Earlier this month, one of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s most successful musicals reached a significant milestone: Starlight Express celebrated 35 years in Bochum, Germany.
During those 35 years more than 839 artists from 36 countries have performed well over 12,000 performances of Starlight Express in Bochum. Back in 2010 Starlight Express earned the title of the “most successful musical worldwide at one location” from the Guinness World Records with more than 13 million viewers. The musical has now been seen by well over 17 million viewers. And it is still running, with tickets currently on sale as far as December 31st this year.
It’s hard to appreciate the success of this musical unless you’ve actually seen the production in Bochum. I didn’t see Starlight Express when it toured Australia in 1987-1988. I remember the production played in large arenas and at the time I was newly married, short on cash and it really didn’t inspire me, despite the fact Starlight Express had been nominated for a Tony Award for Best Musical in 1987. But after hearing of the record-breaking success of the Bochum production, and with a trip to Germany being planned in 2019, I decided to add a detour to Bochum to our travel itinerary.
Ask any Australian of towns they think of when visiting Germany and I’m very confident Bochum is not likely to be high on the list – if at all. So let’s start with a quick introduction to the city of Bochum (pronounced Bock-hum). Bochum is a large city with a population of over 372,000, in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Bochum is in the heart of an industrial region between the cities of Essen and Dortmund, with a significant mining history. Basically, Bochum is not really on the tourist radar. It’s not even on the way to a more touristy, well known town. Hamburg is Germany’s “theatre capital” but that’s 350km to the north-east.
Over 17 million people have seen Starlight Express in Bochum, and needless to say a huge proportion of those people only came to Bochum for the show. The tourist income pouring into Bochum from Starlight Express is huge and the economic impact on the town cannot be underestimated. For 35 years people have been coming to Bochum just to see a musical with people on roller-skates dressed up as trains. 35 years!!!
But why is Starlight Express so successful here in Bochum?
In June of 1988, The Starlight Express Theater opened in Bochum; purpose-built to accommodate the German production of Starlight Express. The theatre is located about 2.2km north of the city centre and serviced by buses and light rail from the main train station. The theatre is also immediately adjacent to an arterial road that connects to the A43, one of Germany’s infamous Autobahns. It’s easily accessible, although not close to any more familiar tourist destinations. Bochum is about 2.5 hours by high speed ICE trains from Frankfurt or 3 hours by car (that may depend on your speed on the Autobahn, but the recommended speed is 130km/hr). Bochum is even further from the better known tourist cities of Berlin and Munich.
A large multi-level car park sits to the left of the theatre, providing ample parking for visitors. At the front of the forecourt is an old train that serves at the ticket office.
We booked an overnight stay at the Hotel H+ which is literally next door to the theatre (you can see it in the background of the video below). In fact, we could see the theatre from our room. Upon arrival at the hotel we were immediately asked if we were seeing the show that evening, and were recommended to book a table for a pre-show dinner and post-show drinks now, before they booked out. We’d arrived with plenty of time to spare and as the performance time drew closer we watched as a line of bus coaches rolled into the car park, and the huge forecourt of the theatre filled with people. Meanwhile, we could see performers warming up outside the back of the theatre on their rollerskates.
The purpose-built theatre is what makes this Starlight Express experience so unique. The action takes place on a large stage and on “tracks” that circle the theatre. An alarm sounds and gates are closed – basically like boomgates at a level crossing – to ensure everyone’s safety and effectively locking everyone in. Each time it happens a sense of excitement builds that the “trains” are about to come whizzing past! A huge bridge hangs above the stage and descends at various angles through the show, for the skaters to navigate up or down. Several of the cast are stunt skaters and perform some spectacular skating tricks. Add in an impressive lighting design, Tony Award winning costume design, and plenty of pyrotechnics and it all makes for an incredible visual feast. That simple story about trains is now a musical theatre spectacular.
Since opening in Bochum in 1988, the show has undergone numerous revisions, with a significant reworking and upgrading of the theatre in 2018. The show is now at its best, in a theatre that allows it to be performed at its best.
The whole musical is performed in German language, expect for a few words and phrases, such as “Starlight Express”. I don’t understand any German, but the story is simple and easy to follow. The musical score was nominated for a Tony for Best Original Score and hearing this performed live, with a superb cast of performers is worth the visit even if you can’t understand all the lyrics.
While most of the story takes place on the centre stage, there’s plenty of action happening on the tracks that circle the theatre across multiple levels. Seating in the theatre is priced in six categories. The best seats in the house are close to the front of the stage and swivel a full 360 degrees – allowing those audience members to easily turn and follow the action happening behind and around them. The theatre is uniquely designed to accommodate the show and it creates a sense of intimacy that would be impossible in an arena production.
Our seats were at the back of the “Parkett” section and at the very end of the aisle – which put us very close to the action. Despite being the “cheap seats” they turned out to be great. We had an unobstructed view of the stage and during the finale, we had performers high-fiving us as they skated past.
There’s not many rows of seats between each section of “track” and the skating action takes place on all levels at various times. No doubt you’d get a slightly different experience wherever you sat.
The show ends with a Megamix and audience members are invited to take out their “handy” (the German word for mobile phone) and record the it. The Megamix runs for about 7 or 8 minutes and there are skaters whizzing around in all directions. A quick search on YouTube for ‘Starlight Express Megamix’ and you’ll find lots of uploaded videos.
The final musical refrain of the show is “There’s a Light at the End of the Tunnel”; slowly building to an emotional crescendo to close the show. It ends the experience on a high and it’s impossible not to leave that theatre with a huge smile. Four years later, watching my pretty average quality video recording of the Megamix from my visit still makes me smile.