This show has a rather notorious reputation…it has its fans, but it is often held up by critics as one of the worst musicals of all time, particularly among those who hate Andrew Lloyd-Webber and basically find this show to be a perfect form of ammunition. It is not, in reality, even close to being one of the worst shows ever made, but it is definitely among the worst shows ever to become a smash hit.
First off, the show’s concept…a musical about anthropomorphic trains…is a ridiculous idea to begin with. The show on stage is somewhat impressive as pure spectacle, which might explain why it seems to draw an audience, but it also looks incredibly ridiculous, with its tin-man costumes and giant rollerskating ramps.
The story is more substantial than that of CATS, but still dangerously thin and simplistic; essentially an expanded version of The Little Engine That Could, it tells of a steam train named Rusty who conquers the odds to win a race against two much more modern and glamorous engines and win the heart of an observation car named Pearl. There’s a vague subtextual message about God being in all of us, but the show seems more concerned with an illogical Luddite message about going back to steam power that it adopted for plot purposes and very obviously has zero interest in actually promoting, since such a message is not exactly compatible with the cutting-edge technology utilized in the show’s production.
The only thing of any real interest about this show is the score, and even it has no shortage of issues. Granted, even Webber’s weakest scores tend to contain at least two or three truly beautiful melodies, which in this case consist of the gentle “There’s Me”, the spectacular ballad “Only He”, and the soaring title-song. The rest of the score has its share of clinkers, but the better numbers actually feature some of the best Rock music Webber ever wrote. Particularly good are the campy showstoppers for the rival engines, “Rolling Stock”, “AC/DC”, and “Pumping Iron”, the highly enjoyable yet surprisingly twisted villain song “C.B.”, and the spectacular mock-gospel finale, “Light At the End of the Tunnel”.
Richard Stilgoe’s lyrics can be clever at times, as on the self-demonstrating lesson in Blues songwriting “Poppa’s Blues”, or the amusing Country spoof “U.N.C.O.U.P.L.E.D.”, but more often they tend toward the simplistic and banal. They also suffer from one of the strangest problems I’ve ever encountered in a musical…it’s at least nominally aimed at children, yet the lyrics are loaded with constant double-entendres, many of them downright filthy, in what I can only conclude was a lazy attempt at making the show entertaining to adults, but instead comes off as rather creepy.
Some of the more egregious clinkers include “Freight”, which is banal to the point of being monosyllabic and has become the show’s calling-card among its detractors; “A Lotta Locomotion”, with its annoying melody and groan-inducing dirty jokes; “Make Up My Heart”, a ballad with a melody that quotes “Musetta’s Waltz” and a lyric that is one long threesome joke (“they say two lovers can be twice the fun”); and the truly disgusting “Belle the Sleeping Car”, about a “Sleeper with a heart of gold”.
Not helping matters is that the show was revised both for its Broadway production and midway through its London run, and all of the various revisions are significantly inferior to the already questionable original draft. For example, the London revision dismantled what little logic the story possessed, deleted the show’s most interesting character, the deviously psychotic villain C.B. the Red Caboose, and his entertaining villain song, and replaced “Only He” with a generic ballad called “Next Time You Fall In Love”, which makes no sense in context and was very obviously not written for the show.
If the show is not anywhere near as bad as Love Never Dies or the various incarnations of the Jeeves musical, it is still vastly inferior to any of Webber’s other actual hits, and is definitely below his usual standards of quality in every aspect. The good numbers are still worth hearing, though, and singers Ray Shell and Stephanie Lawrence do them glorious justice on the original cast album, so you might still want to wade through this (pardon the pun) trainwreck for the sake of its better moments.