Gone, But Never Forgotten! 'STARLIGHT EXPRESS'

Call me strange but as I sat around thinking this morning, my mind very randomly went to one thing only: the fact that the world seems to have forgotten that people played trains and skated around the Apollo Victoria Theatre on roller skaters for over a decade long before our favourite wicked witch made her way to Shiz. Oh yes, I am officially in panic mode because I truly believe that we are forgetting how tragically beautiful Starlight Express really is.

Don't know what Starlight Express is, or you have no idea about it? Then my fears are confirmed, but at least let me try and tell you about this very crazy show. With music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Richard Stilgoe (as in, the same two people who wrote the music to The Phantom of the Opera) and choreography by Arlene Phillips, Starlight Express is a sung-through rock musical of 1984 about a child's train set coming to life and the trains competing with one another to become "Fastest-engine in the world". It's a true underdog story about Rusty the Steam Train's fight for success after being inspired by the tale of Starlight Express (good rhyme from me there, eh?) who plays a sort of God-like voiceover figure throughout the show. I was first made aware of Starlight Express when I first got into theatre with the help of my Grandma at a very, very young age. I was obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine as well as musicals and my Grandma would always tell me in great detail about having seen Starlight Express in the '80s. She would tell me in detail about the elaborate set and the costumes and music and the vision of this immersive experience egged me on further towards my passion for theatre. Weirdly enough, the original concept for Starlight Express was very similar but with the characters of Thomas the Tank Engine instead. When Lloyd Webber pitched the full idea to the Reverend W. Awdry though, he decided that LW wanted far too much freedom with the characters and he was forced to make up characters for himself. There are seriously over 30 different named characters in the show, but to name but a few: the Main Engines like Rusty, Greaseball, Poppa and Electra; The Coaches including Pearl and Dinah; The Freight Trucks including the 4 Rockys; The Engines including The City of Milton Keynes; and the ensemble including the Race Marshals.

The original London production started performances on March 27th 1984 at the Apollo Victoria (now the home of Wicked) and played for an incredible 7406 performances before closing on January 12th 2002. The cast included some now theatre legends like Frances Ruffelle of Les Miz fame and is renowned for its incredibly complex staging: a roller skating track ran from the stage and right up and around behind the dress circle - a bit like the immersive experience you get from the set of Cats. There was also a massive iron train bridge on stage that extended and span around to join up the train track meaning that an actor could easily skate from the back of the stalls, across the stage and round behind the dress circle. It was INSANE!

Funnily, the show opened on Broadway at the Gershwin where the original Broadway production of Wicked would open in years to come, but only played for a little over 700 performances. Due to the extreme size of the Gershwin, it was deemed impossible to have the track go around the auditorium but it instead spiraled up and around the massive stage. Extremely heavy revisions were made for the Broadway production which included cutting an entire train race and the way the game was played, meaning several characters and songs were cut from the show and it was a lot easier to follow and shorter as a result. These heavy revisions were later taken over to the London production and in November 1992, the show rebranded itself as 'The New Starlight Express' and the show became totally different due to extremely heavy revisions (get ready for this...) Five songs were added, 12 songs were cut and so were two characters. A race was cut from the show as well as the show's main villain because he was only prominent in the now-missing race. This relied on heavy script revisions meaning that the three main characters (Rusty, Electra and Greaseball) had to cause the trouble for themselves - funny story here is that the lighting was never changed, so a spotlight rose for the villain (C.B)'s entrance every single night until closing, despite the fact that the character wasn't in a decade's worth of shows! Several songs were rearranged and entirely rewritten - a rewritten song was cut altogether in 1996 because they still felt like it didn't work!

Despite the show's extremely heavy revisions, it still proves incredibly popular to this day, but mainly in European countires and namely in Germany where it has played permanent residence since 1988. It's also had many successful tours in Asia and a very successful version of the show on ice toured the US in 1997. The show has also welcomed many stars to the stage as well - EastEnders and Celebrity Big Brother star John Partridge got his first leading West End role as a replacement Electra in the show, and 30 Rock alum Jane Krakowski started her Broadway life as Dinah in the original Broadway production. The show was nominated for 7 Tony Awards but only took home one for Best Costume Design, as well as 2 Olivier's but won neither.

Sadly, Starlight Express has never been revived in neither London nor New York which, due to the show's incredibly impressive and interesting staging and story, is a great shame. We can only hope that one day, someone will think it's a good idea to fill the rather odd idea with a lot of money and get it back to where it belongs: a Broadway or West End house on the main stem. *prays to the Starlight Express*

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