Starlight Express the Musical Wiki

Sir Richard Henry Simpson Stilgoe OBE DL (born 28 March 1943) is a British songwriter, lyricist and musician.

Starlight Express - 1984

It was in 1976 that Andrew first wrote some songs for a cartoon film based on the Rev. Awdry's book. This was cancelled (Frozen points near Swindon). The 1977 TV Special in which American trains reenacted the Cinderella story also failed to arrive (Signal failure at Watford).

So Andrew left trains in a siding for a while and concentrated on Cats (reasoning that is Mousetraps did so well in the West End, Cats should do even better). In early 1981, I was offered a piece of cheese - the chance to doctor the opening number of Cats. And once Cats was put out for the night, Andrew showed me the Cinderella story, and talked to me of trains. After some delays (leaves on the line near East Croydon) Starlight Express was performed at the Sydmonton Festival in Summer 1982. In the audience was Trevor Nunn. The relief guard had arrived! Trevor agreed to direct it (though it was by neither Shakespeare nor T.S. Eliot).

Spring 1983 and we took the Starlight Express to workshop to test the idea. The new idea was wheels. All of our trains, Cinderella long forgotten - now were booted and skated. Almost exactly a year after the last workshop performance Starlight Express arrived at the Apollo Victoria.

All these railway endeavours have had one thing in common - steam. People feel drawn to steam now they're no longer drawn by it. It may be easier to imagine a face and a heartbeat on a steam engine. But anyone who has ever breathed out on a frosty day has pretended, for a moment, to be a steam train. A kettle that can pull 16 carriages must have something special.

Starlight Express - 1987

Which is the most exciting single moment in the production of a musical? The first night? The first read-through with the cast? The point where the producer announces that all the money has been raised? (Well, virtually all, but we have every confidence that by the end of the month....)

It is none of these. The most exciting single moment (for the creative team at any rate) is the production of the souvenir brochure. Partly because it indicates a glossy confidence in the success of the project, but mainly because it is our first chance to find out what we think the show is about. The composer writes a piece, the director writes a rather longer piece, and the lyricist writes a piece. (And if this piece doesn't appear in the finished programme, it's because the lyricist wrote it rather late.) If experience is anything to go by, their three views of the show's core are very different.

As far as I know, Andrew thinks Starlight Express is Cinderella for trains, and ought to have been done on a smaller scale. Trevor thinks it's the Olympic games for trains, and ought to have been done on a bigger scale. For what it's worth, the lyricist thinks it's about the oldest fight in the world. Good versus Evil. A little fellow is bullied by two big fellows, but because he has faith he turn out to be bigger than both of them.

Electric trains are boring. Often clean and quick, and sometimes on time, but boring and self-important. There's bully number one. Diesel trains are noisy and oily and smelly and unsmiling. There's bully number two. Steam trains, on the other hand, are good. A little grimy from honest oil, perhaps, but somehow radiating goodness and life. There are many possible reasons why we feel this - nostalgia, the pioneering history of the steamer cleaving its way West, the human pulse of the engine, the ease of imagining a face on the front. Steam power is elemental - venerable coal from the earth combines with air, fire and water to produce shimmering heat that vanishes magically in a white cloud. Somehow we feel affection and awe for the steam train. Somehow we imbue steam trains with feelings - they care whether we reach our destination; they sing when happy and drop hot tears when sad. Our little steam train knows there are forces more mighty than him, and he's humble enough to draw on those forces to make himself stronger. His struggle is our struggle.

That's what Starlight Express is about. If you still have a child's approach to life, you will have known that already. I just hope the explanation makes it easier for scholars of the future. Otherwise they'll just have to sift through the eight crates of re-writes I have hidden in a warehouse somewhere in Manhattan. - Richard Stilgoe


Personal life

Stilgoe was born in Camberley, Surrey on 28 March 1943. He was brought up in Liverpool, where as lead singer of a group calling itself 'Tony Snow and the Blizzards' he performed at the Cavern Club. He was educated at Monkton Combe School in Somerset and at Clare College, Cambridge where he was a member of the Cambridge University Footlights.

