The Weird Bits That Made Me: Starlight Express

Welcome To: The Weird Bits That Made Me, an expoloration of the idiosyncratic or obscure pop culture that I was into as a kid. I lived a strange suburban existence, with relatively young and somewhat hip parents and there were some real gems in the offbeat cultural stuff they exposed us to as kids. It hought it would be fun to once a week explore some of that.

It’s kind of incredible how many of the things I love exist because an idiosyncratic creator was not allowed to adapt the work they really wanted. George Lucas made Star Wars because he was denied the rights to Flash Gordon, Alan Moore wrote Watchmen as a response to being denied control over the Charlton family of characters, Lucas again, with Steven Spielberg made Raiders Of The Lost Arc after being told that they were, under no circumstances going to allow Americans to make a James Bond movie. Guillermo Del Toro wrote Crimson Peak after Disney kept delaying his Haunted Mansion script. (I do still mourn for that one, I love Crimson Peak but I WANT THAT DEL TORO HM MOVIE!)

Starlight Express exists because Andrew Lloyd Webber really, really wanted to write a Thomas The Tank Engine musical. (Yes really) The powers that be that owned Thomas and his buddies flatly turned him down, so he made an even weirder choice and wrote a new story about sentient trains, their love lives (yes really), the deity they pray to (I think?), and some twenty years later, a family of Americans got cheap tickets to a London revival of the show while on vacation, and the rest is odd familial inside joke history.

I’m going to do my best to sum up the plot of Starlight Express, but I make no guarantees. It’s been years since I saw it, and also, it does not make a lot of sense. So, Starlight Express is the elaborate imaginings of “Control” a child who is playing with toy trains, and who’s squawking annoying voice narrates elements of the show. It’s the big train race week or whatever, and a bunch of international stereotype trains are getting ready to race. The reigning champion is the American Diesel Locomotive, Greaseball, who fulfills that very important Webber role of “guy who sings like Elvis.” On the sideline are Passenger cars, who are female coded, and want to hook up with the male coded engines. These include Pearl, an observation car, who is into, but embarassed by Rusty, an old steam engine, and Greaseball’s car of choice, Dinah, a dining car. (There are two others, but I don’t remember them) There are also some freight cars who act as Rusty’s buddies.

Rusty enters the race with Pearl, and also an electric train, Electra, shows up. Greaseball is threatened by Electra, and also Pearl ditches rusty for Electra. Rusty goes for advice to an EVEN OLDER steam engine, Papa, who tells Rusty to trust in the Starlight Express, a legendary God like train who rides the rails at night. After the first round of races, Papa dies, and Rusty, Electra and Greaseball and The British Train, I think? are in the finals. Electra ditches Pearl, who then goes to Greaseball for reasons? And then there’s another race, Rusty and Pearl get together, and Rusty wins in the end, YAY! They all sing a big gospel number to celebrate and then a Megamix to take their bows.

Also they’ve been on roller skates, the whole time. There are also lasers, so many lasers.

I saw this show when I was 10 and I was enamored of it. I loved it so much, you guys, and my siblings loved and my parents probably liked it fine, but completely indulged our love of it. I still like it better than Cats. (I am alone in this one, my siblings do not like it better than Cats.) It’s lower tier in Webber’s work for sure. (The high tier being Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Phantom Of The Opera, Evita and School Of Rock.) But there’s some strong stuff here that’s worth talking about.

The title track, “Starlight Express” is a really beautiful lullaby by way of power pop ballad. Greaseball’s intro solo, “Pumping Iron” is a super fun 50’s pastiche, and the regret duet from Greaseball and Electra “One Rock And Roll Too Many” will always make me smile and I can imagine being the kind of song performers love tackling. I’ll also always have a soft spot for the straight up Weird Al level parody of Dinah’s act 2 lament, “U.N.C.O.U.P.L.E.D” which is the kind of country breakup song everyone should appreciate even without knowing Tammy Wynette’s brilliant, “D.I.V.O.R.C.E.D” but you should also listen to that song because it rules. Pearl’s ballads, “He’ll Whistle At Me,” and “Make Up My Heart” are serviceable but not up to snuff with Webber’s better female lead songs, and the Act 2 Duet, “Next Time You Fall In Love,” is a sweet reunion for our leads.

