From BLOC to Bochum by Matt Ramplin
Updated: Nov 30, 2020
Dear BLOC members - Liebe Grüße aus Deutschland!
I was delighted to be asked if I'd be interested in writing something for Bailiwick about my post-BLOC experience in the theatre industry. I first worked with BLOC in 2012 as conductor for Thanks for the Memories and again a few years later as Musical Director of Sunset Boulevard.
Right now (and for the last four years!), I've been plying my trade as Musical Director of the long-running German version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Starlight Express. Since I've been mostly working in the same job since Sunset in 2015, I thought it might be fun to give you a little insider insight into the show here in Germany.
In 1987, after watching the West End production of Starlight Express, a group of German producers decided to use the money they'd made producing Cats in Hamburg to purpose build an arena theatre in an ex-mining town called Bochum between Dortmund & Essen in north-west Germany. This was an unfathomable risk on behalf of the original production company that by modern commercial theatre standards is UNTHINKABLE! Starlight had seen large-scale success in London at the time and had been running for the best part of four years, however there was still no way for them to know if the show would be successful or not in Germany. Given that the average lifespan of a large-scale commercial musical is between 300-500 performances, looking back, they must have firmly believed that Starlight was going to become a huge hit.
Well it turns out they were right. Almost 33 years, 12,290 performances and nearly 19 million visitors later, Starlight Express in Bochum is still playing to full houses and amazing audiences eight times a week. Starlight Germany actually holds the Guinness world record for the most visitors ever to watch a single musical in the same theatre as well as the auspicious honour of being the World's fourth longest-running musical behind Les Miserables (West-End), Phantom (West-End) and Phantom (Broadway).
The reason for its continued success in Germany? I'm often asked how it's kept going all these years. The show has had extended production runs elsewhere in the world - in London: 18 years (1984-2002), in Las Vegas: four years (1993-1997), Broadway: two years (1987-1989) and various UK, US & international tours, but these have all been respectively eclipsed by the German production. Why exactly? Well, simply put, the show here is unique.
At Starlight, it's not only the actors that are the stars of the show, so is the theatre and set. It really is a feat of engineering that must be seen to be believed. For those of you that remember the old Apollo Victoria set from the West-End production, the Bochum set was designed from the same plans but had none of the limitations of having to fit around pre-existing theatre infrastructure. In fact, the building was constructed around the set after it had been built! And thus, with what we can do on our stage, we like to think we're able to offer a little more than your average musical! Not only do you get a full sung-through musical, but also fully staged live races (no 3D projected films - for those of you who saw the last UK tour!), actors whizzing past your head at speeds of up to 40 km/h as well as some of the world's best in-line stunt skaters performing stunts less than a metre away from you!
The show also has a broad appeal never fails to resonate with people of all ages. Along with his darker, more mature shows like Phantom, Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar, ALW is responsible for some of our best and most loved "introductory shows" for younger audiences such as Starlight, Joseph & Cats. Ask yourselves, how many of you were taken to, or indeed took your children to see one of those shows as their first ever musical? For me, the first musical I ever saw was Joseph at the Bristol Hippodrome, followed shortly by a trip to London to see Starlight Express. These shows are important and will always be. As our taste in music matures, it becomes easy to poke holes and make fun of shows like Starlight but without them, how can musical theatre expect to engage with younger audiences?
Lastly and most importantly, throughout Starlight's 36-year lifespan, it has been constantly reinvented. Just visit the show's Wikipedia article for a brief look at how much the show has changed over the years! ALW firmly believes that the musical success of the show is linked to its ability to change and reflect ever-changing musical trends. For that reason, he tends to revisit the show every five years or so to make tweaks or changes to the score that he feels keep it "up to date". I was lucky enough to be working as part of the team in 2018 when Andrew decided to do just that and revamp the show for the German 30th Anniversary.
Working in the music department alongside Andrew was a once in a lifetime experience. Even into his 70s, he has retained a sharpness and vision that borders on genius at times. Watching him sitting at the piano composing or trying to find a solution to a musical problem is truly inspiring and his passion and love for his shows is always plain to see. Conducting the opening night of the new Starlight Express in June 2018 with Andrew, Trevor Nunn, Richard Stilgoe & John Napier (designer) in the audience was a real honour and one that I'll never forget. Closely followed by the new revamped Starlight winning the "Best Musical" award at the German equivalent of the Olivier Awards in 2019!
Outside of those special moments at Starlight, there's rarely a dull day! We usually have an international cast made up of performers from the UK, USA, Germany, Austria, Australia, Holland, France & Sweden to name but a few. When they arrive, most of the actors have little to no experience on roller skates and varying levels of ability with the German language. They have from February to June to perfect these skills to a professional level and they must all be tested and "cleared" by our in-house team before they can perform in the show. Their training usually begins with eight weeks of intensive skate school, Monday-Saturday from 9am-6pm. On their one day off a week, we expect them to be practising their German phonetics in preparation for their lessons with our in-house German language department. All of this, before they even start learning any of the music, blocking or choreography for the show! If you ever have a chance to speak to an actor who's been through the training for Starlight Express Germany it's likely that they'll tell you it's the hardest thing they've ever done in their career! On average, one out of every ten performers does not to make it through the training here and as intense as this may sound, it is of the utmost importance, for their own safety that we prepare our performers properly for the challenges of the show. Alongside performing a sung-through musical in German, they are expected to skate anywhere between 5-10km eight times a week and four times on weekends.
As I'm sure you can imagine, with this intense performance and training regime we are sometimes forced to navigate short and long-term injuries as well as rest periods, off shows and annual leave. To combat this, Starlight is again unique within the theatre world - in addition to the 24 onstage cast members we have 16 offstage swings! These swings all understudy/cover multiple roles within the show, (some up to 12 or 13!) and are expected to learn all the different choreography, harmony lines and positioning for each individual role. Most shows will have two (sometimes three in special circumstances) understudies/covers for each principal role, we have five (sometimes six) and they almost always end up onstage at some point!!! You may find this difficult to believe but I've been working at Starlight for four and a half years now, I've conducted/played over 1,000 shows and not once have I ever had a show with the entire 1st cast line-up onstage (including the 30th anniversary opening night!). As crazy as that may sound, that's simply part of Starlight Express!
Starlight is one of a kind and truth be told, that's the main reason I've stayed for as long as I have. Every day has a different set of challenges to navigate, problems to solve and stories that few will believe. I've often tried to tell colleagues of mine working on other shows in the industry about the things that happen at Starlight and most of the time they tell me it sounds mad. But that's Starlight. It's unique onstage so it stands to reason that it should be unique offstage!!!
Sadly, as with all live theatre at the moment, we've been hit hard by the Coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe and have been forced to close our doors. All things being well though, our production company has scheduled a restart for April 2021 and we remain hopeful that not just Starlight but the entire theatre industry and most importantly for you all, BLOC will return stronger and better than ever in the new year. Until then, wear a mask, wash your hands and stay healthy!