by another television company about a cartoon version of “Cinderella”. Soon it became a Cinderella story about trains. A famous Prince was to hold a competition to decide which engine would pull the royal train across the United States of America. Cinderella was to be a steam engine, the ugly sisters were to be a diesel and an electric. The steam engine won the competition with a little help from the Fairy Godmother... The Midnight Special (The Starlight Express). The Midnight Train lent the steam engine special equipment on condition it was back by midnight, so the Special could leave on time. In his haste to get back on time the steam engine dropped a piston. The prince went around America to find the engine which the piston fitted, etc., etc.
The project never got off the ground! In the summer of 1982 I took my young son, Nicholas, to the Valley Railroad en route to The Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut. I shall never forget his face of pure joy and amazement when the big American steam locomotive arrived.
So at the 1982 Sydmonton Festival Starlight was finally performed with the intention that it might become a concert for schools. Here it was heard by Trevor Nunn. First there was a plan that it should open the new Barbican Centre in London as a concert sung by all the schools of the City of London, but the ever-resourceful Mr. Nunn had other ideas. He felt the story should be more about competition, that for children today it should be more of a pop score and above all that it could be a staged “event” because trains could happen through roller skates. Frankly some of us had doubts so the first act was “workshopped” in 1983. The London production of Starlight Express opened in March 1984 and is still playing.
|Andrew Lloyd Webber London October 1992|
STARLIGHT EXPRESS started life in1975 as a sort of Cinderella story which I hoped would be an animated movie. It never got off the ground. Then in 1983 I rewrote it for my children, Imogen and Nicholas, in the version that opened in March 1984 in this theatre. Nine years later we revised Starlight whose new music was dedicated to my son, Alastair. Starlight was always meant to be fun, hopefully an entertaining piece of live theatre for a new audience. Everything in Starlight is played and performed live, though the orchestra is invisible under the stage. We are all proud that Starlight not only became the second- longest running musical in London theatre history in April 1992, but has spawned a new generation of theatre-goers who perhaps never considered going to the theatre before and who may have gone on to other (perhaps more conventional!) things. For example Frances Ruffelle started her career as Dinah then, two years later, she won a Tony Award for her Broadway performance in LES MISERABLES.
That’s what the whole creative team feels STARLIGHT is about. It is meant to be nothing other than fun with a tiny heart of gold beating among all its trappings. It also by its nature has to change. Frankly I suspect that when Alistair is old enough to see it, we will be on the track of Version number three.
It was in 1976 that Andrew first wrote some songs for a cartoon film based on the Reverend Awdry’s book. This was cancelled (frozen points near Swindon). The 1977 TV Special in which American trains reenacted the Cinderella story also failed to arrive (signal failure at Watford). So Andrew left trains in a siding for a while and concentrated on CATS, reasoning that if MOUSETRAP did well in the West End, CATS should do even better. In early 1981, I was offered a piece of cheese—the chance to doctor the opening number of CATS. And once CATS was put out for the night, Andrew showed me the Cinderella story, and talked to me of trains. After some delays (leaves on the line near East Croydon) STARLIGHT EXPRESS was performed at the Sydmonton Festival in Summer 1982. In the audience was Trevor Nunn. The relief guard had arrived! Trevor agreed to direct it, though it was by neither Shakespeare or T.S. Eliot. Spring 1983 and we took the STARLIGHT EXPRESS to workshop to test the new idea. The new idea was wheels. All of our trains, Cinderella long forgotten, were now booted and skated. Almost exactly a year after the last workshop performance STARLIGHT EXPRESS arrived at the Apollo Victoria. All these railway endeavours have had one thing in common—steam. People feel drawn to steam now they’re no longer drawn by it. It may be easier to imagine a face and a heartbeat on a steam engine. But anyone who has ever breathed out on a frosty day has pretended, for a moment, to be a steam train. A kettle that can pull sixteen carriages must have something special.
FOLLIES AND GRANDEUR
I have a name for you. Several in fact. I could call you the Punter, or the Man in the Street, or just Main Folks. Where I come from I know you mostly as Joe. Joe Public. It’s not really surprising that the professional theatre has always had a familiar name for the audience — if only to encourage the feeling that we know who we are playing to — but it’s double think of course. Newspapers constantly inform us of ‘what the public wants’ when in fact they are describing what a handful of powerful magnates want the general public to want. And in the theatre we talk a good deal about what Joe Public wants when all the time we mean what we hope we can get you to accept. But what about the other half? Rave reviews never kept a show running if there was no demand at the box office, and in England at least, a critical drubbing can’t prevent a show getting years of packed houses if Joe decides it’s what he wants. Having been brought up on television, he takes for granted the highest standards of technical accomplishment in entertainment. Television provides him with a ceaseless flow of social realistic drama, and so when Joe pays the high price of a theatre ticket, he is looking for something completely different, something to stir his imagination.
