After the success of Cats in 1981, Andrew Lloyd Webber began looking into writing a musical based on the Thomas & Friends stories, with his kids in mind, but couldn't get the amount of creative control he wanted from the Rev. W. Awdry. 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.
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 dark themes in what's supposedly a musical for all the family. It is also by far the longest running musical in Germany, having achieved over 16 million admissions in Bochum since 1988 in a venue purpose built to house this musical.
This show provides examples of:
- Ambiguous Gender: Whether Wrench is male or female depends on the casting. The character was usually female in London. The Bochum version muddies the waters.
- Anthropomorphic Personification: All of them- of trains.
- Betty and Veronica: "Make Up My Heart" is Pearl's song about the triangle she's at the center of, comparing and contrasting nice homely Rusty and the great wild Electra.One of them is strong,
One of them is good,
But both could turn out wrong.
So who gets the part?
Make up my mind, make up my heart.
One of them has style,
Sets the world alight;
The other makes me smile.
So who gets the part?
Make up my mind, make up my heart.
- Beware the Nice Ones: C.B. Holy fuck, C.B. A cute little caboose with a Tenor Boy voice, whose costume and makeup seem designed to make him just look like a cheery little tin soldier, turns out to be a giddy Serial Killer who enjoys crashing the trains he's assigned to just for fun and has the only real, genuine villain song in the whole thing. Greaseball's a Jerkass, Electra's an arrogant diva, but neither of them is anywhere near as scary as C.B.Just 'cause I smile all the time, don't mean I'm not into crime.
Every hero that you trust, in the end, they all go bust.
Robin Hood kept all the money, Piglet poisoned Pooh Bear's honey.
E.T. had no flying permit, Donald Duck has eaten Kermit.
Bambi set the woods alight, and the Red Caboose is not Snow White!
- Bowdlerise: The current version of the German translation removed many of the Double Entendres.
- Break Them by Talking: Caboose pulls this on Rusty after screwing him over during the race.Rusty: Thats the last time I race with you!
Caboose: Thats right, the rerun is for just those two: the two real engines. Big strong engines. You call yourself an engine? Youre no engine! 10-10 never again, youre no engine! 10-7 gone to heaven, YOURE NO ENGINE! HAHAHAHAHA!!!
- Children Are Innocent: The entire plot of the underdog learning to believe in himself, winning the big race, outshinning his Jerk Jock bullies (one of them finding redemption after humbling themselves from the loss), the evil villain being found out and the hero winning the girl, is all the machinations of "The Controller" a little boy, playing with his toy trains.
- Chorus Girls: In the U.K. and second U.S. tours, the coaches were essentially demoted to these roles. Pearl retained her heroine status as a matter of course, even though she still dressed as a showgirl.
- Cock Fight: Electra and Greaseball, over Pearl.
- Costume Porn: Here is a prodigiously large directory of photographs of each character in costume. Go wild.
- Crapsack World: All productions contain aspects of this, but it was most obvious in the original London version. (The comparatively more lighthearted London revamp turned the setting into a Crapsaccharine World, as did its Broadway predecessor.) The dystopic nature of the setting is the subject of the Rockies'/Hip Hoppers' number "Right Place, Right Time."
- Crystal Dragon Jesus: The Starlight Express is basically the train version of God.
- Double Entendre: Virtually half of the lyrics in the libretto are train-related sex puns (though the younger members of the audience probably won't understand them). In the "Lotta Locomotion" number, Buffy (the buffet car) invites the audience to "come and bite my burgers," among other things.
- Eat My Dust: In the original London production, after being unable to win the final race, Electra the Electric Train's song "No Comeback" features various ways of saying farewell in different languages. This concludes with "Eat my dust!" The number was cut from subsequent versions of the show.
- The '80s: No matter what decade it is currently, and no matter what decade you saw it in, this musical can't hide any of the aspects from this decade. And they still have the electronic drums and synthesizers from that period for each new performance. note
- The '50s: Greaseball's entire shtick is a combination of this and The '80s (which, when the show first premiered, of course, was simply contemporary).
- Final Love Duet: "Only You" in the original London production, Las Vegas, and all the tours (replaced with "I Do" in the 2012 UK tour). "Next Time You Fall In Love" in the revamped London version.
- Forgotten Framing Device: It begins with the reveal that "Control" is a little boy playing with his toy trains (which are the characters in the show), but his mother tells him to go to bed. Control then starts whispering as he introduces the trains for the first musical number, as if hiding that he's not asleep yet from his mother. Once Greaseball comes in, he's no longer whispering, and although Control gets more lines including being the commentator of the races, that he's a kid playing with toy trains is never brought up again.
- Four-Girl Ensemble: Ashley is the Cool Big Sis, Buffy is the closest to The Lad-ette, Dinah borders on The Ditz, and Pearl... well, when asked what she plans on doing, she responds "Whaddya think?"
- Funny Foreigner: While the international engines are all presented as being extremely representative of their countries, only Bobo the TGV crosses into this category.
- Gossipy Hens: The coaches chat about Rusty's lack of racing experience immediately before breaking into "A Lotta Locomotion."
- Green Aesop: Averted from a modern standpoint, where audiences would expect an environmentally clean electric engine like Electra to be the hero.
- Hair Metal: Since it's a show from 1984, Starlight Express has these influences all over the place: the title song, "There's Me", "One Rock 'N' Roll Too Many"...Particularly of note is Greaseball's theme, "Pumping Iron", which sounds like a mashup of 1950s doo-wop and Whitesnake-style blues-metal.
- Husky Russkie: Turnov, the Russian engine. Yes, there has been fan art of him informing the Rockies that he "must break you".
