Starlight Express, the roller-skating musical fantasy by Andrew Lloyd Webber, was announced on 11th August to be making a comeback at The Other Palace Theatre in the form of workshop performances. A workshop is a process in theatre, where a creative team constantly tweaks and makes changes to a show in development based on audience input. These workshops which will run from 14th to 16th of September are involving “members of the original creative team” of whom will be re-exploring the classic musical. Which takes place in a child’s dream where a group of anthropomorphic trains are racing to become the fastest engine. In 1984, the idea of a musical involving roller-skating trains despite Lloyd Webber writing it for his then-young children, seemed very farfetched and heading for failure. Surprisingly, the musical through word of mouth, managed to run at the Apollo Victoria Theatre for 7,408 performances, before closing in 2002. In the time since its premiere, it has undergone a lot of revisions to the songs, musical score, story and even two to three minor characters have been cut. Yet in spite of not being critically praised as: Cats, The Phantom of the Opera or Evita, the musical has retained a strong cult fanbase. It is still playing in a purpose-built theatre in Bochum, Germany since 1988.
Electra, the flamboyant electric train makes his show-stopping entrance with his song AC/DC.
With that fanbase in mind, as well as the fact that Starlight has not been performed in a full-scale London production since 2002, could the workshops be evidential that the musical could potentially be revived for a new generation of West End audiences? There is acknowledgement that the market for nostalgia is high even in the medium of theatre. Revivals are and have been business-driven ventures for theatre producers, while they never last long, they resonate with audiences. Although Cats played two limited 2014-15 season revivals in the West End, the audience demand for it was so strong to the point where a return to Broadway came swiftly the following year. There is also timing and the years that have passed since a musical originally came to a close. For example, having finished its famous 2012 revival at the Adelphi Theatre, no one expected Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd to make a return in the form of an immersive production that happened to be set in a local Tooting pie shop in South London. The success of this production created by the Tooting Arts Club, prompted Cameron Mackintosh to arranged a limited season transfer to Shaftesbury Avenue, recreating the pie-shop in the process. This year, the production has since transferred to the Barrow Street theatre Off-Broadway.
John Napier with his model of the original West End production of Starlight Express ©John Napier – 1984
Also technology has advanced since 1984, and what the Royal Shakespeare Company’s recent production of The Tempest has proved despite being a work in progress, was that the use of technology through motion-capture effects could enhance a stage production. With consideration to the fact, that John Napier‘s original scenic design for Starlight cost a breathtaking £2.25 million, the argument would be that attempting to convert another theatre into an immersive roller derby like the Apollo Victoria would seem unlikely, considering the risks that were taken in overhauling the original venue. Though I imagine there would be compromise, involved on staging the musical’s spectacular race sequences, as the thrill of being a witness to the live performers skate around the auditorium, was what made audiences come out in droves. Potentially and inevitably, the motion capture special effects could take precedence in the possible revival. It is too early to tell at this juncture, whether or not these workshops will signal the return of Starlight to the West End.
They could be just another in a long line of planned revisions for the long running Bochum production, however as I have said before nostalgia is often a big trend amongst audiences. With Hair soon to be making a big London comeback at The Vaults this year in October, it’s safe to say and to quote one of the songs from Starlight: “There is a light at the end of the tunnel.”
The Starlight Express workshop runs from 14-16 September at The Other Palace
Original scenic design by John Napier courtesy of johnnapierstages.com