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Richard Jordan: Should Starlight Express be overhauled for today or embrace its 1980s roots?

A scene from Starlight Express at the Apollo Victoria Theatre, London, for which Sue Hyman ran the PR. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Scene from the original production of Starlight Express at the Apollo Victoria Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Richard Jordan
Richard Jordan is an award-winning UK and international theatre producer. He has been a regular contributor to The Stage since 2005.
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Shell suits, big shoulder pads, Dallas, Margaret Thatcher, Starlight Express... remember the 1980s?

For British theatre, the decade may be best remembered as the era when it wrestled the musical-theatre crown from its US counterparts after decades of dominance.

The term 'blockbuster' was coined at that time and became synonymous with the long-running British hit musicals that would occupy theatres around the globe by the end of the decade.

Really, though, the 1970s should be considered a far more influential musical time in terms of development of the craft. It saw break-out British rock musicals from Jesus Christ Superstar to The Rocky Horror Show, whilst the 1980s became as much about the global franchising of works.

That the 1980s would become seen as the 'golden age of the British-made musical' is down to just a few dominant works by – largely – one British composer, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and two French composers, Alain Boublil and Claude Michel Schonberg. When you look at it like that, the 1980s British-made global musical domination suddenly feels as much about these three individuals conquering the industry rather than the launch of an entire generation of new composers premiering large-scale hit musicals.

The pioneering designs of the 1980s musical – often by John Napier – also meant the sets were talked about as much as the score and even became as big a news story as the question of who shot JR Ewing in Dallas!

Around the opening of Miss Saigon in 1989, yards of news print speculated about how a helicopter would land on the stage of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Brilliant marketing spin, but today it sounds farcical that audiences bought into it.

These musicals’ revolutionary designs had their roots in earlier decades. They grew out of the forgotten genius today of earlier designers work such as Sean Kenny's creations for Oliver!, Robin Wagner for Jesus Christ Superstar, and Timothy O'Brien for Evita.

The arrival of Cats in 1981 helped in the trend of making the set a star attraction of the production. As a result, producers could now brand the spectacle of the show over its casting, which proved great news for their longevity.

But no show reflected its blockbuster budget decadence in its spectacular sets more than Starlight Express, which rolled into the Apollo Victoria Theatre in 1984 and ran for 7,048 performances. Its design encompassed the entire auditorium for its roller-skating cast.

Now, in 2017, it is rolling back into town. This week at London's the Other Palace theatre, Starlight is getting a public workshop showing to test out new materials for a revamped version which Lloyd Webber and members of his creative team will be working on during each day.

It is a musical that introduced more young people in to musical theatre in the 1980s than any other show of its time.

The question is: does it need to be radically overhauled to feel current for today’s audiences? Or even can it be overhauled?

Or, like many revived musicals in the past, should it stick with the sound and style that worked so well first time around? Should it capture and identify with the time it was written and celebrate its own place in history?

The failing of the new version of Cats was that it tried too hard to update itself. It never needed to, and the result is a perfectly good musical left fragmented and clumsy in trying to be something it's not.

This was most apparent in the 2014 revival’s lame hip-hop restyling of The Rum Tum Tugger song on the misguided belief it was needed to connect with today's young people.

That version of the song was subsequently dropped for the 2016 Broadway revival, instead returning back to the original, but there was still a cutting up of the show and repositioning of certain numbers that left it feeling rushed and unbalanced.

The West End has often become more focused in trying to recapture its past glories

It's also not the first time Starlight Express has been given an update. In 1992, still during its original West End run, it relaunched with a second premiere retitled The New Starlight Express.

This version saw various numbers overhauled, new songs added and the introduction of a mega-mix at the end. I am not sure it ever needed any of this but it brought media attention back to an old show and extended its West End life.

Lloyd Webber is one of the few contemporary musical composers to revisit his works. Starlight Express is arguably his most populist musical across all age groups and the most lucrative in terms of the family market it attracts, even though the original production flopped on Broadway. That may be because New York audiences felt it offered more spectacle over substance.

Broadway re-found its voice in the 1990s. It has continued to produce and pioneer new US composers writing new, large-scale musicals for the Great White Way and beyond. Meanwhile, the West End has often become more focused in trying to recapture its past glories.

Today's musical industry is a very different one to the 1980s. This week of workshops may determine if there’s a place for an updated Starlight – competing with contemporary family musicals such as Wicked and The Lion King – or if it’s best to simply embrace and revive it as a musical of its time.

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