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Basement Medicine

The student-run community news site of Vermont State University - Johnson

Basement Medicine

The student-run community news site of Vermont State University - Johnson

Basement Medicine

Debunked Starlight!

From+front+to+back%3A+%28left+to+right%29+Electra%2C+Rusty%2C+Greaseball%2C+CB%2C+Pearl+%26+Dinah
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From front to back: (left to right) Electra, Rusty, Greaseball, CB, Pearl & Dinah

If your knees go weak for musicals that move beyond the average theatre kid’s expectation, Starlight Express is an 80’s roller-disco-operetta of a musical that will achieve such through far from simple visuals involving amorous, or far from amorous, anthropomorphic trains. With music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Richard Stilgoe, and choreography by Arlene Phillips, this musical will leave potential fans on “one rock and roll too many.” The deeper you analyze its dramaturgy, the better and more sensible the production can be rendered.
The plot of Starlight Express highlights a young steam engine, Rusty, entering into a series of championship races to win the heart of Pearl, a naïve first-class carriage, who made his heart pump a thousand miles on. Only his superiors, including Greaseball, a self-centered heartthrob of a diesel engine who aims to win the race for personal gains, and Electra, a dignified electric who makes a fashionably late entrance with a pose of components, are preventing Rusty from chasing his ambitions. Love affairs will be changed, newfound romance will blossom, and insidious schemes will ensue.
The production first opened on March 27, 1984, at London’s Apollo Victoria Theatre and closed temporarily by the early 1990’s for a full re-working of the show that opened in November 1992. From there, as it increasingly became the 9th longest-running show in the West End, the production played 7,409 performances. The original cast included Ray Shell as Rusty, Stephanie Laurence as Pearl, Lon Statton as Poppa, Jeff Shankley as Greaseball, Jefferey Daniels as Electra, Frances Rufelle as Dinah, and Michael Staniforth as CB.
The show’s structure had been re-written several times throughout the first decade-and-a-half in which Starlight was active. But the main idea of the plot often stayed relatively the same.
“Every time Starlight Express opens in a new place as the same production, the plot would be tweaked,” said Matty Limerick, host of the podcast Exit, Stage Death: The Podcast. “Costumes and set would be re-designed. The whole song and character layout of the show would be added or cut, which I actually think is really cool.”
From the mid-1980s on, Starlight’s success in the UK had skyrocketed, giving way toward eight international transfers and tours. The production made its transfer to Broadway, for instance, on March 15, 1987, at the Gershwin Theatre, having run for 761 performances and earned seven Tony Nominations for Best Musical, Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical, Robert Torti, Best Original Score, Best Choreography, Best Direction, Trevor Nunn, and Best Lighting Design, David Hersey. For honorable mentions, the remainder of Starlight’s “revivals” included a 1989-1990 U.S Tour and a 2003-2004 U.S Tour, as well as a 1997 Mexican-language production.
It may well be the case that the production’s animated aesthetics, musical plethora, and characters were less well received amongst American and British audiences. But having opened on June 12, 1988, an immense amount of Starlight’s rising popularity will make sense once you acknowledge another production running at a purpose-built theatre in Bochum, Germany. Running for 12,000+ performances and having been viewed by 17 million theatregoers, Bochum’s living fight song of a production is known as the only permanent iteration of Starlight Express.
But not many value the overall excitement, dramaturgical amusement, and shippable characters of Starlight Express as much as the fanbase. (*sigh*…Shocker.)
Even upon “first listen” of the cast album, for instance, those unfamiliar with the show may be left under an inescapable umbrella of confusion. Some may be eager for instantaneous drama, or a haunting musical soliloquy. Yet, they are less engaged after not receiving the latter. Others expect a perfectly organized focus of the main character. But due to Starlight’s general plot structure, they may project their own bias on what constitutes as the “ideal musical” and push the show into a figurative box of shame without thinking.
This commentary constitutes as no forceful invitation to entrance yourself into the production through any means. But here, three essential misconceptions need to be addressed.
(NOTE: The following are summed up generalizations based on podcast episodes, previous articles, and more.)
1. The show’s aesthetics are “boring” and “a gimmick.”
Although Starlight may appear flawed through several theatrical aspects, German audiences, as well as a geographically diverse Tumblr fanbase, are still head-over-heels for multitudes of reasons. Far from reasons oriented to potential for creating, and making fan-made content, this musical is an experimentally staged and choreographed piece that transcends beyond traditional norms of musical theatre. Throughout the story of Starlight, Rusty’s journey illustrates real-life complexities of combatting those who prevent you from making your dreams a reality.
How else can we also forget about one certain secondary character, CB, (or Red Caboose) who has somehow been rendered overrated by the majority of the fanbase?
In other words, this anthropomorphic acid-trip of a musical had walked, so that the 1980 musical film, Xanadu, could run.
2. Starlight is just for kids.
According to the musical’s Wiki page, the historical upbringing of Starlight Express began with three scrapped projects oriented toward the children’s franchise, Thomas The Tank Engine. Parts of these elements, if you squint hard enough, are present within the full plot structure, and most audiences had seen an iteration of Starlight when they were children.
At the same time, you may not be aware that the show caters to older viewers through multiple aspects of Starlight’s staging, dramaturgy, and choreography. While this may be easier to ascertain through a YouTube search of a bootleg, then having to watch the bootleg on repeat through critical eyes.
3. Dinah the dining car is the “comic relief” character.
According to the production’s Wiki page, Dinah is one of the secondary principals regarded as a “sweet, loveable southern dining car” who is true to her beliefs. Only Dinah is knee-deep in an unsteady relationship with Greaseball. Upon the first several minutes of the first act, things may seem to go swimmingly between the pair. Even throughout the first heat of the championships. But little did my personal favorite character know that fate would stab her in the back as Greaseball turns her down by the end of the first race.

“You had your chance, you blew it!” he sings. “So, we’re through.”

In Episode #160 of Musicals With Cheese, a podcast involving separate commentaries of randomly chosen musicals, where the whole of Starlight Express was being reviewed, the character had been referred to as “the comedy one.”

Some may take note of the dining car as such, especially at first glance of “U.N.C.O.U.P.L.E.D,” a ballad where Dinah vents over getting ditched by Greaseball yet again. But her character arc was never designed to align with that of accurate comic relief. Dinah’s worries over feeling inadequate without her lover had never been designed for audiences to watch for laughs in the first place. Dinah’s empathetic soul of a goddess that can easily get hurt had never been written for amusement.

To recap: Consider the production as the figurative “outcast” within the Musical Theatre canon. Quirky amongst some edges, yet never exposed enough to the appreciation it deserves. Though Starlight may be replete with several plot holes and redundant archetypes, some of us can have the right to use our pouring love for the production through any means possible.

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About the Contributor
Heike Chaney, Staff Writer, Arts & Entertainment Editor
Transfer Student, Interdisciplinary Studies (Theatre & Communications) Based in Hartford, VT Fall 2023-Present SLAP Coordinator & DANCELAND Club Member I can do a shockingly good Judy Garland impression, and I have been in over 22 Theatre productions since the sixth grade! ;) Favorite Roles: Adela Van Norman (THE IT GIRL); Martha Cratchitt (A CHRISTMAS CAROL); Chutney Wyndham (LEGALLY BLONDE).

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