Nearly all of the character songs do their work, but often feel like soft runners up to similar songs from Joseph, or *sigh* Cats. (It is interesting that the one unmitigated favorite from Cats that I have is “Skimbleshanks The Railway Cat” which is about trains.)

Overall this is a straight nostalgia pick for me. I know it’s not particularly good by any critical measure, but it is immensely popular in Europe, ran for a while in Vegas, and toured in the States for a bit. Some of these songs really hit the sweet spot for me, and the out and out bonkers level of the production and story are a lot of fun. Also, I think this was the beginning of me just loving highest level musical theater, no matter who crappy the show I’m seeing is. My weird attachment to The Pirate Queen and Rocky The Musical are the fruit of this seed.

Also, I will always give credit to my friend Ali, who once noted, “It is not strange that Webber wrote Starlight Express. He’s a weird dude. It is utterly bizarre that men in suits somewhere gave him money to mount it.”

I for one am so grateful that they did.

Magical Movies Tour: Frozen 2

I have so much to say about Frozen 2, that I started, stopped and restarted, reworked and rethought what I wanted to say with this essay.

Did I want to talk about this movie is really, super gay? Did I want to talk about Kristoff as a model of positive masculinity? (“My love is not fragile” is incredible) Did I want to talk about Queen Anna? Or Olaf modeling working through an existential crisis for the children? Colonialism? There’s so much! It’s a movie that’s packed full of stuff.

I couldn’t pick so instead here’s what I have to say. Frozen 2 is very good. The animation is cool and great. The story is fantastic. The songs are very good. Idina Menzel, good singer. Jonathan Groff, also good singer. Kristen Bell and Josh Gad, do less singing this time around, but they also good. Sterling K. Brown is around too. He’s great. There’s not really a villain which is good because Hans might be the weakest part of Frozen.

I love the idea of Anna and Elsa as a bridge between the people of Arrendell and the indigneous Northaldra. It’s a nice piece of symmetry. I really love the set piece in the glacier that goes along with my favorite song in the movie, “Show Yourself.” I sob each and everytime I watch it.

It’s really a surprise that I’m having trouble wrapping up, as I am TERRIBLE at endings. And this brings us to the end of the road here. I have watched ALL of the Walt Disney Animation Studios films.

It was a very fun project that I’m glad I did. I learned a lot and found some new favorites. (Bambi, Lady And The Tramp, Treasure Planet!) But now it’s time for something completely different! I considered plowing forward with animation and going into Pixar, and I still might, but I need a break from that kind of world and maybe to feel a little more grown up. And So! Starting next Monday, I will be watching all of the James Bond movies! I think it’s going to be really fun. I’ll also be checking in with more of The Weird Bits That Made Me, and of course on October 30, it’s the exciting return of Fangirl Loves Star Wars with The Mandolorian Season 2. (Ahsoka Lives! #WheresEzra? BABY YODA RETURNS!) After that, The 007 Project will move to Wednesdays. We cool? Great!

Thanks for coming along on the magical movie tour, this was an exciting thing for me. It made me miss Disney less. (I HAVE MY TRIP IN MARCH BOOKED AND I AM SO AFRAID)

Magical Movies Tour: Moana

I love Moana. I love Moana so much. Trying to decide what to focus on for this essay is almost impossible, but I’ve decided very specifically to focus on how Moana, the character in the movie Moana, goes perfectly on every step of “The Hero’s Journey”

Shall we?

The Call To Adventure

From the time she’s a literal baby, The Ocean is calling on Moana to venture out and save her people, she drops the Heart of Tafiti into her tiny baby lap. Of course we must first establish her normal life, as the chief’s daughter she’s learning to lead the tribe. It’s going very well.

