Starlight Express as a show has changed a lot over the years. The plot has mutated and developed, characters have been lost and gained, and the show that is currently playing in London is quite different from that which is currently playing in Bochum, or indeed from the show that started out in London back in 1984.
Consequently, I have here three different versions of the plot. The first is the original story that was used in the original London show. The second is the plot to ‘Starlight on Ice’, the touring production that ran briefly in 1997. The third is the plot of the current London show, after it was rewritten in 1992.
‘This musical story about trains is set on the sort of toy train layout that everyone would like to have in their lounge, but which only governments can afford. Its characters are the locomotives and carriages which make up the trains, and the first to which we are introduced are the aggresively macho engine, the Pacific Daylight, commonly known as Greaseball, and his gang of ‘Rolling Stock’. Greaseball is the finest and fastest diesel locomotive in the world, the defending speed racing champion of two hemispheres, and well and truly too big for his pistons. He takes a cruel delight in making fun of little Rusty, the steam engine who works the sidings (‘Taunting Rusty’).
Rusty is a sad little engine: he’s falling to bits, out-of-date, and he lives on hopeless dreams of steaming gloriously along at the head of his carriages, leading the other engines at racing speed (‘Call Me Rusty’). He wants ever so much to enter this year’s championships. The carriages – Ashley, the smoking car, Buffy, the buffet car, Dinah, the dining car and the brand spanking new and decorative Pearl – find him a sweet fellow but think his pretensions to racing are ridiculous (‘Rusty, You Can’t Be Serious’). There’s no way that they can join behind him as his partners in the racing. After all, what a carriage needs is ‘A Lotta Locomotion’, and that Rusty just doesn’t have. They’re much keener on teaming up with Greaseball, who takes every opportunity to flex his cam-shafts in public (‘Pumping Iron’), but Dinah has first claim there – she will be the champion’s coach for the big race.
The passenger coaches’ noses go up in the air when a freight train approaches (‘Freight’). Rusty is the locomotive, and behind him are three box cars (Rocky I, Rocky II and Rocky III), a brick truck (Flat-top), and aggregate hopper (Dustin) and a little red caboose (CB). Freight and passenger trains are both convinced of their own supremacy, but the time for banter is over when Control – a disembodied voice – announces that the championship racing will begin in ten minutes.
One by one the challengers for the title are announced: France’s Sudest (Bobo), Italy’s Settobello (Espresso), the German Weltschaft, Russia’s Trans-Siberian Express (Turnov), England’s Advanced Passenger Train (The City of Milton Keynes), the Japanese Shinkansen Bullet Train (Hashamoto), Greaseball…and Rusty. The last entry to arrive is an even bigger surprise. Electra is an electric train (‘AC/DC’), an androgynous streak of power out to prove the superiority of electric power. Diesel, electricity and steam all join together in a challenging ensemble (‘You – You’re Overloaded’).
Each engine now has to be hitched up to a carriage with which to compete in the race. Greaseball and Dinah are the first pair, and gradually the most impressive locomotives pair off with the most appealing carriages. Rusty hopefully approaches Pearl. Pearl has dreams of pairing up with a steam train, one whose whistle she hears in her dreams (‘He Whistled At Me’) but, as she gently tries to explain to him, funny little Rusty just doesn’t live up to her dreams and she will not hitch up to him. Suddenly an electric minion sidles up. Electra’s coach has a headache and he has chosen Pearl to be his partner instead. Although electric current does nothing for her, she agrees to go, and Rusty is left without a carriage.
The first heat of the racing begins. Greaseball manages to come out in front, but only by foul play, and, when Dinah chides him with cheating (‘Wasn’t Fair’), he angrily disconnects from her and zooms off, leaving the disconsolate Dinah to the opportunistic consoling of the creepy little caboose (‘There’s Me’).