His son Joe Stilgoe is an accomplished jazz pianist and vocalist, performing in the musical-comedy review The Horne Section.

Music career

In 1966 Stilgoe played the role of Benjamin in the West End musical Jorrocks. He made his name on the BBC television teatime programme Nationwide, followed by Esther Rantzen's That's Life!, a light-hearted consumer affairs programme for which he wrote comic songs satirising various minor domestic misfortunes, often to the tune of "Oh! Mr Porter". One of these songs was a satire on certain 'officials' who have, in the name of the song, Statutory Right of Entry to your Home; with Stilgoe simultaneously playing and singing, in a barber-shop style, all parts himself using trick photography. His ability to write a song from almost any source material and at prodigious speed is part of his cabaret act, which includes such diverse gems as singing the instructions from a Swedish payphone; a pastiche of the King's Singers listing all the kings and queens of England in which he sings all four parts; and composing a song in the interval from a series of words and musical notes called out by the audience. He has also written and presented numerous BBC radio programmes, including Hamburger Weekend, Used Notes, Stilgoe's Around, Maestro and Richard Stilgoe's Traffic Jam Show on BBC Radio 4.

Well known for his wordplay, Stilgoe is a fan of anagrams and has appeared over two hundred times on the daytime TV quiz show Countdown. He once proudly announced on TV that an anagram of his name is Giscard O'Hitler. Stilgoe also hosted quiz shows, including The Year in Question on Radio 4, Finders Keepers (1981–1985), and Scoop (1981–1982). Stilgoe also wrote a famous 45-minute poem, "Who Pays the Piper?", which humorously outlines the history of music from Pan to the modern day, interspersed with famous classical music with humorously re-written lyrics. He also appeared on satirical BBC TV show of the 1980s entitled A Kick Up The Eighties'.

As well as being a comic, Stilgoe is a musician, writing lyrics for Andrew Lloyd Webber's Starlight Express and collaborating with Charles Hart on the lyrics to The Phantom of the Opera and writing two musicals for schools, Bodywork and Brilliant the Dinosaur. Stilgoe gave away all his royalties for his work as lyricist on Starlight Express to a village in India. Such was the musical's success that for some years these donations were exceeding £500 a day. He has appeared on the Royal Variety Performance and presented the Schools Proms for over 20 years, and has toured extensively both solo and with Peter Skellern.

In a BBC radio interview he revealed that he was the current owner of the late Winifred Atwell's "other" piano, the one which she used for her famous honky-tonk performances and recordings.

In 1980 he wrote two Christmas themed songs, "Christmas Bells" and "Imitation Myrrh", which he sang with Broom Leys Junior School Choir, from Coalville in North West Leicestershire. The songs were released as a single vinyl record at Christmas throughout the county of Leicestershire to raise money for the Leicestershire Arts and Music Association (LAMA) and reached Number 1 throughout the county. These two, along with various other Christmas pieces of his composition, also appeared in The Truth about Christmas – or Gold, Frankenstein and Merv – a one-off television programme in 1984, performed again by both Stilgoe and children from the Broom Leys Junior School Choir.

Other work

He founded the Orpheus Trust in 1998, based in a previous family home in Godstone, Surrey, offering performing arts experiences to young people with various disabilities; he also started the Stilgoe Family Concerts series at the Royal Festival Hall, which feature young performers and regular commissions of new music.

He is Patron of independent charity the Surrey Care Trust based in Milford, which carries out life-changing work across the county providing education, training, skills and volunteering opportunities to those who need motivation or a second chance in life. The charity also runs a Crisis Grants Fund to help those facing hardship in towns and villages throughout Surrey.

He was High Sheriff of Surrey in 1998–99,  and is currently a Deputy Lieutenant. He has a great interest in the sport of cricket, being appointed President of Surrey County Cricket Club in 2005. He has also been President of the Lord's Taverners.


Stilgoe has two Tony nominations, three Monte Carlo Prizes, a Prix Italia, an honorary doctorate and an OBE to his name. He is well known for his love of architecture (both building it and demolishing it) - having designed and built his own house more than once - and owns his own mechanical digger.

He was knighted in the 2012 Birthday Honours for charitable services through the Alchemy Foundation.

External links