Distant events gleam brighter when seen through the lens of memory, so they say. In writing of a play watched 18 years ago, I may be guilty of over-enthusiasm but for me, Starlight Express, a school production directed by Aamir Raza Hussain, is still the most spectacular play ever.
The play was based on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock musical, a sort of cross between Toy Story and Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (Starlight Express,1984, predates both). Starlight Express is the quintessential underdog tale set in the world of toy trains: Rusty, the steam train, is ridiculed for being not fast enough by the "villains" – Greaseball, the posturing diesel locomotive and Electra, the slick new electric train. Starlight Express is the midnight train, a metaphor for God, that the other trains trust and look up to (while some question its existence). The play culminates in a high-energy, beautifully orchestrated race between the trains.
The lyrics and dialogues, not to mention the choice of character names, are remarkable for their wordplay. The dining car is a lady called Dinah, Electra’s armaments truck is called Krupp. The "lady" coaches notice Rusty as he "whistles" as them. The Smoking Car is Ashley, and her lament is:
I’ve tried to kick the habit but my inside’s used to tar
I know if I don’t give up I might choke or have a stroke
That scares me, and when I’m scared, boy I need a smoke.
The USP of Starlight Express was that it was performed entirely on roller-skates. The cast moved about and raced and danced on them. My most striking recollection is of a meandering track extending from the stage, built across the seating area. We wouldn’t just watch the cast in front of us but all about us; the race happened on the track cutting through the audience.
The songs were beautiful and were retained from the original. The singers, too, were all from school. YouTube links to a couple of the originals: Starlight Express, the title song in which Rusty calls upon the magical locomotive for help, and the very catchy number A Lotta Locomotion.
Rehearsals had happened for several months before the play was staged, with special focus on training for roller-skating. (Students of the Xth and XIIth classes, in deference to the Boards, were forbidden from participating)
The play was performed for three days at the Siri Fort Auditorium, New Delhi, in August 1992 (more on the DPS RK Puram website). It ran to packed houses and received rave press reviews. I wish I could link to the reviews but none of the newspaper archives go back to 1992. There used to be a monthly video news magazine called Newstrack in that pre-24x7News era. They had featured this play with interviews of the cast/crew and "Making Of" insights. (I looked for the video online – other than this page no luck there either.)
The finesse with which my schoolmates performed this play far surpasses many professional productions I see today. DPS RKP’s Starlight Express of 1992, with its energy and colours and non-stop action, was a stunner in every sense.