- "I Am Great!" Song: "AC/DC" is all about how great Electra is.
- Karma Houdini: Pearl, if you tilt your head and squint. She's easily as big a Jerkass as Greaseball and Electra- telling a sweet boy who loves her that he's not good enough for her, stealing her best friend's man and telling Dinah to quit crying over it, bragging that she's particularly shiny and new- but rather than get her comeuppance for it, she's rewarded with a happy ending.
- C.B. is one in his Backstory, and in spite of crashing into Greaseball seems to still be one in the end.
- Love Redeems: Pearl's original second-act solo, "Only He," had her resolve to change her wayward ways and learn faithfulness after Rusty rescued her.
- Magical Negro: Papa sings blues and gospel, gives sage advice about self-worth, and breaks-down after his first race for Rusty to take his place. The role is usually, though not always, played by a black actor, since Lon Satton set something of a precedent in the original London cast. When not played by a black actor, the character is more similar to Santa Claus. See also here and here.
- Never a Self-Made Woman: An issue the show has struggled with since its conception. While efforts have been made to introduce more independent female characters- Momma, Coco, the new Rocky 3- the vast majority of females in Starlight are racing partners rather than racers themselves. Momma and Coco are the exceptions to this, but they both have male racing partners (Dustin and Volta, respectively)- so it remains that a man is needed in some way to compete. In Bochum, Coco is now the exception to this trope as she races with Belle.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: In the planning stages, Electra's name was Elton◊. When Jeffrey Daniels joined the project, the character was rewritten as a caricature of him.
- The Only One Allowed to Defeat You: The nature of the rivalry between Greaseball and Electra.
- Porn Stache: The actor who originated C.B. sported one, in keeping with his early "trucker" character design. Eventually, the character was redesigned into the aforementioned "tin soldier," which fit his voice type better.
- Praetorian Guard / Paid Harem: Electra's components: Joule the dynamite truck, Krupp the armaments truck, Purse the money truck, Wrench the repair truck, and Volta the freezer truck.
- Princesses Prefer Pink: Pearl, the "princess" of the rail yard, has pink tights, a pink dress, pink protective gear- hell, in some productions she even has pink hair.
- Psycho for Hire: C.B. is in theory one of these. He's actually completely evil- when Greaseball reminds him to remember whose side he's on, C.B. just grins and says "I'm on mine."
- Psycho Lesbian: Wrench, according to most of the fandom. It doesn't help that in the German production, Wrench is considered so butch that her first understudy is a man.
- Rescue Romance: Although he's been nothing but kind and considerate towards her up until this point, Rusty rescuing Pearl when she goes out of control in the final is what leads her to realise that she loves him.
- The three box cars in the original production were named Rocky, Rocky II and Rocky III, whose general moves were based on boxers. These were later replaced by the Totally Radical Hip Hoppers, who served the same purpose but had way less interesting choreography (the Hip Hoppers later got axed, probably because they were now seen as a product of the mid-2000s and re-replaced by the more timeless box cars).
- Dinah's song "U.N.C.O.U.P.L.E.D." (or "G.E.K.U.P.P.E.L.T", as it is in German) is a shoutout to Tammy Wynette's "D.I.V.O.R.C.E".
- Was itself shouted out to on Futurama once (an intergalactic delivery train car was called the Starlight Express).
- Don't forget the infamous (in the fandom anyway) Family Guy reference.
- Sissy Villain: Electra is Rusty's Sissy Rival, to contrast with the ultra-macho Greaseball.
- Smug Smiler: Greaseball's◊ default◊ pose◊, unless he's pouting.
- Spotlight-Stealing Squad: Pearl is a one-woman spotlight-stealer in most post-1992 productions.
- Steam Never Dies: The whole story revolves around this- heck, a quote from 'Light At The End Of The Tunnel' is the example on the trope page- and it's taken quite literally with Poppa.
- Stripperiffic: The carriages' costumes in the Las Vegas production, as well as the U.S., U.K., and New Zealand tours.
- It doesn't help that the US tour reused the Las Vegas costumes until they literally fell apart.
- Technology Marches On: Electra's character design was futuristic...in The '80s. Little effort has been made to change it.
- Arguably, neglect of this trope forms the crux of the entire plot.
- Totally Radical: The twenty-first-century version of "The Rap," which somehow sounds more characteristic of the 1980s than its 1980s predecessor.
- Twofer Token Minority: The bisexual electric engine Electra, as black actors are frequently cast in the role.
- Underdogs Never Lose: Double Subverted in the original version, in which Rusty raced the second heat and lost it before breaking the rules to enter the final, which he won. Played straight in all other productions.
- Villainous Breakdown: Electra's eventually cut BSoD Song "No Comeback" is a spectacular example of this. In the original production, he came in second to Rusty in the final race- no shame in that. But his pride was so mortified by the fact that everyone else was either too busy congratulating Rusty or making sure Greaseball was okay that he pitched a gigantic temper tantrum in which he nearly destroyed the rail yard, then went off to lick his wounds elsewhere with his components. By contrast, Greaseball learns his lesson and is allowed to join the heroes in their happy ending.
- Villain Song: C.B. detailed his murderous past in "C.B." in the original London production, which was edited into "Wide Smile, High Style" on Broadway and "Mein Spiel" in Bochum.
- The Voice: Control.
- Wrench Wench: Wrench. Obviously.
- You Are Better Than You Think You Are: This is essentially the crux of the "Starlight Sequence" ("I am the Starlight" in the original production), where the Starlight Express shows up to convince Rusty that he can win the race if he just believes in himself.