Belle's Domain
Starlight Express

Broadway - 1987 US Tour 1 - 1989 Las Vegas - 1993 US tour 2 - 2003

Starlight Express in America has always been quite different to its European relations, but each production has been closely related to its predecessor. The original Broadway production was in large revived for the first US tour, and that production was taken to Las Vegas, where the show ran for a successful four years before losing their home. The Vegas production was taken out of storage to provide the foundation for the 2nd US tour.

The "On Ice" production was completely separate from anything else in the history of Starlight Express, existing in its own short-lived, icy bubble.


Starlight Express On Ice - 1997

Andrew Lloyd Webber (Broadway, 1987)

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.

For this present production I worked in conjunction with Phil Ramone in New York on a new recording which has resulted in new arrangements and it turns out that some of the main songs are either completely new or substantially re-written and we have a completely redesigned set from John Napier.

Richard Stilgoe (Broadway 1987)

Which is the most exciting single moment in the production of a musical? The first night? The first read- through with the cast? The point where the producer announces that all the money has been raised? (Well, virtually all, but we have every confidence that by the end of the month...)

It is none of these. The most exciting single moment (for the creative team at any rate) is the production of the souvenir brochure. Partly because it indicates a glossy confidence in the success of the project, but mainly because it is our first chance to find out what we think the show is about. The composer writes a piece, the director writes a rather longer piece, and the lyricist writes a piece. (And, if this piece doesn’t appear in the finished program, it’s because the lyricist wrote it rather late.) If experience is anything to go by, their three views of the show’s core are very different.

As far as I know, Andrew thinks Starlight Express is Cinderella for trains, and ought to have been done on a smaller scale. Trevor thinks it’s the Olympic games for trains, and ought to have been done on a bigger scale. For what it’s worth, the lyricist thinks it’s about the oldest fight in the world. Good versus Evil. A little fellow is bullied by two big fellows, but because he has faith he turns out to be bigger than both of them.

Electric trains are boring. Often clean and quick, and sometimes on time, but boring and self-important. There’s bully number one. Diesel trains are noisy and oily and smelly and unsmiling. There’s bully number two. Steam trains, on the other hand, are good. A little grimy from honest toil, perhaps, but somehow radiating goodness and life. There are many possible reasons why we feel this — nostalgia, the pioneering history of the steamer cleaving its way West, the human pulse of the engine, the ease of imagining a face on the front. Steam power is elemental — venerable coal from the earth combines with air, fire and water to produce shimmering heat that vanishes magically in a white cloud. Somehow we feel affection and awe for the steam train. Somehow we imbue steam trains with feelings — they care whether we reach our destination; they sing when happy and drop hot tears when sad. Our little steam train knows that there are forces more mighty than him, and he’s humble enough to draw on those forces to make himself stronger. His struggle is our struggle.

That’s what Starlight Express is about. If you still have a child’s approach to life, you will have known that already. I just hope the explanation makes it easier for scholars of the future. Otherwise they’ll just have to sift through the eight crates of re-writes I have hidden in a warehouse somewhere in Manhattan.

Martin Starger, Producer NY

THE MAGIC OF TRAINS AND STARLIGHT EXPRESS

In our world of supersonic flights across oceans and hourly air shuttles between cities, the romance once associated with travel seems to be disappearing. The Orient Express... the Twentieth Century... the majesty of a speeding express train as it glides and whistles across the horizon: these are some of the images that came to mind when I first saw Starlight Express in London in 1984.

Trains have always held a fascination for me as they have for children and adults alike since their invention. From the part they played in the opening up of our West, the sagas of the great train robberies, and the wonderful folk songs about famous trains to the sleek Silver Bullets of modern times the “railroads” have been pure, exciting Americana. And that is why I feel that Starlight Express, though originally created in England by English artists, has truly come home to America.

Just as Andrew Lloyd Webber and Richard Stilgoe’s score brings to life steamers, freights, diesels, passenger trains and the rest, Trevor Nunn’s imaginative staging, John Napier’s spectacular sets and costumes and David Hersey’s unique lighting capture the majesty that makes train travel—at least to my mind—the most exciting mode of transportation ever developed.

It took us 120,000 pounds of steel, 7,000 sheets of plywood, 22 miles of fiber optics. 1,500 feet of fluorescent tubing, and 40 wonderful actors to create what you see on stage at the Gershwin Theatre, but when Starlight Express begins we hope what you see and feel is the magic and wonder of trains. In today’s world, we may have many ways to get us where we are going. However, if you have ever stopped to listen to the sound of a distant whistle or the rumble of the ground as a locomotive approaches, you know the unique and magical appeal of trains. And for you, children of all ages, I am happy to say, here is Starlight Express.

ARLENE PHILIPS Director and Choreographer, 1st US Tour

Most performers auditioning for ‘Starlight Express’ will have first put on roller skates as children, either their own, or sharing a pair of strap on ones with a friend. This, too, is the way I first learned to skate.

The next time was in 1979, seven months pregnant and in Hollywood choreographing a sequence on skates for a film, having been hastily taught to skate much to everyone’s amusement. On my return to London I mentioned this to Andrew Lloyd Webber over dinner one evening and three years later, Andrew remembering the tale, telephoned to ask if I would be interested in choreographing what was to be his newest musical “Starlight Express’ Of course I was thrilled. I would like to share some memories of ‘Starlight’ on its tracks across the world with you.

It was decided that first it was to be a workshop and auditions began. We were looking for actor/singer/dancers who could also skate, a tall order in London where roller disco was unknown. One by one as each person was asked to skate, they did so, right into the table where we were sitting. Next we went to the streets and parks in search of skaters. We watched them do tricks and stunts and thought that at last our luck was in. Brilliant though they were, many had difficulty singing Happy Birthday in tune and could not skate and dance in time to the music. So it was decided the first two weeks of the workshop would be a training camp, the professional performers to learn to skate and for the skaters, the shortest dance training in history. At the end of six weeks something happened— we had a show.

Now began the search for a theatre that we could turn into a train yard. “Starlight Express’ opened at the Apollo Victoria, London in March, 1984 and still continues its great success. So, next stop—Broadway, where the set had to be built vertically, connected by bridges, and onwards to Japan where the show spread horizontally, the full length and breadth of the Tokyo Olympic Pool. Here the cast was doubled to 68 and the show played to crowds of 20,000. The next production was Germany, where the theatre was designed and built around the set. Now tracking throughout the USA is the touring production which I have been fortunate enough to direct as well as choreograph. This production, I believe, contains the best of every “Starlight” so far.

My admiration goes out to all the performers of Starlight Express every where, for what must be the most demanding and strenuous jobs anywhere in theatre today It’s a lot harder to sing on skates coming down a ramp at high speed than to sing on your feet on a flat floor, harder to dance on skates knowing that at any moment a high kick could send you crashing down, and harder to play a dramatic scene that requires stillness with wheels under your feet just waiting to roll.

“Starlight Express” is a classic story told in a different way. Not only a musical but a Rock and Roll spectacular, a sporting event, and a thrilling dance and drama experience.

I hope you enjoy watching the show and have as much fun as / have had working on it.

STARLIGHT EXPRESS FACTS – US Tour 7th November, 1989

• The production, including the set, lighting, computers and costumes, weighs approximately 50 tons. It is the biggest set in theatre history.

• Ten 48 foot tractor trailers are required to move the show from city to city. This is an unprecedented figure.

• It will require 60 people working 12-20 hours to load-in the set in each theatre and the same number of people six to eight hours to take the set out of each theatre.

• 50.000 pounds (25½ tons) of aluminum. 7000 sheets of plywood.

• A skating ramp will extend 44 feet from the front of the stage, over the orchestra pit and into the audience.

• 22 miles of fiber optics will create a star-field of 10.000 points of light (A phrase coined by “Starlight Express” prior to the 1988 Presidential campaign) to create the Starlight effect.

• 800 stationary lights.

•500 lights built into the aluminum deck.

• 50 Vari-Lites. a special moving computerized light capable of emitting 1,400 colors.

•The production will utilize six separate computer systems for the sound, stationary lights, Vari-Lites, lasers, film projection and scenery. Each system has one back-up computer except the scenery which has four different back-ups, including two computers, I electronic and one manual method.

• The costumes cost between $10,000 and $22,000 each.

• Some costumes weigh up to 35 pounds.

• Each actor has at least two pairs of skates, some have four.

• 75 pairs of skates in total.

• Each pair of skates is completely overhauled after each performance.

• The sequins on some costumes are attached with a soldering iron.

Arlene Philips, Director and Choreographer, Las Vegas 1993

When Andrew Lloyd Webber first asked me to choreograph Starlight Express, I was thrilled to be given the chance to create dance on roller skates. We began with an experimental workshop in the spring of 1983 with our director, Trevor Nunn, to whom I shall be eternally grateful for all he taught me about people playing trains and our designer, John Napier, who made people look like trains. I knew it was going to be tough, but I never imagined lust how tough!

In any musical the performers have to be able to sing, act and dance. In STARLIGHT they have to do this on roller skates which requires strength, stamina and grim determination. To build up this strength, STARLIGHT has a lengthy rehearsal period which initially consists of skate training, vocal and physical aerobics, racing, dance rehearsals (both an and off skates) coupled with specialized training to move and feel like trains.

It’s exciting that each physical space for STARLIGHT is different. This means, from a staging point of view, each new production is re-invented rather than just a copy of the original London production. In the ‘80s, STARLIGHT went from London to Broadway, to Japan and Australia, to Germany and across the U.S. In the ‘90s, the show was rewritten, rearranged, restaged and brought up to date, ready for the new decade. All these versions have contributed to and culminated in this exciting Las Vegas Hilton production.

An unusual musical, STARLIGHT EXPRESS is a true theatrical experience. It’s a love story and a story of hope, all involving spectacle, sportsmanship, danger and thrills. STARLIGHT EXPRESS truly has something for everyone and Las Vegas feels like its true home.

John Napier – Designer, Las Vegas 1993

Having been a member of the original team that put CATS together, when a production about railway trains with all performers on roller skates was suggested, I realised we were on a very strange adventure without any of the normal rules that apply to staging a musical. Well, it took only a year and the engineering experience of some of the best people in Britain.

One of the things said is that STARLIGHT is one of the most expensive musicals in theatre. Well, it is. But also, hopefully when people see it, they will realize not only a lot of money was needed but was well spent on metal work and on finding the right people.

The single most wonderful thing in anyone’s career is to work with a group of people that has a vision of theatre and entertainment. After having done CATS, I regard it a privilege that they would allow me the indulgence of turning another theatre upside down.

I hope most people will not be too disappointed that there isn’t actually a literal manifestation of a railway train. While attempting to design costumes, I had to bear in mind that people not only had to sing and dance, but had to travel at spectacular speeds around this roller coaster.

The intention in appearance is always to try to get the wit and spirit of the audience to make imaginative leaps from people to trains, It took a year, a lot of stress and strain but ultimately, it was fun.