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  • Writer's pictureDaisy L Phillips

On Shattered Expectations: "Starlight Express"

Hear me out: Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Starlight Express" may be the perfect show to do in an educational setting.

When my school's spring musical list leaked early last semester, I really thought someone added "Starlight" to the screenshot as a joke. Between ALW's obsession with 7/8 time, the female lead's lack of any clear character motivation, and an endless list of potential injuries and law suits, literally nothing about the decision made sense. Looking at it now, I could not have been more wrong.

When it became clear that "Starlight" was very much not a joke, I laughed and held a moment of silence for their once-and-future stage management team and how many injury reports they were inevitably going to fill out. Sometimes, life pushes you into situations you'd never thought you'd be in. In true dramatic form, I never thought that one would come back to bite me.

Over my college career, I have stage managed political comedies, socially-conscious new works, absurdist plays, and A LOT of meta-theatre. I never thought that all of that would add up to my final lap at Marymount being done in sparkly Heely's, but I cannot tell you how glad I am that it did.

For those who do not know, "Starlight Express" is a sung-through musical about trains that was based on, according to Wikipedia, an animated TV series based on Thomas the Tank Engine, a novelty pop single, and an animated film based on Cinderella. It is traditionally performed on roller skates. A typical performance requires a beast of a set, skilled skaters, and probably more money than God has access to. None of this would be attainable for a college production, let alone one with a three-and-a-half-week-long rehearsal process.

So, we just... didn't do that.

We traded roller skates for Heely's, a rink for a masonite floor that needs to be re-taped with brown gaff 5 times a day, and otherwise truly embraced the studio nature of the production. I never thought I would say this, but I absolutely love it.

"Starlight" has been a trip. Yes, actors fell and got hurt. We managed to make it through the rehearsal process with only one trip to urgent care, and honestly, my team handled that great. We'll have gone through no less than 25 rolls of brown gaff by the end of the production, dealt with broken Heely wheels, and I'll have received approximately 8 billion emails about whether or not actors were going to be required to wear helmets (yes), what sizes they needed to be (apparently they're one-size-fits all), and what colors they needed to be (there's a whole rainbow represented, y'all). It's ridiculous, there is barely any plot in the entire 2 hours, none of it makes any sense, and it really might the best possible musical to do in a theatre arts program.

At our first meeting, a cast member said that they were excited to work on "Starlight" because it was a challenge they never thought they would be exposed to and a show that, realistically, they were never going to have the chance to be in again. It took me almost all month to really learn how to embrace what that meant, but looking at our show now, I see how right they were.

No one puts on "Starlight Express" because it's too intimidating, but screw that! Strip it down a bit and it is legitimately the perfect college show. It lends itself perfectly to gender and race neutral casting (they are trains, they have no gender nor race), so it can fit the casting needs of just about any program and gives actors the opportunity to learn new skills and test their confidence. And it doesn't just stop with actors! Sure, people are going to take some spills, but I had to learn how to fill out an incident report some day! Now I have that under my belt and won't be as worried when it inevitably comes up in the professional world. I mentioned the avalanche of helmet-related emails to my mom on the phone last week, and she simply said "that's life". And it is! Sure, it will probably never be about helmets again, but problems are going to need to be solved and sometimes that's going to take 100 emails because no one is in the same place at the same time. Design students could do just about whatever they wanted with costumes so long as it evoked the feeling of being a train, and that is awesome. Period pieces are great and teach important technical sewing skills, but sometimes you just need to put a guy playing a caboose in a harness and a black smokey-eye makeup look and let your creative juices flow. Limited capacity for a set lead us to getting creative with projection technology, an element that is rapidly increasing in popularity and is becoming an industry standard. Every problem we needed to solve, though unique to the nature of "Starlight" in many ways, will come up again and again in our professional careers.

In one way or another, all of us working on "Starlight" have been challenged in ways that we typically do not get to be challenged in in a college setting, and I just really, really love that. The show itself is so odd and out of the box that it gave us the freedom to really have fun with it and make it something unique. To boot, I have learned more real-life stage management skills on this show than I ever thought I would. A process that I went into thinking would be all herding actors on Heely's and enforcing safety gear rules has been so much more, and I am so glad that chance has brought me to this show (or maybe The Starlight Express, "Train God" themself, had something to do with it).

I stand by "Starlight Express" being absurd, but I think that it is still exactly what we need right now. It's 2019, a lot of us feel like the world is falling apart whenever we look at the news, and art is more important than ever to keep us all sane. My passion may still lie with gritty new works that speak to the current socio-political climate, but sometimes we all just need a happy story. Sometimes you just want to watch the good guy win the race. Sometimes you just need to watch a rock-blues-hiphop musical with too many songs in 7/8 time and let yourself enjoy it. Yes, the world is falling apart around us; so take a two-hour break from reality, pack up your harness, helmet, and Heely's; and join us sometime these next two weekends for a show unlike anything you have seen before. I promise you will not regret it.

I love Starlight Express. I never wanted this for myself, but here I am. I'm going to embrace it. I hope you check us out and that you love it, too.

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