Welcome To: The Weird Bits That Made Me, an expoloration of the idiosyncratic or obscure pop culture that I was into as a kid. I lived a strange suburban existence, with relatively young and somewhat hip parents and there were some real gems in the offbeat cultural stuff they exposed us to as kids. It hought it would be fun to once a week explore some of that.
It’s kind of incredible how many of the things I love exist because an idiosyncratic creator was not allowed to adapt the work they really wanted. George Lucas made Star Wars because he was denied the rights to Flash Gordon, Alan Moore wrote Watchmen as a response to being denied control over the Charlton family of characters, Lucas again, with Steven Spielberg made Raiders Of The Lost Arc after being told that they were, under no circumstances going to allow Americans to make a James Bond movie. Guillermo Del Toro wrote Crimson Peak after Disney kept delaying his Haunted Mansion script. (I do still mourn for that one, I love Crimson Peak but I WANT THAT DEL TORO HM MOVIE!)
Starlight Express exists because Andrew Lloyd Webber really, really wanted to write a Thomas The Tank Engine musical. (Yes really) The powers that be that owned Thomas and his buddies flatly turned him down, so he made an even weirder choice and wrote a new story about sentient trains, their love lives (yes really), the deity they pray to (I think?), and some twenty years later, a family of Americans got cheap tickets to a London revival of the show while on vacation, and the rest is odd familial inside joke history.
I’m going to do my best to sum up the plot of Starlight Express, but I make no guarantees. It’s been years since I saw it, and also, it does not make a lot of sense. So, Starlight Express is the elaborate imaginings of “Control” a child who is playing with toy trains, and who’s squawking annoying voice narrates elements of the show. It’s the big train race week or whatever, and a bunch of international stereotype trains are getting ready to race. The reigning champion is the American Diesel Locomotive, Greaseball, who fulfills that very important Webber role of “guy who sings like Elvis.” On the sideline are Passenger cars, who are female coded, and want to hook up with the male coded engines. These include Pearl, an observation car, who is into, but embarassed by Rusty, an old steam engine, and Greaseball’s car of choice, Dinah, a dining car. (There are two others, but I don’t remember them) There are also some freight cars who act as Rusty’s buddies.
Rusty enters the race with Pearl, and also an electric train, Electra, shows up. Greaseball is threatened by Electra, and also Pearl ditches rusty for Electra. Rusty goes for advice to an EVEN OLDER steam engine, Papa, who tells Rusty to trust in the Starlight Express, a legendary God like train who rides the rails at night. After the first round of races, Papa dies, and Rusty, Electra and Greaseball and The British Train, I think? are in the finals. Electra ditches Pearl, who then goes to Greaseball for reasons? And then there’s another race, Rusty and Pearl get together, and Rusty wins in the end, YAY! They all sing a big gospel number to celebrate and then a Megamix to take their bows.
Also they’ve been on roller skates, the whole time. There are also lasers, so many lasers.
I saw this show when I was 10 and I was enamored of it. I loved it so much, you guys, and my siblings loved and my parents probably liked it fine, but completely indulged our love of it. I still like it better than Cats. (I am alone in this one, my siblings do not like it better than Cats.) It’s lower tier in Webber’s work for sure. (The high tier being Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Phantom Of The Opera, Evita and School Of Rock.) But there’s some strong stuff here that’s worth talking about.
The title track, “Starlight Express” is a really beautiful lullaby by way of power pop ballad. Greaseball’s intro solo, “Pumping Iron” is a super fun 50’s pastiche, and the regret duet from Greaseball and Electra “One Rock And Roll Too Many” will always make me smile and I can imagine being the kind of song performers love tackling. I’ll also always have a soft spot for the straight up Weird Al level parody of Dinah’s act 2 lament, “U.N.C.O.U.P.L.E.D” which is the kind of country breakup song everyone should appreciate even without knowing Tammy Wynette’s brilliant, “D.I.V.O.R.C.E.D” but you should also listen to that song because it rules. Pearl’s ballads, “He’ll Whistle At Me,” and “Make Up My Heart” are serviceable but not up to snuff with Webber’s better female lead songs, and the Act 2 Duet, “Next Time You Fall In Love,” is a sweet reunion for our leads.
Nearly all of the character songs do their work, but often feel like soft runners up to similar songs from Joseph, or *sigh* Cats. (It is interesting that the one unmitigated favorite from Cats that I have is “Skimbleshanks The Railway Cat” which is about trains.)
Overall this is a straight nostalgia pick for me. I know it’s not particularly good by any critical measure, but it is immensely popular in Europe, ran for a while in Vegas, and toured in the States for a bit. Some of these songs really hit the sweet spot for me, and the out and out bonkers level of the production and story are a lot of fun. Also, I think this was the beginning of me just loving highest level musical theater, no matter who crappy the show I’m seeing is. My weird attachment to The Pirate Queen and Rocky The Musical are the fruit of this seed.
Also, I will always give credit to my friend Ali, who once noted, “It is not strange that Webber wrote Starlight Express. He’s a weird dude. It is utterly bizarre that men in suits somewhere gave him money to mount it.”
I for one am so grateful that they did.