Cats is coming. Soon, we will live in a world where we can all see the big-screen adaptation of the infamous Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Cats. Based on a book of poems by T.S. Elliot, the show became the genre’s punching-bag but still dominated the pop culture landscape for close to 40 years, becoming one of the longest-running musicals on both Broadway and the West End, and grossing literally billions of dollars worldwide. It remains to be seen if the movie can replicate that success or if we’ll all just turn up drunk to marvel at the ‘digital fur technology’ while terrifying-looking man-cats do barefoot ballet to power ballads. Hell, I know what I’m doing this Christmas.
If you’re a lover of musicals, the chances are you’ve engaged in more than one fiery discussion about the work and legacy of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber. He’s one of the most commercially successful figures in all of theatre, one who commands an intensely loyal fan-base across several iconic shows, but he’s also the topic of much derision. You either think he’s a composer for the masses, an unabashedly commercial figure of crowd-pleasing satisfaction, or a derivative hack who copies himself and others too often to satisfy his pockets more than his creative needs. Ask a true musical geek about the time Phantom of the Opera beat Into the Woods for the Best New Musical Tony Award and you’ll get scuffles as passionate as those of film lovers whenever Crash versus Brokeback Mountain is mentioned. But yammer away all you want; there is a reason Lloyd Webber is as successful as he is. There is a reason Phantom of the Opera is the longest-running Broadway show of all time. There is a reason the executives at Universal decided to throw all caution to the wind and double down on the scary Cats movie.
People unfamiliar with Cats expressed much bafflement on Twitter when the trailer dropped, wondering how the hell the musical came to be and has so many fans. Honestly, it’s one of Lloyd Webber’s less weird shows. For a stridently mainstream composer who works almost exclusively in terms of musicals for the masses, the guy has very strange taste in source material. When you look at his back-catalog, a musical about cats with a Christ allegory based on some Elliot poems doesn’t seem out of place next to a rock and roll retelling of the New Testament, a biography of a South American dictator’s wife, a sympathetic rewrite of one of Billy Wilder’s most iconic noirs, and a drama about a bunch of kids who think a runaway criminal is Jesus (with lyrics by Meatloaf’s songwriter). However, amid this eclectic selection, the oddest title is undeniable, and hey, if we can get a Cats movie, how long before someone tries to adapt Starlight Express?
So, here’s the pitch: It’s a musical inspired by the children’s storybooks of Thomas the Tank Engine about a young but obsolete steam engine called Rusty who wants to participate in a championship race against more modern train in the hope of becoming the fastest in the world and also impressing a first-class car called Pearl. Pretty out there for a musical, right? Okay, now imagine all the actors are on roller skates. Oh, and also all of this is happening in a child’s dream as he imagines his toys are sentient beings. And you thought the sexy man-cats were weird!
The origins of Starlight Express can be found in Lloyd Webber’s love of the Thomas the Tank Engine stories. He had hoped to make an animated TV series of them, but at the time, it was deemed too risky because the books weren’t popular outside of the UK. Combined with a few other similar projects going nowhere, he decided to focus on the trains aspect in the hopes of making a show that would appeal to young people and families. Trevor Nunn, the legendary theatre director of the Royal Shakespeare Company who helped make Cats happen, was brought on board, along with that musical’s set designer, John Napier. On a visit to New York, the pair saw roller-skaters dancing in Central Park and decided that was the best way to tell the story.
Casting the show was, as you can imagine, a nightmare. How do you find people who can sing Lloyd Webber’s music, dance, and act, do it all on roller-skates, and do so at speeds often exceeding 40 miles per hour? Plenty of injuries occurred. People were literally taken off-stage screaming. Say what you want about Cats but at least it wasn’t a kill zone. The elaborate set, which completely reshaped the interior of London’s Apollo Victoria Theatre, featured race tracks and a moveable bridge for the trains to speed around the stage. As with most of Lloyd Webber’s output in the 1980s, this was a full-on mega-musical, with the focus on dazzling spectacle.
That’s ultimately what made it such a big hit on the West End. For tourists coming to London who want to see a show that gives them real bang for their buck and have English as a second or third language so aren’t very interested in the story or lyrical expertise, Starlight Express has it all. The costumes are bright, the songs hummable, and the requirement to think about the plot practically non-existent. Perhaps that’s why one infamous review said the show had all the intellectual content of a peanut.
Starlight Express ran for 18 years on the West End, making it the ninth longest-running show of all time in London. On Broadway, it fared less well. The plot was streamlined, the set made much smaller, and the story made more American. Essentially, it became less of a spectacle, so it only lasted two years (although it did eventually tour). If you want to see the show now, it’s still running in Bochum, Germany, at a purpose-built theatre where it has stayed since 1988. Oh yeah, it turns out the show is such a big hit in Germany that they even had a reality TV competition to find new cast members in 2008.
What makes the musical such a tricky beast to pin down is that Lloyd Webber and his numerous collaborators have been rewriting the show for years since it opened. Songs have been edited or removed and replaced with new ones, characters cut, the plot rewritten, and the results of those key raced changed. As recently as 2018, new material was added, after Lloyd Webber admitted the show had become unrecognizable from his original vision after decades of constant changes. To make the show a little more gender-balanced (originally, all the racing trains were male), more female characters were added, and a few roles were made open to actors of any gender. Oh, and they also added a British train called Brexit. Topical!
There’s probably a great animated kids movie to be made from Starlight Express. Imagine Dreamworks firing on all cylinders with this material. Really, that’s what they should have done with Cats. Turning this into a live-action motion-capture extravaganza would lead to our generation’s best example of Hollywood surrealism, or at least a musical Fast and Furious rip-off. As fun as it is for my mind to wander thinking about the inevitably bonkers movie they’d make from Starlight Express, it’s unlikely to happen. That’s not because of the required logistics or the potential for scary human-train hybrids, but because the musical simply doesn’t carry the cultural cache of something like Cats or Phantom of the Opera (the latter of which got a terrible movie adaptation). Can you sing any songs from Starlight Express from memory? It was always more about spectacle than content, and that wouldn’t be enough to sustain a film at a time when the medium is dominated by such things.
But admit it, you kind of want to see it. And for those of you who did not know of the existence of the magical toy trains musical that almost killed people: You’re welcome!
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