Off in the siding, big old Poppa steam train is singing the blues (‘Poppa’s Blues’). When the dejected Rusty steams by, he tries to cheer him up. It’s no use moping. If Pearl won’t race with him then he must hitch up to something else. He points to peeling old Belle, the sleeping car. Rusty isn’t too keen, even though the lady in question is long on experience (‘Belle the Sleeping Car’), and it takes all Poppa’s extolling of the virtues of faith in the ‘Starlight Express’ before Rusty find courage enough to turn up on the starting grid with Belle behind him to race against Weltschaft and Electra.
In another roughish race, the electric train comes out a logical winner and Rusty, even deeper down in the mouth than before, returns to his friends with his confidence in steam and the Starlight Express gone up in smoke. Poppa chides him (‘Boy, Boy, Boy’) for his lack of faith: steam is still the greatest and, to prove his point, he steps in to replace the unpunctual British train in the final heat with big fat Dustin the aggregate hopper hooked up behind him. And Poppa does it. He leaves the French and Russian trains behind him and struggles over the line the winner. But his big effort has been his last, for pulling the hefty hopper has blown his gaskets. There is no way he can take part in the final: Rusty must take his place. Now Rusty has to believe he can do it. He can do it with the help of the ‘Starlight Express’.
The rights and wrongs of Poppa’s place in the final being taken by the eliminated Rusty get an airing in ‘The Rap’, as new partnerships are evolved. Greaseball, having dumped Dinah, takes up with Pearl, leaving the dining car to wail tearfully in country style of her being ‘UNCOUPLED’ as her sister coaches attempt to comfort her (‘Coaches’ Rolling Stock’). She will have to be content to be hitched up to the electric train. CB is going to be teamed up with Rusty. He will be a nice, light little carriage to carry, but the red caboose is a two-faced twister who is plotting with Electra and Greaseball to sabotage the steam train’s chances (‘CB’).
The final is held on the uphill track, and it is quickly a two train race as the red caboose plies its brakes when it should be urging the engine on. But Greaseball and Electra dead-heat and a rerun is ordered (‘I Was Robbed’). Rusty’s whining complaints are silenced by the jiving Rockies (‘The Right Place at the Right Time’) and it needs another dose of inner Starlight Express (‘I Am The Starlight’) to get the little fellow confident enough in his abilities to try again. This time the race is to be on the downhill course and Rusty pairs up with the heavyweight Dustin. Dinah has deserted the electric train who can’t whistle at her, so CB is back in harness, teamed with Electra. This time, pushed by the lumpy Dustin, while Greaseball and Electra indulge in their own private battle, Rusty makes it home first.
Electra is terminally mortified in defeat (‘No Comeback’) and Greaseball and CB are all cracked up (‘One Rock’n’Roll Too Many’) but Rusty goes off, without completing his lap of honour, to look for Pearl who has finally got round to realising that Rusty is her engine (‘Only He (Has The Power to Move Me)’). Greaseball also comes to his senses as Dinah proves faithful to his battered chassis, and brightens when Poppa tells him that he may even survive – converted to steam. The whole company joins in praise of steam (‘There’s a Light at the End of the Tunnel’) and its future second coming as the show ends. Old-fashioned craftsmanship has triumphed over modern technology.’