Refusal Of The Call

Moana spends her whole life resisting this urge to go out onto the ocean and leave her home behind. She has responsibilities and also her father really hates the ocean. BUT, her island is in trouble and she goes into a cave and has a vision of her people’s history as voyagers and realizes what she needs to do.

Supernatural Aid

The Ocean itself finally sends Moana on her way, as does the spirit of her Grandmother, who passes away right as Moana realizes her true calling.

Passing The Threshold Of Adventure

I mean, she LITERALLY HAS TO GET PAST A REEF SURROUNDING HER ISLAND TO BEGIN HER QUEST. (To find Maui and replace the heart of Tafiti) Also, when she meets Maui and convinces him to join her

Belly Of The Whale

Moana fight the Kakamora, realizing that this journey will be perilous and not as easy as she thought.

The Road Of Trials

This is largely the battle with Tomatoa, but also the journey across the ocean, where Maui teaches her to sail, and regains his powers of shapeshifting with his hook. This is also when Maui and Moana fail at their first attempt to get the heart to Tafiti, blocked by the demon TaKa.

The Meeting With The Goddess/Atonement With The Father/Abyss/Apotheosis

After Maui flees in their failure, Moana communes with her ancestors, especially her grandmother and realizes that she is a hero and she needs to finish her quest. (I weep, and weep like a tiny baby.)

Here the hero is supposed to have a greater realization about themselves and their quest, here, Moana know at last, who she is and what she wants.

The Final Boon

Moana restores the heart! She wins! Also, she realizes that trauma is not the defining portion of a person’s life and soul, when she returns the heart and it is revealed that Taka is the heartless Tafiti.

The Master Of Two Worlds/The Freedom To Live

Upon returning to her people, Moana teaches them to voyage once again, and takes her place as the next chief. Also, Maui returns to his place as a great hero.

I left a few categories and steps that didn’t apply, but otherwise, it’s a pretty straightforward telling and I love it so much. Frozen II also fits pretty well, but we’re mostly going to be talking about feminism and matrilineal lines of power when we get there.

Next time, I do my best to finish a movie that I feel asleep watching on planes like 4 times, Ralph Breaks The Internet

Magical Movies Tour: Tangled

I fell in love with Tangled before I saw it.

I was watching the Oscars and Mandy Moore and Zachary Levi were performing, “I See The Light,” and I gasped. The song was wonderful, and so touchingly and lightly performed by these two actors.

Then I watched the movie, and I fell head over heels for it. I loved Rapunzel’s characterization, I loved Donna Murphy’s brilliant voice performance as Mother Gothel, and my god, Levi has never been better than he was as Flynn Ryder.

This was also the return of Alan Menken to the Disney fold, working this time with , and it’s some fine work, some of my favorite that’s not with Howard Ashman. I mentioned, “I See The Light,” but “When Will My Life Begin” is such a wonderful bit of ingenue introduction, and I mentioned Donna Murphy, yeah? “Mother Knows Best” is perfection in a villain song. It’s so full of gaslighting and abuse, and the melody is bouncy and menacing and I love it so much.

The other thing that Tangled has going for it, is that it is funny. It’s really, and honestly a great road trip comedy with fairy tale trappings, aided by Moore and Levi and of course the animators making Rapunzel and Flynn so very loveable and fun to follow.

I also love Rapunzel’s chameleon buddy Pascal, and Maximus a palace horse who acts like a bloodhound for some reason. I’ve never been sure why, but it’s a delightful gag.

Next time we’re back to that Silly Old Bear, and check out Winnie The Pooh. 

Magical Movies Tour: The Princess And The Frog

Isn’t it nice when the stars align and an important movie is also a good one?

The Princess And The Frog earns the first distinction, “important,” by being the last hand drawn animated feature from Walt Disney Animation and for it’s black, working class leading lady. Tiana is a waitress for New Orleans, who after being raised by a bus driver and seamstress, has worked her whole life to open her own restaurant.

