The end of a way of life
Starlight Express has closed after 18 years. Peter Phillips on its sung and unsung heroes T he demise of Starlight Express is indeed the end of an era, or at least part of an era, since it is said to be the secondlongest-running musical ever. The longestrunning, equally with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, is Cats, which, it has just been announced, will close on 11 May, its 21st anniversary. When Starlight closed last weekend it had managed 7,604 performances in just under 18 years, having played to 8 million people, which one might have thought was long enough for it to start recycling itself to another generation, Mousetrap-like, and so go on indefinitely. But the problem for Starlight was that its material had built-in date faults, and the public had eventually come to notice them. Although there were ticket touts outside the Apollo Victoria for the performance I attended on the final Thursday, I was told they hadn't been seen there for ten years.
The faults were both in the music and in the dreadful storyline. When Starlight opened in 1984 roller-skates and steam engines may have been burning issues for all I can remember, but in the era of skateboards and RaiItrack they rather let down the hard-edged, metallic macho bite of the production. However slick and impressive the skating and the dizzying use of props, which include mobile bridges and sharply angled ramps, these days we have seen much of that kind of high-wire act elsewhere, not least under the South Bank Centre. Even the joke of naming three of the characters 'Rocky' after the first three films of that name has lost its topicality, given that Rocky III was released in 1982.
So with the music. Whatever one may think of Lloyd Webber's muse, he started out using musical form both originally and powerfully. His first hit, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1968), is good pastiche by any standards, and is deservedly still famous. Jesus Christ Superstar (1970) can equally rely on an original idiom, this time rock rift which is a genuine product of its time, worth revisiting. Starlight never had such strengths, falling between different idioms, some of which had to be overhauled in 1992 if the music was not to sink the appeal of the production. In that rewrite Lloyd Webber updated his contribution by introducing a rap as the first item in part two, a form not available in 1984; and ended with a megamix chorus, a commonplace in musicals ten years ago, now sounding a little tired. I notice that the only reference to Starlight in the over-long discussion of Lloyd Webber's oeuvre in the latest Grove Dictionary of Music is the Country and Western number 'Ll.N.C.O.U.P.L.E.D.',
which is not one of the highlights. 'RollingStock' I am still humming.
The danger for Starlight was always that the appalling script and the patchy score would eventually distract its potential customers from the eye-catching pyrotechnics on stage. Pace the boys under the South Bank Centre, these remained astonishing to the end, played by generation after generation of recently graduated dance-school students, who would arrive on the set with everything to learn and leave a little later with thighs the size and strength of steel joists. At least one of the stunts (the one which required someone to fly off a ramp at 30 mph and disappear backstage to land on a safety mat) had to be pulled because too many of the dancers injured themselves performing it. Yet despite the high level of wear and tear and the cost of the clever machinery there has been a concurrent production of Starlight in Bochum, Germany for some time now, which is set to continue; and at one time, with a production in Japan, there were three Starlights running concurrently. However, unlike some of the other Lloyd Webber hits, Starlight is going to be very difficult to revive. Any theatre which takes it has to be more or less rebuilt inside: such investment requires years of assured income. If the dancers were the sung heroes of Starlight, the unsung ones were the five musicians in 'the booth'. For them as much as for anyone the end of Starlight was the end of a way of life. Almost all of them (ten in total, since they ran an 'A' and a 'B' team) had sung in the run since it started. The conditions of employment were good — sick pay, holiday pay, pension — and, except on Saturdays, an evening job which could be fitted in with other forms of employment. It was often compared with singing in a cathedral choir: the money was similar, the commitment of turning up several times a week to sing almost exactly the same thing over and over again was similar, you could book deputies, the camaraderie amongst the participants was equally rock solid. Where booth jobs score is that no one can see you there (you can't talk or play cards during a sermon), and you get Sundays off. One might argue that singing in a cathedral is more inspiring than being squashed into a box eight feet by 12 looking at a monitor, but having experienced its electric atmosphere I'm not so sure.
The box was clearly intended to be someone's dressing-room when the theatre was built. After 18 years of life as a booth it sported a jerry-built wooden stand supporting two Sixties-looking black-and-white television monitors, one featuring the conductor and the other the stage (in case of crashes), and the singers' umbilical cord to the outside world, a button which could be turned on and off with the singing. Attached to the stand was a thermometer, watched with fascination in the summer as the temperature rose into the eighties; above it was a clock loaned by one of the singers many years ago, and beneath a blow-heater gathering dust. Some of the available space in this room was taken up by black pipes from floor to ceiling, as on board ship.
The singers of course knew the score inside out, which made it possible for them, by deft use of the button, to carry on discussions or games literally between phrases of the songs. I repeatedly found myself talking to someone who would suddenly stand up, whisper 'singing', touch the button and let rip. And if this sounds a little haphazard, the ensemble and tuning were never less than impeccable. Lloyd Webber's score has its own pyrotechnics, which require baritones to sing top G, and, most famously, at least for the fixer, a soprano to sing high D in a number called `AC/DC'. Between them Teresa Revill and Anna De Vere sang this note several thousand times. To do this as beautifully as it was done the night I was there, in such a tiny space, is surely the singing equivalent of pounding
relentlessly round a track at 30 mph on skates.
Suddenly this cocoon world has been uprooted, though really no one should have been surprised. Music-making at the highest levels rarely produces jobs for life, and anyway they tend to be shunned. With the resilience of their profession these singers will soon regroup elsewhere. The repertoire will he different — it might even be Palestrina — but the stories, the gossiping and the buying of rounds after the show will be identical.