The Anthropomorphic Costume Designs of John Napier for Cats and Starlight Express.
Starlight Express is set in the world of a child’s dream. He (or she, dependant on production) is playing with his toy trains before bed, and subsequently dreams a great race, the world championship. There are competitors from all over the world, each engine must race with a partner in the heats, the relationships formed by who races with who forming an essential part of the love lives of the engines and coaches. Little Rusty, the steam shunter, is in love with Pearl, a beautiful new first class Observation coach. If he were to win the race, surely he’d prove his worth to her. Greaseball, the reigning champion, is a diesel Union Pacific engine, partnered with Dinah, the Dining car who adores him. Greaseball’s only serious challenge is the new Electric Engine, Electra, newly arrived from “the future”. The full train set is represented, freight cars, passenger coaches, Electra’s personal entourage, the National engines representing their countries in the championship.
One of the most famous elements about “Starlight Express” is that it is performed entirely on rollerskates. This device means the performers have to learn to both skate-dance, and speed skate. Consequently the costume designs must allow the performers full movement, and protect them from injury in the case of an accident. The costumes must also tell the audience about the characters as the sung-through and action based nature of the show leaves little time to establish personalities. Another difficulty is representing the toy trains as anthropomorphic creatures. Trains bear little in common to the human figure, and costume must also express their individual function. This has led to most of the Starlight Express costumes having two separate types of semiotic imagery, partly representative of their “toy train” nature, and partly showing their function, for example Dinah is the Dining car, therefore she is based on a waitress’ uniform, as well as having aspects of the literal dining car about her. Starlight Express costumes often work on stereotypes as a form of symbolism, a shorthand for the character traits expressed onstage.
Rusty is our underdog hero. He’s deliberately unglamorous, small and as his name suggests, rust-covered. His costume consists of a traditional train engineer’s uniform – T shirt and dungarees, and a peaked cap worn in some scenes. Every detail of the pattern and colouring represents an element of the steam train. On his chest is the open boiler complete with burning coals. Illogically, his back pack which represents the steam engine’s coal tender, storage for use in the boiler, is also glowing with burning coals. His legs and arms have panels of rusted riveted metal. Also built into his costume are protective kneepads, elbow pads, and wrist guards, and for the race scenes he has a helmet, fashioned to resemble a steam engine, but built over a proper safety helmet. As seen in the photo above, on the back of each character’s belt are two loops, used for creating a train within the choreography and racing. The fact he is so scruffy and in poor condition tells the audience about his status within the hierarchy of the train set, that he is the bottom of the pile, the least powerful character, an underdog who gets pushed about by the diesels.
Dinah the Dining car is the girlfriend and race partner of the reigning champion. As a dining carriage she has elements of a 1950s Diner waitress about her, as well as the representation of a carriage. Her character is sweet, devoted to her abusive boyfriend, but easily swayed by the opinions of her friends. She is expected to go along with others’ plans for her without complaining, and she is heartbroken when Greaseball dumps her for daring to complain about his cheating. She was originally portrayed by Frances Ruffelle as brunette, but became blonde when the show transferred to Broadway and has remained blonde since. The stereotypical blonde image suits her, a sweet but silly girl.
Her costume bears definite signs of a waitress; her headdress generally resembles that of a waitress, although in recent years it has more resembled pleated napkins folded decoratively. Her blue check dress has the short full skirt and petticoat of a Diner waitress, with apron on top. Like Rusty, she has protective knee and elbow pads; however the girls do not have wrist guards or helmets in their costumes. The coaches all have shoulder boxes, these represent the ends of the carriage, with doors and windows. The banding on the upper arms of Buffy and Ashley relate to the original designs, where it is clear they represent the buffered sections between carriages. Dinah has coach windows running down the outside of her arms and legs. The pattern of her dress represents a tablecloth, and over her bust she has pleated napkins, features that refer to her being a dining car specifically, not details of a waitress but the restaurant itself. On her ankles, Dinah has springs that represent the suspension springs of the coach. These also have the practical effect of covering the top of the skate, making the feet decorative rather than showing the necessary skate laces.
Part of the freight train are the box cars, Rocky 1, 2, and 3. They are represented as break-dancing old-school rappers and boxers. A typical Richard Stilgoe pun in their name, as the box cars are boxers, and there are many of them, so the obvious name being Rocky after the Sylvester Stallone films “Rocky” (1976), “Rocky II” (1979), and “Rocky III” (1982). Their break-dancing spectacle is rooted in popular culture of skaters break-dancing at roller discos and in the public parks in New York and London, dating from the 1970s but which still goes on today.
The original London costumes were identical for all three Rockies bar the number in the centre of their belts, reflecting the multiple identical box cars seen in freight trains. Their costumes, as shown by Rob Grose above, include boxing references in their padded helmets, vest tops and boxer shorts. They also wore skates with exceptionally high lacing ankles which unlike most characters, remain uncovered and bear a definite resemblance to boxing boots. To an extent the Rockies were also cast with the physicality of the performers playing a major part in the costume, they required very fit, well muscled performers who would believably portray trained boxers. The demands of the break-dancing choreography made sure the performers maintained their physique.
As well as the Boxer references in the costume, there are descriptions of their nature as box cars. The boxing protective helmets have a metallic lustre and appear riveted together. They also have buffers on their chinstraps. They wear armbands and gauntlets decorated with various chains and loops, as if for connecting and securing cargo. Their boxer shorts are a patchwork of rivets and metal plates, suggesting many years of repairs. Their legs are whitewashed wooden panels, and across the top of their vests they are numbered with a serial number. Then on a practical level, they wear particularly heavy kneepads as their choreography is very demanding, as well as elbow pads and the heavy leather belt. While in the context of the Rockys’ costume the belt resembles a championship belt, every male character wears a heavy, decorated leather belt equipped with loops on the back, which are used to race and skate in a train.
