“Watch out for the trains,” said Andrew Lloyd Webber, and with cautions look in every direction, he led me through a theatre as I had never seen one before.
That was my private and exclusive introduction to Starlight Express when the show was still in rehearsal in London in early 1984.
Starlight is now in preparation to open at the Gershwin Theatre in New York on March 15, but the memory of the novelty it brought to musical theatre remains strong from that first experience.
One of London’s largest theatres had been reconstructed at a cost of over $2 million to accommodate three circuits of laminated wood runways suitable for high speed roller-skating.
And over the stage hung a colossal girder bridge which with computerized precision would revolve, dip and rise to give the skaters access to the various circuits which ran around the audience on three levels (orchestra, mezzanine and balcony). It was a revelation.
Come with me now to that keenly anticipated first night when Lloyd Webber was unveiling his first major new show since Cats.
To a pounding beat the 30-strong cast skated round the theatre passing through in front of and behind the audience, touching speeds of 40 miles an hour or more and all synchronized not just to the score but to the way the various ramps and bridges met them and delivered them onto their next lap.
It was a new form of theatre, an irresistible success and it is still playing in London today not just as an inevitable magnet to visitors from America and elsewhere but also one of the most expensive tickets in town.
It has taken three years for Starlight to reach Broadway but not through any lack of confidence. The production team, led by director Trevor Nunn and designer John Napier, saw it traveling across the Atlantic in a different form.
They saw it as a traveling fairground on permanent tour visiting the big arenas usually played by the major rock bands.
Lloyd Webber now says: “That was interesting, but I think it was a mistake. We should have gone straight to Broadway much earlier.”
Nunn and Napier, who greatly expanded the smash-hit of Cats on its journey into the Winter Garden, have been installed in New York since early November working on both Starlight Express and another huge London hit, Les Misérables, due to open at the Broadway Theatre on March 12.
John Napier has already supervised the removal of the proscenium stage arch from the Gershwin and is anticipating considerable changes from the London production.
Lloyd Webber has already made minor revisions on his original score which have also been incorporated into the West End show.
Mr. Napier said: “Without the proscenium we have got 150-foot breadth of stage, which is much larger than in London. The skating circuits will be on two levels rather than three. It is going to be changed quite a bit from what we did first time out but more in the nature of the show rather than the mechanics.
“We started out with the stadium version for America which was very hi-tech. Now I think it is going to be more romantic. I’ve been playing around with ideas about the Brooklyn Bridge and the Golden Gate in San Francisco.
“I think it’s also going to be much more fun. Basically it is a kid’s story; the changes help identification with the story and that is what we are going for.”
But what does lie at the heart of Starlight Express? The show centers on a race precede by a series of heats to find the fastest train in the West.
The engines, trucks and various railroad stock are anthropomorphized into a variety of human forms, and the race eventually comes down to a confrontation between steam, diesel and electric power.
It gives composer Lloyd Webber the opportunity to provide an affectionate pastiche and occasional parody of a variety of musical forms from Country and Western to boogie, old-Fashioned rock-and-roll to urban jazz and electronic disco with his inevitable “big number” ballad thrown in–this time called “Only He.”
There is a cuteness about Richard Stilgoe’s lyrics–the show boasts no credit for the book–which has the three freight cars named as Rocky I, Rocky II and Rocky III, the Elvis-clone engine is called Greaseball and the ultra-sophistication of the Bowie-style engine is androgynously presented as something called Electra.
It is the last rock-oriented show that Lloyd Webber is likely to write and, unlike with Evita and Cats, he is remaining in England, allowing the directorial team to assemble the Broadway version and saying he will be in New York for the final rehearsals “to put my mark on it.”
His major works since Starlight have been his Requiem, a setting of the Latin Requiem Mass, which premiered in New York in February 1985 at St. Thomas’s Church with Placido Domingo, Sarah Brightman (otherwise Mrs. Lloyd Webber) and Lorin Maazel conducting and the new Phantom of the Opera musical, which is currently the hottest ticket London has known. Scalpers are asking and getting five hundred dollars a seat outside Her Majesty’s Theatre.
When we spoke recently at his mansion in the Berkshire countryside, Andrew Lloyd Webber had some misgivings about children’s piece. I wrote it the first time round for the amusement of my own children.
“I’m leaving it to Trevor [Nunn] now. It was always basically his show in a way. I will go over later and see if there is anything I can give to it, but as long as they can get the joy of the piece I will be very pleased.
“I know I get tunnel vision, but my priority at present is to go over recent work like Requiem and Phantom. That’s the work I’d put my career on right now.”
However much Lloyd Webber has moved on from the first conception of Starlight Express, which was all of seven years ago, there is no doubting the potential of its popular appeal. Trains, as he says, are basic to all our experience.
“There has also been a long affinity between popular American music and the railroad. There is a romance about trains, and there is a natural rhythm about trains which suggests music. I remember going from Chicago to California by train, and that was a great journey though somewhat slow. I think I was finally convinced about writing something when I saw how excited my son Nicholas got when he first saw those enormous engines.”
But to put a railroad-based show onto a theatrical stage needed some new form of expression, so Lloyd Webber and Nunn conducted a month-long workshop in London to see if ti could be achieved on roller skates.
Lloyd Webber: “Trevor and I worked out what we wanted to do, but we did not know if it was physically possible to achieve it in a theatre. So we went to John Napier to explain, and an evil gleam came into Napier’s eye. We knew we were on and we pushed the button.”
The cat which was assembled was without major stars but recruited for a variety of skills not normally associated with musical theater including break-dancing, body-popping and, of course, roller-skating.
When the reviews were published, the man who was acclaimed the hero of the hour was neither composer, director nor one of the cast but the designer, John Napier, whose daring genius had contrived to make the impossible seem feasible.
He is the one currently enjoying the get-in to the Gershwin. “It’s always nice to come back to a show, clear it up and do it again. The skating was terrific in London, but in New York it is going to be phenomenal. I’m just looking forward to seeing the company go into the theatre and start rehearsing there on January 26.”
Starlight Express did not receive unanimously rave reviews when it opened in London, but then neither did Cats. In both cases the novelty of the conception captured the public imagination.
For all the evidence that Lloyd Webber’s recent music has graduated to a new maturity, this stage piece, first originated for his own children, is a predictable bet to be equally popular with Americans, young and old alike.