Arlene Phillips has choreographed some of the biggest film and theatre dance routines in the past 30 years – from Annie and Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life to Flashdance, Grease, We Will Rock You and Saturday Night Fever.
But she admits Starlight Express will always be very close to her heart.
“It was my first big musical,” she says. “It was in the era of the mega-musical.
“[Composer] Andrew Lloyd Webber, [director] Trevor Nunn and [designer] John Napier were all going into it trying to do something that had never been done before. It was the most extraordinary experience and something I will never forget.”
Performed entirely on rollerskates, Starlight Express is the story of a child’s train set come to life. Rival engines race against each other to see which is the best.
Along the way the audience meets the thuggish diesel engine Greaseball, the high-tech electric train Electra, and the tale’s hero Rusty, the often overlooked steam engine, plus their supporting coaches and freight trucks.
Phillips was involved from the first workshops in 1982 as the show’s choreographer.
For this 2012 tour, she is not only choreographing the dancing but also resuming the role of director she first took on in 2006.
Her involvement with the show began with an anecdote she once told the show’s composer, Lloyd Webber.
“In 1979 I was working on a film called Can’t Stop The Music,” she says, referring to the cult Village People pseudo-documentary. “There was a skating number in it, so I learned to roller-skate while I was pregnant.
“When I told this silly story to Andrew, he remembered it.”
A few months later the call to do Starlight Express came through.
“I was determined that whatever one could do on their feet as a dancer, one could do it on skates,” says Phillips.
“It’s not quite true but you can do a lot, and there’s a lot you can do on skates that you couldn’t possibly do on your feet.”
Phillips may have been able to skate but that wasn’t always the case with the actors they tried to cast for the initial 1984 West End spectacular.
She recalls some of the more embarrassing auditions, where actors were clearly taking to heart the age-old agent’s advice to “say yes to everything”.
“People would come in and stand at the door on their skates,” she remembers. “They would be talking to us standing in the doorway, telling us about themselves.
“Then they would come rolling forward and crash straight into our desk having said they could skate!”
She admits casting wasn’t easy.
“When we first started working on it we weren’t convinced it would ever happen,” she laughs. “Anyone working on an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical has to be able to sing – not just sing, but really sing.
“Then we were asking them to be able to dance and act – and do it all on roller-skates.
“We would get wonderful performers who were triple threats – could sing, dance and act – but make them put on a pair of roller-skates and they couldn’t do it.
“We also got incredible skaters who could do the most extraordinary things but couldn’t count a bar of music, and couldn’t understand what I was doing when I counted.
“They could fly over dustbins and spin like tops but they started when they wanted and stopped when they wanted!”
The solution was two months of intense training where everyone learned the new skills they didn’t currently possess.
Even now the actors on this tour had a month to lock the show down – which is long in theatre terms but, as Phillips admits, is not really long at all.
“Before we start a rehearsal the actors spend 20 minutes skating around, forwards, backwards and speed skating, while singing at the same time,” says Phillips. “It builds up their stamina – you need an incredible amount of stamina to do the show.”
Another challenge comes in the elaborate costumes.
“The original costumes were extremely heavy,” says Phillips. “They are not light now but they have found ways to make the costume without that extreme heaviness.”
When Starlight Express finally made it to London’s Apollo Victoria Theatre in 1984 it was a blockbuster success, running for more than 7,000 performances before finally closing in 2002.
Napier’s set included a race track that went all over the auditorium, even to the upper circle.
The experience was recreated in Germany when in 1988 a specially-designed theatre was built. The Starlighthalle in Bochum has hosted Starlight Express non-stop ever since to more than 13 million people.
Despite its massive success, with such an infrastructure it looked like Starlight Express was a show that could never be toured – until it returned to Las Vegas for a second run.
“We had originally done a large-scale performance in Las Vegas which ran for eight to ten years,” says Phillips. “They wanted a smaller version and Jack Napier came up with the idea of taking the races and turning them into a 3D movie.”
This is the version that first went on tour in 2006 with Phillips at the helm.
The audience is encouraged to don their “safety goggles” to watch Greaseball, Poppa, Electra and Rusty battle it out on the big screen.
“It’s great to watch the audience reacting as the skaters come towards them,” says Phillips. “They rear back in their seats – it’s a lot of fun!
“One of the things I’ve noticed about Starlight Express is the audience participation – they are often cheering on the engines they like.”
Despite being nearly 30 years old, Starlight Express has been revamped and reworked with every tour and incarnation.
This tour includes a brand new song, I Do, penned by Lloyd Webber’s son Alistair, and a general update of the music to keep it contemporary.
“When Andrew first wrote Starlight Express in 1984, it was ultimately a pop musical,” says Phillips. “There are certain rock and roll and blues numbers in the show that never change, but there are elements of the show which are supposed to relate to today’s music.
“Even some of the songs people know and love have been updated.”
One song which has actually gone backwards is AC/DC.
“That song had been changed a couple of times over the years but it’s now gone back to its original version,” says Phillips. “That sound is now back in fashion!”
Similarly Phillips’s choreography is always progressing and changing, as she says the show lends itself to it.
“If you’re doing a hip-hop number, the genre changes over time,” she says. “There are new creations, new steps, new inventions, and I’m always very keen to keep it relevant.
“I don’t think you ever start from a blank slate with Starlight Express. There are things you don’t change, such as the opening number Rolling Stock – that remains solid. There are moments in there that people love and don’t want to go.
“People from all over the world come to see Starlight Express who want to live the experience again.
“We are fortunate in that it is one of those shows people get attached to and want to be a part of.”
Starlight Express is at the Brighton Centre, King’s Road, Brighton from Wednesday, January 2, to Saturday, January 12. Shows start at 7.30pm (except Sun 6 and Sat 12), with 2pm matinees from Thurs 3 to Sat 5, Weds 9 and Sat 12, tickets from £24.50/£14.50. Call 0844 8471515
Starlight Express is also at the Congress Theatre, in Carlisle Road, Eastbourne, from Tuesday, February 26, to Saturday, March 9. Shows run Monday to Saturday at 7.30pm, with 2.30pm matinees on Thursday and Saturday. Tickets from £16.50. Call 01323 412000.