the tragic story of the original star of Starlight Express

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1984 train musical Starlight Express is back in London and, says Dominic Cavendish, the Telegraph’s Chief Theatre Critic, “it’s out of this world.” The show’s makers are equally thrilled, but there’s a bittersweet element to seeing new artists take on these familiar roles, notes lyricist Richard Stilgoe, since one of Starlight’s talented original actors, the glamorous actress Stephanie Lawrence, left us far too soon on her way to fame.

Lawrence played Pearl: a top-notch observation car, ambitious competitor in the show’s big race, and dream girl to steam engine Rusty. It was one of many leading roles in a stellar career, which also featured 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 a shockingly young death: at just 50, after long periods of depression and addiction, her death certificate listing her cause of death as “alcoholic liver disease.”

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

That first cast had to take a leap of faith, Stilgoe admits. “It’s a very strange thing to ask someone to pretend to be a first-class carriage, to sing and roller skate, and have the audience care about what’s happening to you. Stephanie was great at that. She had this combination of strength and vulnerability, and she found an autonomy, even though Pearl is relying on these big bullies to pull her around. [in the race]. They gave her a pretty pink costume with a ponytail – she looked like My Little Pony – but she transcended it.”

They cast Lawrence early in the process, he recalls. “Andrew knew her already. It helps when you can show up at an audition room with Evita in your back pocket. And she was a real old-school trouper.”

Stephanie Lawrence in bed at her Fulham home

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

Lawrence was indeed 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 led the children’s dance troupe the Kent Babes. Lawrence attended the Arts Educational School in Tring, where ballet was her first love. She joined the corps of the Royal Festival Ballet, but had to take a year off at the age of 15 because of pneumonia.

She changed course and made her West End debut in 1971 in Peter Nichols’s Forget-Me-Not Lane, playing a dazzling sexual fantasy, Miss 1940, who both tap-danced and roller-skated.

But it was the Argentine diva who put Lawrence on the map. In 1981, she took over from Marti Webb as Eva Perón in Evita, a role that made use of her abundant gifts: her powerful voice, dramatic intelligence and steely determination.

In 1983, she played the role of Marilyn Monroe in Mort Garson and Jacques Wilson’s Marilyn! The Musical. The show was poorly received, but critics praised Lawrence as its saving grace. Peter Hepple of The Stage said her “remarkably vibrant performance” established her “as an international leading lady.”

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

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

That meant she arrived at Starlight Express as one of the more recognizable names, compared with newcomers like 18-year-old Frances Ruffelle, who played Dinah (and who later played the original Éponine in Les Misérables ). “I was in awe of her,” Ruffelle recalls. “I was with all the other girls and she had the dressing room of the stars – she was a separate entity.”

Stilgoe was enthusiastic about how Lawrence enriched his work. “There are a lot of artists who go to drama school and come out confident and brash. That’s fine, but you want a voice that can bring you the moonlight. Stephanie got to the heart of a song. She sang it with truth, so you felt everything with her. People who can do that are very rare and special.”

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

Although she wasn’t aware of Lawrence’s struggles at the time, Ruffelle says in retrospect that she “probably went 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 see someone on stage and think they’re great, and not realize what’s going on in their private life. They call it ‘Doctor Theatre’: you just go out there and channel your emotions into the role.”

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 the first ever London Roller Marathon in Battersea Park, 1981 – David Crump/ANL/Shutterstock

Ruffelle regrets that because she was so young, “she didn’t have the capacity to recognize Stephanie’s struggles—I never asked questions. We didn’t talk about mental health at the time. When I heard later that she had passed, it was just heartbreaking.”

Ruffelle did see Lawrence having some physical issues during Starlight: “She gained and lost weight all year long in big ways. I wonder now if alcohol was involved. And sometimes she seemed pretty down. But no one realized how serious it was.”

In 1990, Lawrence played Mrs. Johnstone – a desperate working-class mother who gives up one of her twin babies – in Willy Russell’s stirring musical Blood Brothers, and she was nominated for a Tony when she reprised the role on Broadway. Frank Rich of The New York Times compared Lawrence’s clear, resonant voice to that of Elaine Paige, while Andrew Gans of Playbill was deeply moved when she collapsed onstage at the climax “in a sea of ​​tears.”

Lawrence spoke of 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 “had the bailiffs at the door and my father running out the back door.” But Lawrence, who was a tireless plodder, added: “I don’t really believe that your status in life is determined by the class you’re born into. It doesn’t mean you can’t become something special.”

However, she became exhausted from playing the demanding role six days a week for four years, and then her big West End comeback in 1998, when she took over the role of Grizabella in Cats, was halted when she fell down a flight of stairs and suffered serious injuries.

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

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

In September 2000, she seemed to have found at least some romantic happiness, marrying her lifelong friend Laurie Sautereau. But just two months later, on November 4, she was found dead in their Fulham home by her new husband.

Because her death was so sudden, it was investigated by the Fulham and Hammersmith Coroner’s Office. After an autopsy, they issued a statement on November 7 stating that there would be no inquest as there were no suspicious circumstances: Lawrence had died of natural causes related to liver disease.

“It was a terrible shock,” Stilgoe recalls. “I had no idea there were these problems. To some extent I feel guilty—I should have known or helped her. But someone has to ask for support.” Wondering what else Lawrence could have done, he immediately says the word “Sondheim.” “Think about how she played these incredible women with life experience. I hear her singing Losing My Mind. She should be as good as Elaine Paige and Patti LuPone in our estimation.”

Now, as he watches the current Pearl, Kayna Montecillo, make her professional debut on Starlight Express, Stilgoe says he’s transported back to 1984 “and Stephanie sees Pearl morph into this character who gets stronger and stronger as the show goes on. That’s the amazing legacy she’s left for all of us.”

Starlight Express can be booked until June 2025. Info:

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