She crosses paths with Prince Naveen who is transformed by the wicked Dr. Faccillier into a frog and then because they didn’t follow the rules explicitly (Tiana is not a princess) she turns into a frog rather than him turning back into a man.

It’s, more than a little convoluted when you write it out, but presented visually, Tiana and Naveen’s journey through 1920’s Louisiana is a delightful rom-com, opposites attract romp, punctuated by super fun character designs, and some catchy tunes by Randy Newman.

I really love this movie, and every time I watch it I’m only more enamored. There’s some stuff that I think could have used another pass. (There’s no real connection between Tiana and Dr. Facillier, for example, this feels like an odd error.) And as I get older and more interested in social justice narratives in popular culture, I am in awe of the decisions made with this film. Tiana is in complete control of her destiny from minute one, but this doesn’t prevent conflict or growth. There’s a variety of black faces and bodies on display, the music, that slow New Orleans style jazz is so much fun.

I’m generally on board with The Princess And The Frog getting more attention whenever possible, and am thus super excited for the upcoming retheme of Splash Mountain to a Princess And The Frog ride. I think it’s a brilliant decision that also means we’re going to get Louis Audio Animatronic, which I think fits into Imagineering’s sweet spot perfectly. Also, replacing an attraction based around something super racist, with something based around a strong and exciting Black female protagonist sends the right message.

Next time we continue down the path of magical princesses ,and see the light with Tangled. 

 

Bittersweet And Strange: Howard Shines a Bright Light on The Voice Of My Childhood

It is absolutely impossible to calculate the depth of Howard Ashman’s influence on me, and countless other people like me, who fell in love with musicals as a medium because of his work with Disney.

The new documentary on Disney+, directed by Don Hahn, who produced Beauty And The Beast is of a piece with Hahn’s equally wonderful, Waking Sleeping Beauty, chronicles Ashman’s life, from his working class Baltimore roots, to his tragic death from complications from AIDS in 1991.

The movie deals with his early work and relationships sensitively before settling into his life long partnerships, creatively with Alan Menken and his life partner Bill Pausch, both of whom tell some of the most touching stories about him.

What I like so much about Hahn’s approach here, and why I think it surpasses Waking Sleeping Beauty (which I happen to really like a lot) is that here Hahn doesn’t have an axe to grind. He wants to share his friends life and work, especially his work, with people. And the work so often speaks for itself.

Old footage of Ellen Greene singing “Somewhere That’s Green,” or Jodi Benson recording “Part Of Your World,” or an incredible demo of Ashman singing “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” or the joyous look on Jerry Orbach’s face as he listens back to “Be Our Guest” for the first time, this man wrote such wonderful, perfect, musical theater songs. There are no talking heads, narration is provided by Hahn himself, or by stories told over old photographs, which makes it much more intimate. Occasionally an old interview with Ashman will pop up, and listening to him talk about his work is transfixing.

Thinking about AIDS is something I do, and have done A LOT, in my life. I was too young for the most dangerous time of this disease, but I live in the New York area and love art, so pretty much every bit of the art I love was shaped by the disease, by the generation of men who were lost.

Watch this one with tissues, y’all. It’s going to break your heart. And be prepared for one final punch in the gut over the credits.

Magical Movies Tour: Hercules

*Contented Sigh* I love Hercules.

In the course of this project I’ve been compelled to get my butt off the couch and dance a total of five times, “Bear Necessities,” “Why Should I Worry?”, “Streets Of Gold,” and then, “Zero to Hero,” and “A Star Is Born.” Which I think says something. Hercules is, as the kids say, a BOP. This movie SLAPS. It is so much fun, just oodles and oodles of fun.

It doesn’t hurt the cause that it is an adaptation of Greek myth, a genre I am inordinately fond of. (Have you heard the gospel of our lord and savior, Rick Riordan? How about Lore Olympus? Wanna talk about Lore Olympus?) To be fair Disney’s Hercules is a loose adaptation of the greatest hero Greece has ever known. (Or, “My jerkiest brother” as Jason Grace calls him.) (Oh no, I gave myself a sad) It’s still a really fun ride.

