Theatre / Starlight Express
After the success of Cats
in 1981, Andrew Lloyd Webber
began looking into writing a musical based on the Thomas the Tank Engine
stories, with his kids in mind, but couldn't get the amount of creative control he wanted. Instead, he pulled up a few older ideas he'd had proposed to him in the 1970s- among them, a musical version of The Little Engine That Could
and a new version of "Cinderella
" and initially tried to combine them into the story of a little steam engine who's bullied by her electric and diesel stepsisters, but ends up being chosen as the royal train by the Prince after winning a race and losing a piston in the process, which the Prince uses to track her down. This idea, with many many
changes made, ended up evolving into Starlight Express
, whose first version premiered in London in 1984.
The protagonist of the story is Rusty, a hard-working young steam engine and Butt Monkey
of the rail yard in which he works, who's constantly mocked by the Jerk Jock
diesel engine Greaseball. Rusty has a big crush on Pearl, the pretty observation car, but Pearl has impossibly high standards for the engine of her dreams, and Rusty doesn't cut it as far as she's concerned.
The bigger, stronger engines are all gearing up for a big race to prove who's the best around, and Greaseball is the reigning champion, with his girlfriend Dinah the dining car as his racing mate, but the whole yard is thrown for a loop by the arrival of a brand-new late entry, a flashy electric engine named Electra. Greaseball cheats in the first race and is called on it by Dinah, who promptly gets dumped for her trouble. She is left alone to be gently comforted by C.B., a friendly caboose from the freight yard, while Rusty's mentor, an old steam engine named Poppa, qualifies for the final race but is too worn out to run it himself. Poppa asks Rusty to take his place in the final, and even introduces him to a sweet old sleeping car named Belle who's more than happy to be his racing partner, but Rusty is still doubtful. Poppa tells Rusty about a mystical force called the Starlight Express that can help him win if he truly believes himself, and the first act ends with Rusty wondering if such a force truly exists.
At the start of the second act, the other engines- particularly the arrogant Electra- object to Rusty's presence in the next qualifier for the final race, but after Pearl and C.B. point out that it won't prove they're better than Rusty if he doesn't race, Greaseball concedes and lets Rusty join in. Dinah confronts Pearl over stealing Greaseball, and Pearl coldly tells Dinah to "quit crying". The other carriages, Ashley the smoking car and Buffy the buffet car, arrive with Belle and tell Dinah that she needs to fight for her man. Dinah decides to go off with the flashy Electra to make Greaseball jealous. Soon afterward, it's revealed that C.B. is actually Ax-Crazy
, and he summons Greaseball and Electra to inform them he's planning on racing as Rusty's partner just to wipe him out before the final, as C.B.'s done with virtually every engine he's ever paired with. C.B. makes sure Rusty loses and shows his Truecolors when Rusty confronts him over it, mocking him viciously for being "no engine". The box cars Rusty goes to try to vent his anger to just tell him that it's not worth trying to win, because it's a Crapsack World
where only cheaters prosper and it's now too late for Rusty to even cheat. Alone, broken and totally discouraged, Rusty suddenly receives a visitation from the Starlight Express, which tells him that he has the power within him to achieve whatever he wants if he believes in himself. Inspired, and joined by Dustin, a freight hopper who saw the Starlight as well, Rusty pulls himself together in time for the final. A dissatisfied Dinah announces that she's had it with Electra's lack of interest in her and leaves the race before it starts, prompting Electra to ask C.B. to race with him. In the final, Pearl tries to help Rusty after Greaseball punches him, and Greaseball responds by disconnecting her at high speed. Rusty saves her, while Electra catches wise to C.B.'s ambition to add a flashy electric engine to his death toll and disconnects him as well. C.B. and Greaseball crash into each other, Electra loses time in uncoupling C.B. and comes in second, and Rusty wins the race. He leaves immediately afterward to make sure Pearl's okay, and finds her alone and regretting that she never realized that she really loved Rusty all along. They end up together, while C.B. and Greaseball lament that their cheating ways have literally wrecked them and Electra throws a fit at coming in second and leaves the railyard forever. Greaseball promises to turn over a new leaf by being converted to steam and takes the forgiving Dinah back, and all of the engines and cars say they have now seen "the light at the end of the tunnel".
The show has gone through several changes over the years. In 1994, the London production got a major overhaul- adding a lot more emphasis on Pearl, eliminating C.B. and Belle, and having Electra also crash in the end and promise to convert to steam. These changes were not
popular with the fandom at large. The American productions, meanwhile, maintained C.B. at least but made the female characters' costumes extremely Stripperiffic
and still decided to make Electra share in Greaseball and C.B.'s comeuppance in the end, depriving him of an epic Villainous Breakdown
in the process. The closest to the original production still running is the Bochum, Germany production, which nevertheless features the altered ending for Electra and no Belle, as well as elements from the late London and U.K. tour versions.
To the general public, this show is mostly famous for being performed entirely on roller skates, giving the anthropomorphic train characters the ability to move as smoothly as a real train would. Within its own fandom, however, it's known for a startling
amount of broken
and Family Unfriendly Aesops
and dark themes in what's supposedly a musical for all the family.
This show provides examples of: