Skating on Thin Ice

A while ago, I wrote about the earworm effect of radio ads for Broadways shows, which imprint themselves on my brain when I’m most vulnerable (i.e., just waking up). I don’t know how things are in your neck of the woods, but local New York TV/radio is filled with commercials for Broadway shows, and has been my entire life. And Broadway-related commercials, such as this immortal ad for a hotel “in the center of it all” that was on TV for pretty much my entire childhood, and beyond.

This commercial is deeply imprinted on my psyche, perhaps even my soul. It sells a very old school, elegant idea that Broadway still has of itself–and, ironically, was shot when the Theater District was at the absolute nadir of its mid-1980s scuzziness. Whatever limited sense of irony and postmodernism Broadway may have now (enough to endure shows like Spamalot and The Book of Mormon, anyway), it had none of back then. Broadway was still very much wrapped up in glamour! and glitz! and you’re going out there a nobody but you’re coming back a star!

I am not at all a Broadway Person, so how do I know this? Because ads for Broadway shows ran on local TV constantly when I was a kid, and I can remember pretty much all of them. Like this ad for Cats which ran for roughly 900 years (much like the show itself). I recently had an argument with my wife when she insisted that the cats meowed along to the tune you hear in that commercial. (No, they didn’t, although the idea of them doing so is hilarious.) Or this nearly wordless ad for a revival of 42nd Street. Or this Dreamgirls ad that I distinctly remember, even though I’m sure I was too young to entirely understand what I was seeing.

Recently, another old Broadway ad flitted to the front of my brain. I remember being captivated by this commercial’s utterly earnest and weird conception of Great White Way glitz. Sadly, there is no representative example of this ad on YouTube, which is why at first I thought I might have imagined it. But I polled friends and family alike, and it was indeed a thing. My wife told me her sister had a poster of this show on her wall. A friend of mine told me she had to sing songs from it for school chorus. It was not only a thing, but evidently a quite popular thing.

The thing I’m referring to is an Andrew Lloyd Weber opus called Starlight Express, in which the entire cast–playing model trains come to life–wore rollerskates for the duration of the show a zipped around neon lit tracks at breakneck speeds. Apparently, it was (very) loosely based on the Railway Series books that also gave the world Thomas the Tank Engine, though from what I’ve read, any similarities between them and the finished product are purely coincidental.

In fact, you’d be hard pressed to pull any sort of meaning from the musical at all, if this synopsis is any indication. I’ve read Robert Coover books that were much easier to follow than this.

Near as I can tell, Starlight Express was meant to be pure spectacle on a grand, flashing scale, little more than a costumed roller derby inside a huge pinball machine. The vast majority of the play’s action involves actual roller skating races performed at full throttle. As weird as that is, it still comes from a very old timey “let’s put on a show” idea of what Broadway entertainment should entail. Lights! Costumes! Dames! Roller skates!

My only question is: How on earth did people not die during this show? Like, nightly? According to that link, the original London production had tracks that ran around the theater, on top of the audience. And the actors had to skate around them while wearing really elaborate, super heavy costumes. If the Spider-Man musical led to an endless series of injuries, how many did this thing cause? I bet Sir Dame Andrew Lloyd Weber had to pay off a slew of maimed chorines to keep their mouths shut. “Here, take this large sum of money in compensation for your ruptured achilles and TELL NO ONE OF WHAT YOU SAW!”

I was curious about critical reaction to this musical, and thankfully found a Frank Rich review in the Times archives. Before he switched over to the political beat, Rich was a theater critic who relished destroying hopes and dreams. Here’s his opening paragraph.

In a full-page program note, the composer Andrew Lloyd Webber modestly explains that he conceived his new musical, ”Starlight Express,” as an entertainment ”event” for children who love trains. Over two numbing hours later, you may find yourself wondering exactly whose children he has in mind. A confusing jamboree of piercing noise, routine roller-skating, misogyny and Orwellian special effects, ”Starlight Express” is the perfect gift for the kid who has everything except parents.

Yowch! But Rich’s poison-tipped words didn’t prevent this from running on Broadway for 761 performances. Or from becoming a smash hit in Germany, where it has run since 1988 in a special theater built to accommodate the many roller skating tracks necessary to complete Sir Dame Weber’s vision. Oh Germany, don’t ever change. You’re like Europe’s Japan!

Here’s a brief clip from the 1987 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, in which Willard Scott introduces the Starlight Express cast performing a number from the show. Seems much less exciting outside of the confines of an actual Broadway stage, where close proximity and high speeds could spell death for any one of these guys. I wonder how big the Venn intersection of Starlight Express fans and NASCAR fans is?

So in summary: There was once a musical where guys in train costumes zipped around on roller skates on a Broadway stage and somehow no one was killed (THAT WE KNOW OF). It spawned no imitators, but I can safely say that without Starlight Express, there would have been no “Zoo Animals on Wheels.”