It’s incredible watching this after watching Pocahontas and Hunchback, because I really do like it so much more. Perhaps it’s because it’s less self serious? Because it uses a different music style? I like that it leans into being a cartoon quite a bit. Hercules’s strength is used for physical comedy as much as it is for incredible action set pieces. (And that fight against the Hydra is really cool.) I also like the voice performances. James Woods is an unrepentant dick head but he’s perfect as Hades and Danny DeVito slays as Phil. Tate Donovan is completely winning as Herc, and Susan Egan creates a GODDAMNED ICON with Megara.

There are few songs in the world that have implanted themselves as much in my brain as “I Won’t Say I’m In Love.” It’s a wonderful song and so much fun at karaoke. (If you’re wondering I usually take the Muses part and someone else takes Meg.)  (That someone else is often Kristi.) (I miss karaoke)

I don’t have more words to spill here but I just had a blast watching this movie again.

Next week, we’ll bring honor to our families by watching Mulan. 

Magical Movie Tours: The Hunchback Of Notre Dame

I’ve never read Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame De Paris from which all the adaptations of The Hunchback of Notre Dame stem. I always figured if I was going to muddle through thousands of pages about Paris architecture and Hugo’s penchant for excruciating detail and bloated casts it should be for the story that I’ve been obsessed with since I was a child.

Which is why I’ve read Les Miserables like 4 ish times (sometimes I start and get frustrated, other times I just skip to the good stuff, but I’ve read the whole thing front to back 3 times), but I’ve never bothered with Notre Dame.

When The Hunchback Of Notre Dame came out I was a little too old for being fully into Disney and not quite the Broadway musical obsessed teenager I would become. It was firmly in my preteen attempts at being a normal person. I regret those years mightily. (This instinct would rear it’s ugly head and lead to misery my sophomore year of college as well). So it just hasn’t imprinted on me the way it has a lot of other people. The music though, once I did become that Broadway musical obsessed teenager, did work it’s way into my heart. “The Bells Of Notre Dame,” and “Out There,” and “God Help The Outcasts” are just absolutely stunning works of musical theater music. It’s some of Alan Menken’s strongest work, all dreamy strings and triumphant horns, and Steven Schwartz’s lyrics are deep and strong and moving.

The art is once again incredible, capturing a time and place so mythic and golden that it shines with God’s love, and yet corrupted and foul with hypocrisy and obsession.

Speaking of “obsession,” having not read the novel, I assume if Frollo is at all faithful Hugo had a bug up his butt about hypocritical sticklers, huh? “Hellfire” is a terrifying song (even if it’s a little bit stolen from Sweeny Todd, Alan and Steve? I see you.) and his determination to burn Paris to “cleanse his own sin” is horrible and really cool.

I get why people love this movie, I really do, I see it. I just, don’t love it. It’s not in my heart, I appreciate it tremendously and love things that it’s given us. (Seriously, that music, just heavenly.) (There was also a time when wandering around Epcot that Mary and I tripped over Esmerelda and she taught us a dance and it was easily one of my favorite character interactions ever, I think I was 12?)

Next we get into the movie from this era that did get into my heart, and that’s Hercules. 

Magical Movies Tour: The Lion King

My brother Mike and I have this weird game we play, where we try to explain the arc of any artist’s (or in the case of Disney Animation, a large group of artists) work into the same frame as Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen is our monomyth, our artist hero with a thousand faces, and the thing is, his career does fit a good arc for most.

So, if we’re talking Springsteen, Oliver And Company is Greetings From Asbury Park, the first gasp of breath, the promise of something beautiful and special. The Little Mermaid is The Wild, The Innocent And The E Street Shuffle, the formula is there for the first time, the people who are paying attention know that there is something special here, but it isn’t getting the attention it deserves yet, Beauty And The Beast is Born To Run, the breakthrough to the mainstream, something beautiful, unique, special and once in a lifetime. Aladdin is Darkness On The Edge Of Town something different and yet of a piece, and The Lion King is The River, a monumental and untouchable piece of pop art that stands on it’s own beyond what came before. The Rescuers: Down Under is The Promise, the weird not an album of songs Bruce recorded in this time but the record company wouldn’t let him put out that are all really good. And after that, things went downhill for a little bit and picked up again in a decade. (Pocahontas to Meet The Robinsons is Nebraska to Lucky Town, The Princess And The Frog is The Rising. We’ve put a LOT of thought into this.)

