After the success of Cats in 1981, Andrew Lloyd Webber began looking into writing a musical based on the Thomas the Tank Engine stories, with his kids in mind, but couldn't get the amount of creative control he wanted. Instead, he pulled up a few older ideas he'd had proposed to him in the 1970's -- among them, a musical version of The Little Engine That Could and a new version of Cinderella. He initially tried to combine them into the story of a little steam engine who's bullied by her electric and diesel stepsisters, but ends up being chosen as the royal train by the Prince after winning a race and losing a piston in the process, which the Prince uses to track her down. This idea, with many many changes made, ended up evolving into Starlight Express, whose first version premiered in London in 1984.
In the story, a child’s train set magically comes to life and the various engines compete to become the "Fastest engine in the World!" The underdog, Rusty the Steam train, has little chance until he is inspired by the legend of the "Starlight Express" and ultimately defeats his arch-rivals Greaseball and Electra before going on to win the hand of the lovely first class coach, Pearl.
The show has gone through several changes over the years. In 1994, the London production got a major overhaul -- adding a lot more emphasis on Pearl, eliminating C.B. and Belle, and having Electra also crash in the end and promise to convert to steam. These changes were not popular with the fandom at large. The American productions, meanwhile, maintained C.B. at least but made the female characters' costumes extremely Stripperiffic and still decided to make Electra share in Greaseball and C.B.'s comeuppance in the end, depriving him of an epic Villainous Breakdown in the process. The closest production to the original still running is the Bochum, Germany production, which nevertheless features the altered ending for Electra and no Belle, as well as elements from the late London and U.K. tour versions.
To the general public, this show is mostly famous for being performed entirely on roller skates, giving the anthropomorphic train characters the ability to move as smoothly as a real train would. Within its own fandom, however, it's known for a startling amount of broken and family unfriendly aesops and dark themes in what's supposedly a musical for the whole family.
- The Ace: Electra. So, so much.
- Ambiguous Gender: Whether Wrench is male or female depends on the casting. The character was usually female in London. The Bochum version muddies the waters.
- Similarly, Electra's casting has spanned both genders. Which is actually rather appropriate given their self-proclaimed "AC/DC" nature.
- Anthropomorphic Personification: All of them -- of trains. Even God is a train.
- Ax Crazy: C.B.
- Badass Biker: Greaseball's character design is based on this trope.
- Bad Girl Song: Depending on the version, "A Lotta Locomotion" has elements of this: except for Dinah, who establishes herself as a wholesome, hardworking waitress, the coaches characterize themselves in terms of the vices they enjoy. ("A Whole Lotta Locomotion", however, is a Chorus Girls song.)
- Beware the Nice Ones: C.B. again. Holy fuck, C.B. A cute little caboose with a Tenor Boy voice, whose costume and makeup seem designed to make him just look like a cheery little tin soldier, turns out to be a giddy Serial Killer who enjoys crashing the trains he's assigned to just for fun and has the only real, genuine Villain Song in the whole thing. Greaseball's a Jerkass, Electra's an arrogant diva, but neither of them is anywhere near as scary as C.B.
- Bi the Way: Electra, who has devoted groupies of both sexes and proclaims himself to be "AC/DC".
- Bowdlerise: The current version of the German translation removed many of the Double Entendres.
- In all twentieth-century versions of Starlight Express, Ashley carried a pack of cigarettes and frequently mimed smoking them. The second U.S. tour made her a smoking car In Name Only and heavily implied that she'd turned to promiscuous sex instead, which would be fine if it hadn't been presented in the sleaziest manner possible.
- The Broadway adaptation of the show rewrote "Belle the Sleeping Car" to emphasize Belle's career as a prostitute, which would ordinarily be the opposite of this trope... except that the Broadway version removed some drug references and greatly increased the comedic factor of the character, rather than portraying her as the resigned, despondent old woman she was in the London show. See this link to contrast the two.
- The 1992 London revamp excised the C.B., who provided the catalyst for most of the conflict in act two. Ironically, the rewritten reversal was more violent than before.
- Broken Aesop: According to the finale, electricity and diesel fuel will eventually run out, but somehow steam power is sustainable. What exactly are we burning to get this magical steam? Also (presumably) coal burning steam engines are better than environmentally friendly options like solar and nuclear power. This last one may be because it was written in the 1980's.
- In the closing number "Light at the End of the Tunnel", the characters do briefly consider solar and nuclear energy, but then dismiss them because 1) How is one supposed to make use of solar power at night? and 2) People would get poisoned by nuclear fallout. Oversimplifications, to be sure - but, then, this is a children's story.
- Richard Stilgoe, the show's lyricist, knew full well that steam engines polluted the environment; he claimed that it was far easier for audiences to sympathize with a steam locomotive than a diesel or electric one, since steamers had more of a historical precedent. But the finale, according to him, is meant to symbolize the triumph of "old-fashioned craftsmanship" over new technology. Take a moment to consider why a steam locomotive is not a suitable representative of "old-fashioned craftsmanship".
