the tragic story of the original Starlight Express

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1984 train musical Starlight Express has arrived back in London steaming and, according to the Telegraph’s Chief Theater Critic, Dominic Cavendish, “out of this world”. The show’s creators are also delighted, but there is a bittersweet element to seeing new performers take on these familiar roles, notes lyricist Richard Stilgoe, since one of Starlight’s talented original cast, the glamorous actress Stephanie Lawrence, we are on the road to stardom much too soon.

Lawrence played Pearl: a first-class observation car, an ambitious entrant in the show’s big race, and the dream girl of the steam engine Rusty. It was one of many leading roles in her stellar career, alongside Eva Perón in Lloyd Webber’s Evita, Mrs Johnstone in Blood Brothers, and Marilyn Monroe in a musical about the Hollywood star. But, like Monroe, Lawrence died very young: just 50 years old, after long bouts of depression and addiction, with the cause of death given as “alcoholic liver disease” on her death certificate.

Stilgoe still sees his trail on the Starlight Express. “There’s something about creating a role, especially one in a show that’s been going on for 40 years,” he says. “Stephanie was the first and there will always be something for her in Pearl.”

That early musician had to take a leap of faith, Stilgoe admits. “It’s a very strange thing to ask someone: pretend to be a nice first-class carriage, sing and roller skate, and encourage the audience to care what happens to you. Stephanie was great about that. She had this combination of strength and vulnerability, and she found independence, even though Pearl relies on these big bullying engines to pull her down [in the race]. They gave her a pretty pink dress with a ponytail – she looked like My Little Pony – but she overcame it.”

They fired Lawrence early in the process, he recalls. “Andrew already knew her. It helps if you can come into a listening room with Evita in your back pocket. And she was a proper old-school companion.”

Stephanie Lawrence in bed in her Fulham home

Stephanie Lawrence in bed at her Fulham home – Steve Back/Daily Mail/Shutterstock

In fact, Lawrence was born into a theatrical family in 1949, and grew up on Hayling Island in Hampshire. Her father George was a bandleader and her mother Gladys ran a children’s dance company, the Kent Babes. Lawrence attended the School of Arts Education in Tring, where her first love was ballet. She joined the Royal Festival Ballet, but had to take a year out due to pneumonia at the age of 15.

She switched tack and made her West End debut in 1971 in Peter Nichols’s Forget-Me-Not Lane, in which she played an outrageously sexual fantasy, Miss 1940, who did tap-dancing and roller-skating.

However, it was the Argentinian diva who put Lawrence on the map. In 1981 she took over from Marti Webb as Eva Perón in Evita, a role that benefited from her invaluable gifts: her powerful voice, her dramatic intelligence, and her fierce determination.

In 1983 she starred as Marilyn Monroe in Jacques Wilson’s Mort Garson and Marilyn! The Music. The show was not well received, but reviewers felt that Lawrence was its saving grace. Peter Hepple of The Stage said that her “extraordinarily spirited performance” established her “as an international leading lady.”

Princess Diana at Starlight Express with Stephanie Lawrence, December 1984Princess Diana at Starlight Express with Stephanie Lawrence, December 1984

Princess Diana at Starlight Express by Stephanie Lawrence, December 1984 – Trinity Mirror/ Mirrorpix/Alamy Stock Photo

This meant that she entered Starlight Express as one of the recognizable names, compared to newcomers such as 18-year-old Frances Ruffelle, who played Dinah (and went on to play the Éponine original in Les Misérables). “I was in awe of her,” Ruffelle recalls. “I was with all the other girls and she was the star of the dressing room – she was very much a separate entity.”

Stilgoe was delighted with how Lawrence enriched his work. “There are a lot of performers who were on stage at school and came out with confidence and brass. That’s fine – but you need a voice that gives you the moonlight. Stephanie went into the heart of a number. She really sang it so you felt everything with her. People who can do that are very rare and special.”

Lawrence was also extremely professional, says Ruffelle. “She was on every night, and she never had a bad show.” Stilgoe agrees: “She set the example for everyone else. Show business is a funny thing: you often have to put your own vulnerabilities into a character, but that doesn’t affect your job.”

Although she wasn’t aware of Lawrence’s issues at the time, looking back Ruffelle says she was “probably going through a lot. I thought she was not a happy person, even though she was so talented and beautiful. It’s interesting how we can look at someone on stage and think they’re amazing, and not realize what’s going on in their private life. They call it ‘The Doctor’s Theatre’: you go out there and channel your emotions into the part.”

Stephanie Lawrence leads the first ever London Roller Marathon in Battersea Park, 1981Stephanie Lawrence leads the first ever London Roller Marathon in Battersea Park, 1981

Stephanie Lawrence leads London’s first ever Roller Marathon in Battersea Park, 1981 – David Crump/ANL/Shutterstock

Ruffelle regrets that at such a young age, she “didn’t have the ability to recognize Stephanie’s struggle – I didn’t ask any questions. Back then we didn’t talk about mental health. When I heard later that she had died, it was just heartbreaking.”

Ruffelle saw some physical problems with Lawrence during Starlight: “She was picking up and losing big differences all year long. I now wonder if alcohol was involved. And sometimes she seemed quite low. But nobody realized how serious it was.”

In 1990 Lawrence played Mrs Johnstone – a desperate working-class mother who gives up one of her twins – in Willy Russell’s stirring musical Blood Brothers, and she was nominated for a Tony when she reprized the role on Broadway. Frank Rich of the New York Times compared Lawrence’s voice to Elaine Paige’s husky voice, and Andrew Gans of Playbill raved when she collapsed on stage “in a sea of ​​tears” during the climax.

Lawrence spoke of having a personal connection to the show, “because I grew up in and around the working class.” She compared Mrs Johnstone to her own mother, who “used to have the bailiffs at the door and my father would run out the back door”. But Lawrence, who was an unrelenting stickler, said: “I absolutely do not believe that your status in life depends on the class you are born into. That doesn’t mean you can’t be something special.”

However, playing the demanding role six days a week for four years left her exhausted. Her big return to the West End in 1998, when she took on the role of Grizabella in Cats, was cut short when she fell down a flight of stairs and was critically injured.

The original Starlight Express: British choreographer Arlene Phillips, Andrew Lloyd-Webber, and Stephanie LawrenceThe original Starlight Express: British choreographer Arlene Phillips, Andrew Lloyd-Webber, and Stephanie Lawrence

The original Starlight Express: British choreographer Arlene Phillips, Andrew Lloyd-Webber, and Stephanie Lawrence – Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In September 2000 she seemed at least romantically happy, marrying her lifelong friend Laurie Sautereau. But two months later, on November 4, her new husband found her dead in their Fulham home.

Since her death was so sudden, it was investigated by Fulham and Hammersmith coroner’s office. After a post-mortem examination, they issued a statement on November 7 saying there would be no inquest because there were no suspicious circumstances: Lawrence died of natural causes related to liver disease.

“It was a terrible shock,” says Stilgoe. “I had no idea these problems existed. To some extent I feel guilty – I should have known her or helped her. But someone has to ask for support.” Thinking of what Lawrence could have done, he immediately says the word “Sondheim”. “Imagine her playing those incredible women with life experience. I can hear her singing Losing My Mind. She should be up there in our estimation with Elaine Paige and Patti LuPone.”

Watching the current Pearl, Kayna Montecillo, make her professional debut with Starlight Express, Stilgoe says it’s transported back to 1984 “and watching Stephanie turn Pearl into this character that gets stronger and stronger as the show progresses. That’s the great legacy she’s left for us all.”

Starlight Express is being booked until June 2025. Info:

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