I love The Lion King, I love the movie, I love the Broadway musical and I never got around to the new version, but I’m sure I’ll love that too whenever I watch it. I actually burst into tears during the opening on this viewing, which was new. (I hadn’t even been drinking much, I was on my first glass of wine) There’s also a lot of affection for the Elton John songs, and again that fabulous voice cast. (Jeremy Irons! Nathan Lane! Whoopi Goldberg! Matthew Broderick! James Earl Jones! Moira Kelly, although to be fair, when Nala is scolding Simba I can now only hear, “I raised you to be a better man than this Luke!”) And the English major in me loves all the Shakespeare. Sure, it has the bones of Hamlet, but Simba himself has much more in common with Prince Hal of the Henry cycle than the Melancholy Dane, which makes for a much more triumphant story.

I love The Lion King so much that instead of pressing on the night that I watched it (which was the same day I watched Beauty And The Beast and Aladdin) I called out to Alexa to play the Broadway cast album. (Part of why I didn’t rush out to the remake was because they’d gone for new songs instead of giving me Beyonce and Donald Glover versions of “Shadowland” and “Endless Night” or just bypassing it entirely with a  John Oliver version  of “The Morning Report”)

Next year we start to climb down the mountain of great to the just good with Pocahontas.

 

Magical Movies Tour: Aladdin

Aladdin is almost as good as it’s predecessor, and has a few things really pushing for it to be better, but it doesn’t quite cohere in the same way. Likely this is because of the lack of Howard Ashman’s guiding hand. He worked on it early but his AIDS diagnosis and the progression of the disease stopped him from taking the real hand he wanted in it. (Aladdin was his dream project)

It’s still very good. The animation is lovely, the songs are great and frankly, as much as I love the balanced ensemble cast of Beauty And The Beast, the shining beacon of Robin Williams as The Genie is very, very hard to resist.

It’s an exceptional performance, a magic never again replicated by Disney Animation. (Danny DeVito in Hercules and Eddie Murphy in Mulan are the only ones even playing the same game and they’re not in the same league.) The way the animation is tailored to William’s outsized performance style, and ability to touch your heart is exceptional work, and the performance it’s self introduced an entire generation to this master performer and what he did.

It also has what I rank as the number two best Act II duet ever written in “A Whole New World.” (The number one is another Ashman And Menken classic, a little ditty called, “Suddenly Seymour.”) There’s something magical about the song, your typical Disney love song being about the thrill of the first date but “A Whole New World” is about the second date, about that feeling that you’ve gotten past the pleasantries, and something magical is about to happen.

I found myself more entranced than I thought I would be watching it again. It’s the one from this era I go back to the least. (It’s Mike’s favorite, so we watched it a lot as kids. Little Mermaid was mine and Oliver was Mary’s. It might be the only time I was more normal than my siblings) But I was absolutely thrilled to be watching it again.

I want to talk a little about Jasmine. The first Disney Princess Of Color is a more interesting character than I think people give her credit for. All of the previous princesses were beautiful but none of them seem conscious of that beauty’s power like Jasmine (actually none since are either.) Jasmine knows who she is, as a princess and a beautiful woman she has certain privileges and she uses them. She’s imperious and insistent on her due, she uses Aladdin (while he’s posing as Ali)’s & Jaffar’s lust against them. She’s actually pretty fascinating. There’s something a little problematic about the fact that she’s the first non white female lead in a Disney film and half her character is using her sexuality but that doesn’t make it less interesting in a vacuum.

Next week we feel the love for The Lion King.