- Camp Gay: Purse, Electra's money truck, is usually played this way when he's given discernable characterization.
- Chorus Girls: In the U.K. and second U.S. tours, the coaches were essentially demoted to these roles. Pearl retained her heroine status as a matter of course, even though she still dressed as a showgirl.
- Control Freak: Control, naturally enough:
- Subverted once everyone shouts: "Shut it, control!!"
- Cool Train: Most of the characters.
- Costume Porn: Here is a prodigiously large directory of photographs of each character in costume. Go wild.
- Crapsack World: All productions contain aspects of this, but it was most obvious in the original London version (the comparatively more lighthearted London revamp turned the setting into a Crap Saccharine World, as did its Broadway predecessor). The dystopic nature of the setting is the subject of the Rockies'/Hip Hoppers' number "Right Place, Right Time".
- Crystal Dragon Jesus: The Starlight Express is basically the train version of God.
- Cult Classic: Despite Andrew Lloyd Webber's attempts to disown Starlight Express, it has attracted a small but extremely dedicated fanbase, many members of which dress up as the characters a la The Rocky Horror Picture Show, interact with the actors backstage, and travel throughout cities and overseas to attend as many productions as possible.
- Defrosting Ice Queen: Pearl, depending on how she's played. This might be a rather charitable assessment of the character.
- Depraved Homosexual: C.B., in some productions (and often in fan works).
- Double Entendre: Virtually half of the lyrics in the libretto are train-related sex puns (though the younger members of the audience probably won't understand them).
- The Eighties: No matter what decade it is currently, and no matter what decade you saw it in, this musical can't hide any of the aspects from this decade. And they still have the electronic drums and synthesizers from that period for each new performance.
- The Eleven O'Clock Number: "One Rock & Roll Too Many".
- Ensemble Darkhorse: A disproportionate amount of Starlight Express fan art and fan fiction centers on Electra's components, who are tertiary when compared to most of the cast.
- Fan Service with a Smile: Dinah's revamped costume borders on this.
- The Fifties: Greaseball's entire shtick is a combination of this and The Eighties (which, when the show first premiered, of course, was simply contemporary).
- Final Love Duet: "Only You" in the original London production, Las Vegas, and all the tours. "Next Time You Fall In Love" in the revamped London version.
- Four-Girl Ensemble: Ashley is the Cool Big Sis, Buffy is the closest to The Ladette, Dinah borders on The Ditz, and Pearl... well, when asked what she plans on doing, she responds "Whaddya think?"
- Funny Foreigner: While the international engines are all presented as being extremely representative of their countries, only Bobo the TGV crosses into this category.
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: So, so much.
- Good Bad Girl: Buffy. She dresses like an old-fashioned pin-up girl and, in the 1980s London and Broadway productions, quickly establishes her promiscuity, but she has a sweet personality and no one criticizes her for her behavior.
- Gossipy Hens: The coaches chat about Rusty's lack of racing experience immediately before breaking into "A Lotta Locomotion".
- Green Aesop: Appears pretty heavily averted from a modern standpoint, where audiences would expect an environmentally clean electric engine like Electra to be the hero.
- Hair of Gold: Dinah, though she was originally a brunette. That didn't last long.
- Heavy Meta: "Poppa's Blues" is a blues song about how a blues song is structured.
- Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Belle is implied to be one.
- Husky Russkie: Turnov, the Russian engine. Yes, there has been fan art of him informing the Rockies that he "must break you".
- Info Dump: The first third of the show is one giant Intro Dump, where each of the 20+ characters gets at least a verse to introduce themselves.
- "I Want" Song: Several, including portions of "Call Me Rusty", and of course "Starlight Express".
- I Was Quite a Looker: Belle. As she says in her song:
I had crystal lamps, Irish linen
- Jerk Jock: All the locomotives except for Rusty and Poppa exhibit this trope to some degree, with Greaseball being the most outrageous example.
- Karma Houdini: Pearl, if you tilt your head and squint. She's easily as big a Jerkass as Greaseball and Electra -- telling a sweet boy who loves her that he's not good enough for her, stealing her best friend's man and telling Dinah to quit crying over it, bragging that she's particularly shiny and new -- but rather than get her comeuppance for it, she's rewarded with a happy ending.
- C.B. is one in his Backstory, and in spite of crashing into Greaseball seems to still be one in the end.
- Love Martyr: Dinah.
- Love Redeems: Pearl's original second-act solo "Only He" had her resolve to change her wayward ways and learn faithfulness after Rusty rescued her.
- Magical Negro: Poppa sings blues and gospel, gives sage advice about self-worth, and breaks-down after his first race for Rusty to take his place. The role is usually, though not always, played by a black actor, since Lon Satton set something of a precedent in the original London cast. When not played by a black actor, the character is more similar to Santa Claus. See also here and here.
