Trevor Nunn is the director of ``Starlight Express,'' the latest musical hit in Andrew Lloyd Webber's string of spectacular productions. These include, ``Nicholas Nickleby'' and ``Cats.'' Mr. Nunn has also directed numerous productions for the Royal Shakespeare Company. The following essay, excerpted from the theater program, focuses on the challenges of bringing an innovative production to the stage. I have a name for you. Several, in fact. I could call you the Punter, or the Man in the Street, or just Main Folks. Where I come from I know you mostly as Joe. Joe Public. It's not really surprising that the professional theater has always had a familiar name for the audience - if only to encourage the feeling that we know who we are playing to - but it's double think, of course. Newspapers constantly inform us of ``what the public wants'' when in fact they are describing what a handful of powerful magnates want the general public to want. And in the theater, we talk a good deal about what Joe Public wants when half the time we mean what we hope we can get you to accept. But what about the other half? Rave reviews never kept a show running if there was no demand at the box office, and in England, at least, a critical drubbing can't prevent a show's getting years of packed houses if Joe decides it's what he wants. Having been brought up on television, he takes for granted the highest standards of technical accomplishment in entertainment. Television provides him with a ceaseless flow of social-realistic drama, and so when Joe pays the high price of a theater ticket, he is looking for something completely different, something to stir his imagination.
I don't think a show can be successful if the creators are thinking only of the public appeal they want to make, but in these days of burgeoning production costs, it would be foolish to attempt anything ambitious without a strong sense of why a lot of people might want to make the effort to see it.
When I first heard the music of ``Starlight Express'' sung at Andrew Lloyd Webber's private festival at Sydmonton [England], I found myself thinking that what he and Richard Stilgoe had written was a work in this centuries-old tradition of popular entertainment - undemanding in content, novel in theme, inventive in composition, and full of opportunity for spectacle and theater magic. ``Starlight Express'' has about the same level of intellectual difficulty as operas by Handel, masques by Ben Jonson, or follies by Ziegfeld.
Mr. Lloyd Webber doesn't set plays to music. He needs ``a musical'' to be first and foremost a collection of theatrical ideas that have no particular form or meaning until they are given musical expression. He insists that the musical is a separate genre, and so his collaborators are encouraged to find new methods of presentation, in design, dance, light, and sound. We are all concerned, in a phrase, with the pursuit of total theater, with all the elements coalescing in an experience that is involving, and above all, live - like a sporting event.
The problem I had been handed was how to make people portray railway trains. I don't know exactly what led me to the solution of roller skates (I can introduce you to a lot of people who wish I had been led almost anywhere else). But it wasn't until the story of our show was changed to include the idea of trains and coaches racing that we had the vital ingredients of competition, speed, and danger. From then on I knew ``Starlight Express'' would be like no other show before. I should have realized we would encounter problems along the way, which would be suitably unique. All we had to find at auditions were 30 young people who could act, sing, and dance while roller skating. We saw a ceaseless procession of people lurching out of control, heading straight for our table or at the pianist, unable to stop until they had become a crumpled heap on the floor. The first time we saw somebody skating with style and skill, we hugged each other. Then he opened his mouth. He was tone deaf. Painfully slowly over hundreds of hours, a cast for a workshop experiment of ``Starlight'' was chosen, and more painfully, more slowly for the next five weeks, Arlene Philips and I made a rough staging of about half the material. What took us so long?
Staging a play allows a fair degree of freedom, but musical staging must be utterly disciplined and accurate; each artist is required to be on precisely the right square inch of stage at precisely the right count in the music. With our artists on roller skates, we felt absurdly lucky if someone was in the right half of the stage in the right half of the number. Most of the company had spirit-crushing difficulty in skating in a restricted space and with the necessary dexterity. Even the ones who were doing well could be felled without warning by a flailing colleague.
EVER has a theater company come from so many diverse backgrounds and levels of experience; and never has a company been required to possess such a formidable degree of courage. They always found it, in themselves, and more important, in each other.
The work was rigorous, draining, and elusive. It's harder to sing on skates than with your feet on terra firma, harder to get your feet to remember steps, harder to listen, harder to feel. And yet each time we finally mastered a section, however small, the exhilaration was contagious. It was only the results that made the anguish of getting them worthwhile.
We left the rehearsal room an accomplished group, able to run through the show with zest and confidence. That was on a flat floor. We arrived in the theater and, thrilled as we were to be finally inhabiting our environment, we had to start training all over again. The gradients of the set defeated just about everybody to begin with, and the company had to dig in and master a whole new set of skills of balance and tenacity.
Which leads me to formulate a Parkinson's law of the theater. The better we master a skill to the point where there is no longer any evidence of difficulty, the less the public is impressed.
