Choreographer Arlene Phillips recounts the origins of the Starlight Express

ACTORS pretending to be singing trains, falling in love and racing each in spectacular 3D. The premise of Starlight Express, which steams onto the Playhouse stage next week, is so bizarre that you have to wonder how the original idea was dreamed up. Even Thomas the Tank Engine didn’t sing.

One person who knows is choreographer extraordinaire and one-time Strictly Come Dancing judge Arlene Phillips.

“Starlight Express all began in Christmas 1979 by me telling Andrew Lloyd Webber a story about me being pregnant and learning to roller skate in California.

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“Jump forward to 1982 and Andrew called. ‘Do you remember telling me a story about learning to roller skate?’ he said. I really had to think. Then he asked, ‘Do you roller skate?’ I said ‘Yes, I do...’ and that was when he asked me to choreograph Starlight Express.”

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It was a life-changing moment for Phillips, but it would be another two years before the show would premiere on London’s West End.

It would prove a ground-breaking production with characters racing each on skates around ramps that encircled the auditorium.

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“When Starlight Express premiered, it was the age of the mega-musicals. Cats had just happened and musicals were the things you had to see. So, we felt secure about ripping a theatre out completely to build a set in it. Nowadays, no show feels that safe because even shows that get five-star reviews don’t always last. There is no longer that security.”

Recreating that for 2012, when finances and health and safety rules are so much stricter, has proved an enjoyable challenge reflects Phillips. “It’s very different. We’re no longer able to have the ramps, so now what we have is thrust stage [which extends into the audience on three sides] with all of the racing done on 3D film - the audience put on their ‘safety goggles’ which is all built into the storytelling.

“What is quite extraordinary is that when you’re sitting in the audience the skaters appear to be in the auditorium... if you watch you see people rearing back as Greaseball jumps through a glass screen and into the audience.”

It’s not just the added 3D that makes the current production different. Songs have been added and characters rewritten.

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“I haven’t felt the buzz and excitement that I feel for this version since the huge arena show we did in Japan - that was a real thrill. To reinvent it for 2012, to create new arrangements, new songs with Andrew, working on the 3D film, working with the company and realising that from 1984 to 2012 attitudes have changed so we’ve had to reinvent the characters, being able to rework the style and the language of the show has made this one of the most exciting things I’ve done in a long, long time.”

Get those ‘safety goggles’ ready for full steam ahead. Toot toot!

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Starlight Express, Edinburgh Playhouse, Greenside Place, Tuesday-July 14, 7.30pm (matinees 2.30pm), £19.50-£39.50,