- And in some productions, the same actor plays the Starlight Express when it manifests to Rusty.
- Manly Gay: Some actors play Krupp this way.
- Massive Multiplayer Ensemble Number: Three songs did this: First, there was the opening of Act 2, in which all the engines prepared for the big final race in the championship. In the West End production and the recent US tour, it was called "The Rap", and was rewritten three times, basically because the first one didn't really sound like rap. The second one, written in 1992, sounded a little more like rap, but the early period. In 2003, a new rap was written which more accurately represented the genre. For the 1987-1989 Broadway version exclusively, a new song was added as kind of a continuation to the "Freight" coda, which had electricity, steam, and diesel fighting against each other in contrapuntal song, which then led to the big races which would then end with one train winning the "Silver Dollar" (rather than the Champion of the World). The other song that falls in this category is "The Hymn To Victory" which has been in every production since. This is another continuation of the aforementioned "Freight" Coda, with everyone raising their voices in an even louder, earth-shaking chorale, with a massive High C from Rusty. Here, this song is sung before the final heat, specially prepared on a downhill course. Rusty joined in the singing, even though he was disqualified from the final, so you can hear the Control's voice ordering for the Marshals to stop Rusty from entering the tracks, but it is too late.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: In the planning stages, Electra's name was Elton. When Jeffrey Daniels joined the project, the character was rewritten as a caricature of him.
- The Only One Allowed to Defeat You: The nature of the rivalry between Greaseball and Electra.
- Porn Stache: The actor who originated C.B. sported one, in keeping with his early "trucker" character design. Eventually, the character was redesigned into the aforementioned "tin soldier", which fit his voice type better.
- Praetorian Guard/Paid Harem: Electra's components: Joule the dynamite truck, Krupp the armaments truck, Purse the money truck, Wrench the repair truck, and Volta the freezer truck.
- Princesses Prefer Pink: Pearl, the "princess" of the rail yard, has pink tights, a pink dress, pink protective gear -- hell, in some productions she even has pink hair.
- Punny Name: Most of the characters.
- Psycho for Hire: C.B. is in theory one of these. He's actually completely evil -- when Greaseball reminds him to remember whose side he's on, C.B. just grins and says "I'm on mine."
- Psycho Lesbian: Wrench, according to most of the fandom. It doesn't help that in the German production, Wrench is considered so butch that her first understudy is a man.
- Sentient Vehicle
- Sissy Villain: Electra is Rusty's Sissy Rival, to contrast with the ultra-macho Greaseball.
- Slasher Smile: Oh, God, C.B. And how very.
- Smug Smiler: Greaseball's default pose, unless he's pouting.
- Something Blues: "Poppa's Blues".
- Spelling Song: "U.N.C.O.U.P.L.E.D.".
- Steam Never Dies:
Diesel is for unbelievers
—"Light at the End of the Tunnel"
- Stripperiffic: The carriages' costumes in the Las Vegas production, as well as the U.S., U.K., and New Zealand tours.
- It doesn't help that the US tour reused the Las Vegas costumes until they literally fell apart.
- Sung Through Musical
- This Is a Song: "Poppa's Blues".
- Those Two Girls: Ashley and Buffy.
- Totally Radical: The twenty-first-century version of "The Rap", which somehow sounds more characteristic of the 1980's than its 1980's predecessor.
- Underdogs Never Lose: Double Subverted in the original version, in which Rusty raced the second heat and lost it before breaking the rules to enter the final, which he won. Played straight in all other productions.
- Villainous Breakdown: Electra's eventually cut BSOD Song "No Comeback" is a spectacular example of this. In the original production, he came in second to Rusty in the final race -- no shame in that. But his pride was so mortified by the fact that everyone else was either too busy congratulating Rusty or making sure Greaseball was okay that he pitched a gigantic temper tantrum in which he nearly destroyed the rail yard, then went off to lick his wounds elsewhere with his components. By contrast, Greaseball learns his lesson and is allowed to join the heroes in their happy ending.
- Villain Song: C.B. detailed his murderous past in "C.B." in the original London production, which was edited into "Wide Smile, High Style" on Broadway and "Mein Spiel" in Bochum.
- Wrench Wench: Wrench. Obviously.
- You Are Better Than You Think You Are: This is essentially the crux of the "Starlight Sequence" ("I am the Starlight" in the original production), where the Starlight Express shows up to convince Rusty that he can win the race if he just believes in himself.
- You Gotta Have Blue Hair: Pearl's hair is sometimes pink. Volta's is aqua and white. Electra's is red, white, and blue; Joule's is white with red stripes, and fan art of Purse often portrays him with green and yellow hair.
- In the Bochum productions, her hair actually looks like purple is her natural colour, but she bleaches it out to pink.
- From the Wikipedia article.