Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals tend to draw lines in the sand between love them or hate them. And arguably his show with the most definitive line with the highest, most-impenetrable wall is Starlight Express. That's the musical about trains that's done on rollerskates. Given that it was just National Train Day, I figured this was as good a time as any to bring up the show. I actually saw the original production on a trip to London in 1984. It was the hardest ticket to get at the time, sold out for many months in advance, but I only needed a single ticket and one had opened up for that night.
Me, I loved the show -- and have talked with others who saw it there and hated it. I understand the dislike -- it has a thin story, it's mechanical, it keeps pounding you with little subtlety, and the score is hit and miss. But while I understand that reaction, I disagree with it. I find the score has enough terrific songs among the okay material, the storyline is thin but a perfectly traditional love story rivalry set against a competition (and certainly far better than the plotline of Cats), and yes it's overdone and mechanical -- but that's its very point. This isn't a simple story that's over-produced and unnecessarily crushes what's that -- it's a circus. And a five-ring circus at that. But mainly, it's done with such unabashed, spectacular virtuosity that I was quite taken by it. I accepted its flaws for its audacity.
What most leaps out, from the moment you enter the theater, is that they gutted the place and redesigned the entire place, with rollerskating tracks that go everywhere: along the walls, through the center of main floor, up through the balcony, high across the stage -- everywhere. When there's a race, the entire theater comes alive as it explodes and whizzes all around and past you.
I won't go into detail of the plot -- it is pretty basic -- but the general story is the rivalry between the macho diesels, a villainous electronic engine, and their romances for the sleeping cars, dining cars and such, along with the unrequited love of an old rusty steam engine, all played out against races (and treachery...) that help define the ever-changing "relationships."
(Yes, I know, this sort of story is more acceptable when done as a cartoon like Cars or Planes, or with toys or bugs. To be clear, those films were all done with worlds more subtlety and wit and charm, but the underlying principle is the same. Starlight Express was made 20 years before Pixar started doing such things, and I wonder, if it had come later, whether audiences might have been more accepting of a romance and race between inanimate objects. Or if it had been done as animation. Maybe not. But maybe. It's certainly not the only issue that many didn't enjoy, though eye-rolling believability was central to them.)
Having said all this, I suspect I might not have enjoyed the production as much (or even at all) when it came to Broadway. From what I've read, they took a thin plot and made it insipid, adding a "bookend story" that made all the action merely the imagined goings-on of a little boy playing with his toys (which confirms my suspicion that the producers felt U.S. audiences back then wouldn't accept a story about trains come to life). And they also took a highly-mechanical production and somehow managed to overdo that by re-designing everything from sets to costumes and making it all even more gear-laden and colder, removing what little humanity existed and intensifying the bombast. And cut some good songs.
So, my appreciation of the show is that original British one, not its Broadway reincarnation. Nor its touring company "auditorium" versions, which I've only seen partial videos of. As I said, I recognize its flaws, but loved its audaciousness and therefore appreciated what worked so vibrantly and uniquely, accepting that sometimes you have to put up with heavy-handedness when a risk is taken .
It's worth noting that that original British production was a massive hit and ran for 7,406 performance (which is over 18 years), while on Broadway it ran for 761 performances. That's still a very good run -- almost two years -- but not even close to the original's success. How much of that is because of the difference cultural tastes, and how much is because of dumbing down a show that danced on the line of dumb to begin with, and burdening a top-heavy production with even more cold tonnage, making it leaden?
Here are a couple of numbers from the show. This comes from the Broadway production and the 1987 Tony broadcast. There is absolutely no way at all that a video -- but most especially a brief video -- can present what (to me) was the fun of that immersive, sensory production. But the footage does build to all hell breaking loose for the show's finale, so you'll at least get an idea. Besides, the first number, "Only You (which eventually overlaps with the title song), is one of loveliest that Andrew Lloyd Webber (with lyrics by Don Black) has written.
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Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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