I don’t think a show can be successful if the creators are thinking only of the public appeal they want to make, but in these days of burgeoning production costs, it would be foolish to attempt anything ambitious without a strong sense of why a lot of people might want to make the effort to see it. A great theatre capital like London boasts a comprehensively varied annual program, but there has always been a place within it for circuses, spectacles, pantomimes, operettas, vaudeville — every age has found its response to the public appetite for shows that are exuberant, light-hearted, eye-popping fun.
When I first heard the music of Starlight Express sung at Andrew Lloyd Webber’s private festival at Sydmonton. I found myself thinking that what he and Richard Stilgoe had written was a work in this centuries-old tradition of popular entertainment—undemanding in content, novel in theme, inventive in composition and full of opportunity for spectacle and theatre magic. Starlight Express has about the same level of intellectual difficulty as operas by Handel, masques by Ben Johnson or follies by Ziegfield.
Andrew doesn’t set plays to music. He needs ‘a musical’ to be first and foremost a collection of theatrical ideas that have no particular form or meaning until they are given musical expression. He insists that the musical is a separate genre, and so his collaborators are encouraged to find new methods of presentation, in design, dance, light and sound. We are all concerned, in a phrase. with the pursuit of total theatre, with all the elements coalescing in an experience which is involving, and above all, live—like a sporting event.
The problem I had been handed was how to make people portray railway trains. I don’t know exactly what led me to the solution of roller skates (I can introduce you to a lot of peopIe who wish I had been led almost anywhere else). But it wasn’t until the story of our show was changed to include the idea of trains and coaches racing, that we had the vital ingredients of competition, speed and danger. From then on I knew Starlight Express would be like no other show before. I should have realised we would encounter problems along the way, which would be suitably unique. All we had to find at auditions were thirty young people who could act, sing and dance while roller-skating. We saw a ceaseless procession of people lurching out of control, heading straight for our table or at the pianist, unable to stop until they had become a crumpled heap on the floor. The first time we saw somebody skating with style and skill, we hugged each other. Then he opened his mouth. He was tone deaf. Painfully slowly over hundreds of hours, a cast for a workshop experiment of Starlight was chosen and more painfully, more slowly for the next five weeks, Arlene Philips and I made a rough staging of about halt the material. What took us so long?
Staging a play allows a fair degree of freedom, but musical staging must be utterly disciplined and accurate; each artist is required to be on precisely the right square inch of stage at precisely the right count in the music. With our artists on roller skates we felt absurdly lucky if someone was in the right half of the stage in the right half of the number. Most of the company had spirit-crushing difficulty in skating in a restricted space and with the necessary dexterity. Even the ones who were doing well could be felled without warning by a flailing colleague.
I developed a new directorial function — cradling the injured. A foot, a knee, an elbow, a wrist, sometimes a body in shock, sometimes a deeply hurt pride; in the stalls, on the track, in big rooms and small I would provide a sort of spiritual Red Cross, with the unenviable responsibility of having to persuade the fallen to get up and try it again. Never has a theatre company come from so many diverse backgrounds and levels of experience; and never has company been required to possess such a formidable degree of courage. They always found it, in themselves, and more important, in each other.
The work was rigorous, draining and elusive. It’s harder to sing on skates than with your feet on terra firma, harder to get your feet to remember steps, harder to listen, harder to feel. And yet each time we finally mastered a section, however small, the exhilaration was contagious. It was only the results that made the anguish of getting them worthwhile.
We left the rehearsal room an accomplished group, able to run through the show with zest and confidence. That was on a flat floor. We arrived in the theatre, thrilled as we were to be finally inhabiting our environment, we had to start training all over again. The gradients of the set defeated just about everybody to begin with, and the company had to dig in and master a whole new set of skills of balance and tenacity.
Which leads me to formulate a Parkinson’s law of the theatre. The better we master a skill to the point where there is no longer any evidence of difficulty, the less the public are impressed. Here we have performers dancing complicated choreography, counting bars, listening for beats, singing multiple harmonies, watching a televised conductor without appearing to, using the intricacies of radio microphone technique, wearing bulky, oddly weighted costume and headgear, at high speeds on treacherous ball-bearing wheels that at the slightest imbalance will bring them crashing to the floor. And what do they do? They make it look easy. Their professionalism dictates that they must disguise difficulty. So clenched teeth, grimaces, looks of pain, frustration, Intense concentration and most of all fear, must all be banished. And in that act of disguise they attempt to convert skill into art. I am in awe of these people.
There was a time when to be in a show meant you were either a singer or a dancer. That world is no longer with us. Musicals have demanded for many years that performers are all-rounders, and the demands get more extreme as each year goes by. Perhaps text year we will see a show on pogo sticks, or trampolines,. or under water- of course the pursuit of novelty can become absurd, and is not to be confused with originality. But the theatre, particularly the musical theatre, will always be trying to do what hasn’t been done before, because of an unshakable belief that it’s what Joe Public wants. What do you mean, you think an underwater musical sounds like a great idea…