Starlight on Ice 1997
The little boy plays with his trains until his mother orders him to bed. As the boy’s dream unfolds, he introduces the champion engines of the world, including Greaseball, the diesel locomotive from the USA (Rolling Stock). When Rusty the Steam Engine announces his intention to race, he is mocked by the others – even Pearl, the observation car of this dreams (Call Me Rusty). Pearl, Dinah the Dining Car, Buffy the Buffet Car and Ashley the Smoking Car step forward and state their romantic interests (A Lotta Locomotion). Pearl says she’ll know her dream train long before she sees him, because “he’ll whistle at me” (He’ll Whistle At Me). Pearl’s reverie is interrupted by the appearance of the freight cars Flat Top, Dustin and the three Rockys (Freight is Great). Suddenly, a strange module appears, surrounded by the Components Krupp, Wrench, Purse, Volta and Joule. From the module, the super-sleek Electra emerges (AC/DC). Greaseball, the reigning champion, announces he will win the first race (Pumping Iron). Rusty, Greaseball, Electra and the other engines each boast that they will win. Soon, all the characters sing of their own strengths (Coda of Freight). Control tells the engines they can’t race without partners. When Pearl is invited to join Electra for heat one, Rusty feels rejected. Alone, Pearl wishes that choosing between Rusty and Electra were somehow easier. When she chooses Electra, Control tells Rusty to scram (Make Up My Heart). Racing against Espresso, Nintendo and Electra, Greaseball wins the first elimination heat. He and Electra have a place in the final. Afterward, Poppa, and old steam engine, appears and urges Rusty not to lose faith in the power of steam (Poppa’s Blues). Poppa says Rusty should try a new power – the power of Starlight Express! When Control announces a last-minute opening in the race, Poppa and Dustin enter as a team. To everyone’s astonishment, Poppa wins the second elimination race. Bobo places second. An exhausted Poppa convinces Rusty to take his place in the final. Greaseball, Electra and the others tell Rusty he hasn’t got a chance (Laughing Stock). To win the race, Rusty knows he needs the power of Starlight Express. Alone in the darkness, though, he wonders if the power is real (Starlight Express).
As Act Two begins, Electra, Greaseball and their followers rap about their own powers. Greaseball dumps Dinah and angers Electra by stealing Pearl away from him (The Rap). Dinah sings out her anger and heartbreak at losing Greaseball (U.N.C.O.U.P.L.E.D.). Ashley and Buffy urge Dinah to make Greaseball jealous by racing with Electra. She agrees to do so…unless Greaseball changes his mind. Buffy hooks up with Rusty (Coaches’ Rolling Stock). In the final, Rusty runs well against Bobo, Electra and Greaseball, but a crash on the bridge stops the race. Greaseball, Electra and the others blame Rusty for the wreck and beat him up. Pearl laments, “This wasn’t how I wanted it.” Rusty tells the three Rockys he was cheated out of winning the race. They say that winning’s all a matter of timing, and he’s a loser like them (Right Time, Right Place). Rusty feels dejected until a familiar voice (Poppa’s) urges him to believe in himself. “The Starlight Express is no more nor less than you,” the voice says. Inspired, Rusty reenters the race, with Dustin as his partner. During the rerun of the final race, Bobo is eliminated, Greaseball and Electra crash, and Rusty saves Pearl. Against all the odds, Rusty wins! Electra and Greaseball admit that all their fast living has taken its toll (One Rock and Roll Too Many). Pearl realises that her first love is her true love. She and Rusty make up (Next Time You Fall In Love). Greaseball tells Dinah he’s “S.O.R.R.R.Y.” Poppa convinces him and Electra to convert to steam. When Control tried to interfere, the trains yell “Shut it!” Together, the trains celebrate their newfound freedom and power (Light at the End of the Tunnel).
A little boy (Control) plays races with his toy train set (‘Overture’). His mother enters and tells him to go to bed – the rest of the show takes place within his dreams.
The contenders for the race are announced (‘Entry of National Trains’). There is Bobo from France, Espresso from Italy, Ruhrgold from Germany, Turnov from Russia, Nintendo from Japan, the Prince of Wales from Great Britain, and last but not least, from the USA, Greaseball the diesel (‘Rolling Stock’).
Rusty, the little steam engine who works in the freight yard, enters. The national trains and Greaseball tease him and make fun of him, but he is adamant that he can win the race (‘Call Me Rusty’). He brings in the coaches – Pearl, the brand new observation car; Dinah, the dining car and Greaseball’s coach; Buffy, the buffet car; and Ashley, the smoking car – and leaves to fetch the freight trucks. The coaches are unsure about Rusty entering for the race, and persuade Pearl not to race with him as she had been going to (‘A Lotta Locomotion’).
