Starlight Express

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Nearly 30 years since its premiere, Starlight Express lands in Hong Kong in 3D. Marisa Cannon speaks to the director of choreography, Arlene Phillips, about the show’s evolution

When Andrew Lloyd Webber approached Arlene Phillips to choreograph his new musical, a spectacle performed entirely on roller skates, she must have felt a flicker – if not a reasonable margin – of doubt. It had never been done before, and finding a complete cast who could sing, dance and act, all on skates, was inconceivable. But
18 years on, Starlight Express, the little show that could, has broken West End history as one of its longest-running shows; a glamorous, revamped version is due to storm Hong Kong this October.

As far as storylines go, it’s your classic feel-good musical, with a little something for everyone. Lloyd Webber wrote the show for his own children in the early 80s as the tale of toy trains that come to life and compete to become the fastest engine in the world.

“There’s never been anything like the original Starlight,” says Phillips. “First of all, getting people who could sing, act and dance, [and putting them] on roller skates. And with some it was the reverse thing. They could skate like demons, but trying to teach them to count a bar of music… they had no understanding of it.”

Eventually the auditioning panel found their key performers. It wasn’t only the cast that had to adapt to the show’s steep expectations, though – the entire theatre was gutted and remodelled so that tracks would run through the audience. Phillips recalls, “We were allowed extraordinary freedom. John Napier [Starlight’s set designer] created a set that was so forward in terms of technology that, when you look at it today, it’s still astounding.” Unfortunately, Starlight’s innovatory staging will have to remain on a historical pedestal, as the current show’s staging doesn’t allow for it. 

Phillips tells us that the show has transformed enormously since the 1984 premiere. “Andrew [Lloyd Webber] wrote Starlight as a pop show – something that was current, and with music that was actually very relevant to today. He’s always been keen for the show to update regularly, so we’ve had a massive amount of change that you will see in Hong Kong,” she explains. “We’ve got new arrangements, a new song written by Andrew’s son, Alistair, and different technology. It’s a show that’s always on the go.” Audience members are also given 3D glasses for special film sequences.

Despite the fast pace of today’s theatre world, one of Phillips’ fondest memories hails back to those early days, when they held the auditions in 1984. “One of the moments I’ll never forget was an audition with a gentleman for the role of Poppa… and he was enormous. We always ask at the door ‘do you feel comfortable coming in on skates? If not, you can take them off’. He goes, ‘no problem’. And in he rolls and rolls and I can see him rolling forward and I knew he couldn’t stop. The next thing we knew, he’d crashed into the table and knocked us all back – including myself, Trevor Nunn and Andrew Lloyd Webber. I will never forget that moment.” Here’s hoping the new Starlight will knock us out of our seats for a standing ovation. 

Starlight Express Lyric Theatre, HKAPA, Oct 4-6, 8-13 & 15-20. Tickets: $950-$395; hkticketing.com.

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