Here we have performers dancing complicated choreography, counting bars, listening for beats, singing multiple harmonies, watching a televised conductor without appearing to, using the intricacies of radio microphone technique, wearing bulky, oddly weighted costume and headgear, at high speeds on treacherous ball-bearinged wheels that at the slightest imbalance will bring the performers crashing to the floor. And what do they do? They make it look easy. Their professionalism dictates that they must disguise difficulty. So clenched teeth, grimaces, looks of pain, frustration, intense concentration, and most of all fear must all be banished. And in that act of disguise, they attempt to convert skill into art. I am in awe of these people.
There was a time when to be in a show meant you were either a singer or a dancer. That world is no longer with us. Musicals have demanded for many years that performers are all-rounders, and the demands get more extreme as each year goes by. Perhaps next year will see a show on pogo sticks, or trampolines, or under water - of course the pursuit of novelty can become absurd, and is not to be confused with originality.
But the theater, particularly the musical theater, will always be trying to do what hasn't been done before, because of an unshakable belief that it's what Joe Public wants. What do you mean, you think an underwater musical sounds like a great idea....
WITHOUT the discovery of electricity the production of ``Starlight Express'' might have been a controlled bonfire. But as a child of electricity, nothing possible in the realm of light, movement, color, and sound has been spared from the production.
This Broadway ``musical'' by Andrew Lloyd Webber is a huge, pounding spectacle in which the actors personify speeding trains. On roller skates. On three stage levels that move and glitter. Plus singing. Plus wearing costumes weighing from 30 to 60 pounds. ``Sometimes I can't believe people are paying me to do this,'' says Reva Rice, who plays Pearl, the starring female role.
Although the energy level required of her and the other actors is in the 20 volt category, Reva loves the experience of rolling through eight shows a week. The role of Pearl is her Broadway debut. The fact that her childhood in Toledo, Ohio, and Boston was filled with roller skating was simply unknown preparation for the role. ``Skating is like walking to me,'' she says. ``I even skate on my days off.''
Reva is a graduate of the Boston Conservatory of Music, where she studied dance and piano. Before ``Starlight Express'' she sang and danced in productions for Walt Disney World in Florida.
Home Forum editor David Holmstrom watched Reva skate and sing through a performance at the Gershwin Theatre a few weeks ago and later spoke with her on the phone.
Andrew Lloyd Webber has had much popular success with his productions (``Jesus Christ Superstar,'' ``Cats,'' ``Evita,'' ``Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat''), yet he is criticized because his work is long on spectacle and short on traditional elements of theater. Is the criticism justified?
As a performer I know that not many actors can do what we do in this play - sing, dance, and race on roller skates. So, from that standpoint it's a new kind of performing for actors. I think Mr. [Lloyd] Webber has carried his productions to a high level of technology. He's changing with the times. He's embellishing the sense of drama. It was probably inevitable that this would happen in musical theater.
All the roles in Starlight are so strenuous, yet you and the other performers make it look so easy.
The better we get the easier it looks. You have to reach the point where skating is your last worry, as if you are walking or running. Because the sets move during the show, our timing is so important and we sometimes race too fast and have to slow down to allow the Kong bridge to finish moving. The challenge is to keep the show fresh because so much happens all the time. Sometimes we get notes from the director critiquing our performance and telling us we were a little late at one point or another, or to go slower in some part of the racing. The hardest part for me is when I sing the two solos. There is no one else or anything else on the stage to cover up a mistake, and it's an overwhelming set for a small person to be standing there alone.
What are some of the special considerations you face as a performer in such an unusual role?
Well, for one thing I have two pairs of skates. I use one pair and the other pair is always in the shop for maintenance. There is a lot of wear on the stops at the front of the skates. My costume can weigh about 30 pounds which is one of the lighter ones. Some of the men's costumes weigh as much as 60 pounds because they have to resemble train engines. When we rehearsed for the show we wore lots of pads and practiced at a slow pace until we had all the moves down; then we went to the theatre and learned how to handle all the racing on the different levels. It was incredible at first, but then we became old pros at jumping gaps if we were ahead of the time when the bridge swung around and connected with another part of the set. Now we just jump the gap no matter what it is - two inches or a foot.
You've been skating in the show for almost a year. Is it difficult to keep yourself motivated night after night?
Pay day is every Thursday [laughter.] Seriously, I try to make some little improvement in every performance. Once you get started you get into the flow of it and try to keep the performance polished and clean. The cast is close because we rely on each other so much, and that helps to keep it interesting. The audiences are always different. Tuesday and Saturday nights are skeptical Broadway crowds, and the afternoon audience is full of girls who scream all the time at Greaseball [a character in the play.] But I love to skate, so it's still fun for me. I'll probably do it for another year and then go on to something else. I know one thing: my endurance level will be at an all-time high. Also the experience is definitely strengthening my voice. I never thought there would be a Broadway show on roller skates, but I think that anytime you work hard at something and invest a lot of time in it, something will come along that gives you an opportunity to use those skills.