The Set’s the Star in ‘Starlight Express’ : Theater: When the $5-Million Andrew Lloyd Webber musical skates into Civic Theatre, it will have a few tricks it picked up from the movies.


Robert Nolan has worked with stars and their idiosyncrasies before.

When he managed the touring company of “Cabaret,” with Joel Grey, he had to take care of travel arrangements for Grey’s cat. When he managed the touring company of “Jerry’s Girls” he had to ensure that the ample luggage packed by Carol Channing and her husband--pictures, books, personal effects--all made it safely from hotel room to hotel room.

Now, as the company manager of “Starlight Express,” the mammoth Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that plays at the San Diego Civic Theatre Dec. 27-31, Nolan finds that the set is his star.

No one in his 77-person company needs anywhere near the pampering as the 50-ton production, with its 44-foot skating ramp, 22 miles of fiber optics, 1,350 lights, two laser beams and the 75 skates that are repaired nightly after being used by his 24-person cast. Then 48-foot tractor-trailers include a wardrobe department that looks like a carpentry shop, complete with soldering iron to attach the sequins on metal costumes.


Also along for the ride are three washing machines and 10 giant fans for the costumes too large to fit into the two dryers.

At a capitalized cost of $5 million, “Starlight Express” is the most expensive touring show ever. The national press representative for the show, Keith Sherman, calculates that, even selling at 85-90% capacity, as the show has since the tour started Nov. 7 in Cincinnati, it will take a year, give or take a few months, to break even. (The show is already booked for at least that long, through the end of 1990).

In contrast, Ken Hill’s modest “Phantom of the Opera,” playing at Symphony Hall through Dec. 31, was capitalized at $1 million and took just eight weeks on the road to recoup its money.

“Starlight Express” is a big way to tell a story about the little train that could.

Webber’s musical begins simply with a little boy being told by his mother to put his trains away. As in “The Nutcracker,” in which the action begins after a young

girl goes to sleep, in “Starlight Express” the boy imagines his trains coming to life after the lights are out. Soon Rusty, an old-fashioned steam engine, is racing to be the champion against Greaseball, a diesel, and Electra, an electric train.

But if the idea seems simple, there is nothing simple about the execution.

The trains are all played by skaters wearing 35-pound costumes and helmets lighted by concealed battery packs and equipped with wireless microphones. Their terrain is a complicated set of tracks that extends 44 feet from the front of the stage over the orchestra pit and into the audience. In the course of 2 hours and 10 minutes, they sing and skate-dance, clashing and crashing through four cross-country races.


It took close to a year for the management team to figure out how to package the Broadway show, which ran from 1987-1989, for a tour. The key problem was the three-story set used for the cross-country races. How could a set that had taken six months to build in the Gershwin Theatre be transformed into a set that could load and unload in a day?

It couldn’t. It was decided to go with a single-level set and splice live racing on stage with film clips of racing on other levels. The skaters start their race, the back of the set flips over to a movie screen in which the stage skaters continue their race on film, then they finish live.

The film was shot in five days by the skaters in the touring show at Camera Mart in New York, in a space 100 by 80 feet. But it is designed to show the skaters soaring through cornfields and cities from dawn to afternoon to twilight to night, uphill and downhill, from one end of the United States to the other. It was produced like a silent movie, with sounds of train cars crashing dubbed in and the boy’s voice and the orchestra playing live each night.

Perry Cline, the production supervisor for “Starlight Express,” was one of the problem solvers.

“We had a meeting in February of ’89 in London with John Napier, the designer, and Trevor Nunn and the producers and myself,” Cline recalled. “We wanted to see what we could do to make those races work. We thought the only way we could do this was to make it more like a rock concert or a sporting event where they use videos and instant replay.”

“Starlight Express” used film rather than video--the resolution is evidently higher--and Cline said the idea turned out to have advantages over the all-live racing scenes that sometimes left audiences confused. “It’s helped the production in that it keeps the relationship of the characters and who’s going after whom much more clear,” said Cline. “We thought audiences would go, ‘Oh no,’ on the fourth race, but they loved it. It was a real surprise to us.”


The three-tiered “Starlight Express” is now only playing two places in the world--in London, where it has been running at the Victoria Apollo since 1984, and, in Germany, since 1988.

For Nolan, who is now into his second month of the “Starlight Express” tour, one level is plenty.

“We have to always be prepared for the unexpected,” he said. Recently a piece of scenery called the starting gate that is programmed by computer broke down and he had to fly in the original programmer to fix it. Then there was the time in St. Louis when one of the skaters fell into the audience (no one was hurt and one of the critics reviewing that night thought it was part of the show).

But Nolan isn’t complaining.

“I love my job,” he said. “I thought a lot more would happen out of the ordinary than actually did. Maybe they didn’t happen because I thought they would.”