The freight trucks – of whom the passenger cars are not fond – enter with Rusty (‘Freight’). They argue, until there is a disruption – a new contender, Electra the electric engine, has arrived (‘AC/DC’). Greaseball returns (‘Pumping Iron’), and the engines argue (‘Coda of Freight’).
Control reminds them all of the rules – there will be two heats, and the first two trains in each heat will go through to the final. Also, each engine must race with a coach in every heat, and the next heat starts in a few minutes. The engines and coaches start to pair off, but Rusty and Pearl are both left single. Rusty can’t believe his luck and invites Pearl to race with him (‘Crazy’). Just when she looks as if she might, an electric minion sidles up and tells Pearl that Electra wants to race with her. After some momentary indecision (‘Make Up My Heart’) she agrees to race with Electra, and Rusty is left without a coach and cannot enter the first heat.
Results of Heat One:
1st – Greaseball with Dinah
2nd – Electra with Pearl
3rd – Espresso with Ashley
4th – Nintendo with Buffy
Greaseball and Electra have places in the final.
Rusty is depressed and goes to see his father, who is singing the blues (‘Poppa’s Blues’). Poppa tries to persuade him to enter the second heat, perhaps taking one of the freight trucks as his carriage, and tells him of the Starlight Express, a magical train who can help him. Rusty refuses to race without Pearl, so Poppa enters the race, with Dustin the big hopper.
Results of Heat Two:
1st – Poppa with Dustin
2nd – Bobo with Ashley
3rd – Turnov with Wrench
4th – Ruhrgold with Joule
Poppa wins the race, but he is worn out and can’t go on. He wants Rusty to take his place in the final. Rusty won’t do it initially, but after Greaseball and Electra tease him (‘Laughing Stock’), he decides to enter the final. Now he knows that he must believe in the ‘Starlight Express’.
The trains get ready for the big race (‘The Rap’). Greaseball and Pearl decide to race together in the final, leaving Dinah alone and depressed (‘U.N.C.O.U.P.L.E.D.’). Buffy and Ashley try to comfort her (‘Coaches’ Rolling Stock’). Since Electra is also without a coach now, he asks Dinah to race with him, and she agrees. Ashley goes with Bobo, and Rusty takes Buffy. But the final ends in disaster – Greaseball trips Rusty, and there is a pile-up on the main bridge.
Greaseball and Electra blame the crash on Rusty, and Greaseball’s gang beat him up when he insists that he will enter the rerun of the final. The Rockies (box cars) try to cheer Rusty up (‘Right Place, Right Time’), but he is now thoroughly depressed and has no belief in his own abilities. Left alone, Rusty believes that he sees the Starlight Express (‘Starlight Sequence’), and becomes fired up with enthusiasm. He takes Dustin and enters the final.
Meanwhile, the partnerships have changed again – Dinah is fed up of an electric train who can’t whistle at her (‘He Whistled At Me (Reprise)’) that she has left Electra, who is now racing with Buffy. Greaseball is still with Pearl, but she is reluctant, although happy to see Rusty enter the final. During the race, she watches Rusty and doesn’t pay attention to what she is doing – Greaseball becomes angry and uncouples her in the middle of the final. Pearl almost falls off the track, but Rusty, coming along behind, catches her, while Greaseball steals Bobo’s coach, Ashley. Electra tries to ‘zap’ Greaseball, but the two of them crash, letting Rusty get across the finish line first. He leaves, without completing his lap of honour, to find Pearl.
Results of the Final:
1st – Rusty with Dustin
2nd – Greaseball with Pearl
3rd – Electra with Buffy
4th – Bobo with Ashley
Greaseball and Electra are upset about crashing (‘One Rock’n’roll Too Many’). Control calls for Rusty to take his lap of honour before it is cancelled, but neither Rusty or Pearl can be found. Everyone leaves to look for them.
Pearl is sitting alone in the freight yard. She now realises that Rusty is the one for her (‘Next Time You Fall In Love’), and is very happy to see him after he finds her. They return to the rest in time for the finale in praise of steam (‘Light At The End Of The Tunnel’).