Starlight Express transferred to Broadway in 1987, two years after the release of “Rocky IV” (1985), so a fourth Rocky was added to the freight train. In keeping with the concept of the Broadway show, the costumes were made bigger and brighter. No longer were they three identical performers relying on their own physique and performance for spectacle, now they wore huge box shoulders, a near-literal representation of the box car. They also were painted red, yellow, green and blue, with helmets still partly influenced by the boxing protection, but now square to further the “box” rather than the “boxer” image.
When the show transferred to Germany, using the Broadway costume designs, unfortunately Stilgoe’s pun of box/boxers was lost in translation. By 1991 the German production had returned to the original concept of three Rockies, possibly for safety reasons.
As part of the on-going producer’s intent of modernising the show, the US tour in 2003 saw the outdated Rockies replaced by ‘Hip Hoppers’, Hip Hop being supposed to be culturally relevant to the audience in a way that the Rocky movies and boxing no longer were. Also one could consider that on modern railways box cars have been replaced by container-carrying flat bed trucks, but hoppers delivering coal and aggregates are common freight. However Starlight Express is set in the dream world based on a toy train set, not real world railroads.
The introduction of ‘Hip Hoppers’ required the creation of new Starlight Express characters for the first time in nearly 20 years. The existing freight train already included a Hopper, Dustin the Big Hopper (illustrated below). His character is built around his large size and heavy weight, however the Hip Hoppers were still required to perform some break dancing moves. As seen above, the Hip Hoppers wear long, baggy tops and trousers, and medallions on heavy chains. These are all references to hip hop fashion. The signifiers of “train” are in the metallic riveted plate patterning of their trousers, graffiti patterning on the tops, and in their shoulder pieces which also suggest riveted plate metal, with small amounts of coal or stone on the shoulders. The initial costumes on the US tour included the necessary leather belt over the top, and headscarves. However when the characters were adopted into the German production in November 2006, the design was refined by hiding the belts under the tops, and creating baseball caps to go over the headscarves, which bear a resemblance to Dustin’s metallic helmet.
The timing of the introduction of these characters to the German production can only be seen as ironic, as they were introduced within months of the sixth Rocky film, “Rocky Balboa” (2006) which had a massive publicity campaign and brought the “Rocky” films back to the public conscience at the time the Rockies were removed from Starlight Express.
Starlight Express opened in 1984, a few years after the phenomenal success of Cats, and seen by many to be a form of a sequel. The production had a huge £2 million budget, but even this was stretched in realising the extravagant designs.
The original London designs showed imagination beyond the technology initially available to the makers. As the design and realisation above show, the spirit of the design was achieved, however significant details such as the patterning on the legs and the practicalities of the shoulder boxes were not carried across. Likewise across all the characters, many of the finer details were not practicable within the time, technology and budgetary restraints.
These decisions on construction also were affected by performance considerations. The bulk of the costume pieces such as the shoulder boxes and armour were made of their stiffened padded fabrics, or foam latex mouldings. These materials are relatively light and easy to move in, reducing the extra demands of performers already singing, dancing, and skating.
Starlight Express transferred to Broadway in 1987, three years after initially opening in London. The show was re-worked and re-designed and apart from the skates, altered in almost every respect from its parent. The costumes were re-designed by John Napier, built by Parsons-Meares in New York using very different construction methods. Now John Napier could have the boxes and mouldings his original designs had indicated. The Broadway costume designs won John Napier a Tony award in 1987.
The Broadway style costumes look much bigger and more mechanical than the London, which has a distinct disadvantage in being much heavier and more demanding on the performers, restricting arm movement by the shoulders being literally boxed in, and vastly increasing the weight of the armour. However these designs possibly carry more impact than the London designs as the human within the costume is less prominent.
Parsons-Meares went on to create the costumes for the next productions of Starlight Express, which meant that the Japan tour costumes were almost identical to the Broadway costumes. When the Broadway show closed after a respectable 18 month run, the properties (costumes, props, elements of set etc) were used for the US tour in 1989, and then taken to form the Las Vegas production in 1993. Starlight Express was the first legitimate musical theatre production in Las Vegas, and as such concessions were made in the production. The storyline was simplified further, the running length was reduced, and the four coaches were re-designed to fit better with the concept of Las Vegas showgirls.
The “showgirl” versions of the coaches give a very different reading to the audience from the preceding costume designs. The open fronted skirts, low necklines and “nude” toned legs describe the characters as having no modesty; their function is to be looked at and to entertain men. The signifiers relate, accurately, to the seedier history of Las Vegas shows where dancers performed topless. The “train” signifiers of coach windows on the legs are lost, reducing the reading of “train”, overwhelmed by the iconic reading of “half naked girl on skates”! This overt sexualisation of the principal female roles is jarring in a family orientated show. Describing the coaches as sexual objects degrades their involvement in the plot. However, the other female characters in the show, Electra’s components, are wild and provocative yet their costumes were not altered.
After the Las Vegas production closed in 1997, the properties were re-used for the second US tour in 2003, where the showgirl-style costumes were combined with a new song in the style of “Pussycat Dolls” and modern, provocative choreography. At the same time the show was marketed specifically for children rather than the usual general appeal. Unsurprisingly these mixed messages led to poor reviews and consequently poor attendance through Middle America. After a year touring the US, the production was brought to the UK, with the same Showgirl coaches costumes being used.