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Starlight Express begins with a child's voice in the darkness, announcing that 'tonight is race night'. What happens next depends on the production.

Broadly, there have been 2 different opening sequences used in various productions of the show.

In one version – used in the original London production and in various incarnations of the show in Bochum – the orchestra plays a short overture suggesting that the child (Control) has fallen asleep. Onstage, shadowy figures emerge and skate around the auditorium. The music builds and segues directly into Rolling Stock.

In the other version – introduced on Broadway and rolled out to most productions beginning in 1992 – Control is interrupted by his mother. She orders him to bed, but when the bedroom door closes, Control immediately resumes his game, introducing the engines that will compete in his championship.

In 2018, the Bochum production brought both versions together.

London

1984 original version

As the audience has been coming in to the auditorium, toy train sets have been running back and forth in certain parts of the set. As the house lights dim, the lights and sounds of these models becomes more prominent. Control is playing with his toy trains. He announces that it is "race night" and that all trains go to 'racing mode'. However, Control nods off still giving out his orders. As Control starts to dream, the rattling of the toy trains stops and they turn off, to be replaced by shadowy figures emerging from the same spots we last saw toy trains.

Musically, the overture signifies Control falling asleep, the sleepy repetition of "all Change" shows us losing consciousness, then we are introduced to the "Starlight Express" melody, initially played unaccompanied, then it repeats at different modulations, starting so quietly, building with more instrumentation, until a fully orchestrated repetition, which then leads towards something truly magical, about to happen - when we get run over by a Diesel train! The rock beat of Rolling Stock interrupts the beautiful dreamscape conjured by the repeated melody, which we won't hear resolved until the Starlight Sequence.

Lyrics

Control: This is Control! This is Control!
All trains hear this! All trains hear this!
All trains to racing mode! All trains to racing mode!
Tonight is Race Night! Tonight is Race Night!
All change!
All change.
All change...
[Intro of Starlight Sequence plays.]

1992 revisions

Control announces that it is Race Night and that it's the most important night in the history of the world. He then proceeds with a countdown which starts a race. This is interrupted by Control's mom, who tells him to get to bed. Then she sings him "Starlight Express" as a lullaby. But when she leaves, Control sneaks back to his trains and he proceeds with "Entry of the National Engines".

The 1993 "new" London cast recording remixes the opening, combining commentary from the first heat with Control's opening lines.

Broadway

This version has also been modified slightly for the Japanese/Australian Tour and, for some time, the Bochum production. This version omits the orchestral overture, and leads straight into "Entry of the National Engines"

Control is announcing that it is Race Night and gets excited over which train will win. However, his playtime gets cut short when his mother tells him to get to bed. Then she sings him "Starlight Express" as a lullaby. But when she leaves, Control sneaks back to his trains and he proceeds with "Entry of the National Engines".

Lyrics

Control: This is Control! This is Control!
Tonight is the most important night in the history of the world! Take your seats for the great race! Who will win the Silver Dollar? Will it be diesel? Will it be electric? Or will it be steam? The tension is unbearable at the track here tonight!
Mother: Put those trains away!
Control: Oh Mom, just five more minutes?
Mother: Put them away and into bed!
Control: But...
Mother: No buts!
(sings) When the night is darkest,
open up your mind,
The dream begins, it's becoming clearer.
Listen to the distance,
listen and you'll find
The Midnight Train is getting nearer.
Control & Mother: Starlight Express, Starlight Express, Are you real? Yes or no?
Starlight Express, Starlight Express...

Bochum

Overture Bochum 2018

This is Control! This is Control!

The German Production has used both the long and short versions of the overture, but both the original version and the current version use the long version with the skate-round, rather than having "Entry of the National Engines" at the very beginning of the show. Control's Mother tells Control to go to sleep, and sings the "Starlight Express" melody as a lullaby, at which point Control falls asleep and the dream-scape music begins.

2004 UK Tour

The 2004 UK Tour used a slight variation on this script.

Control: This is Control! This is Control!
Tonight is the most important night in the history of the world! Take your seats for the World Championship Railroad Race! Who will win? Will it be Diesel, will it be Electric, or will it be Steam? The tension is unbearable here at the track tonight!
Mother: Put those trains away!
Control: Oh mom, just five more minutes?
Mother: Put them away and into bed!
Control: But...
Mother: No buts! (sings) Starlight Express, Starlight Express, Are you real? Are you near? Starlight Express...
Control: This is control... This is control... (into Entry of the National Engines)

2017 Workshop

The workshop added a few lines of dialogue and sound effects to clarify what's happening.

Control: Attention! Attention everybody! This is Control. This is Control.
Tonight is the most important night in the history of the world! Take your seats for the World Championship Railroad Race! Who will win? Will it be Diesel, will it be Electric, or will it be Steam? The tension is unbearable here at the track tonight!
Mother: Put those trains away!
Control: Oh mom, just five more minutes.
Mother: Put those trains away and get into bed.
Control: But how are they going to run without me?
Mother: No 'buts'. Now go to sleep.
Control: Goodnight mom.
Mother: (sings) Starlight Express, Starlight Express, Are you real? Are you near? Starlight Express, Starlight Express...
(Sound effect of Control's bedroom door closing)'-> instrumental Overture

Commentary

Using the Overture arguably makes clear the fact that the show is Control's dream. It relies on the visual effect of the characters appearing from all over the set to accompany the music and to create a dreamlike mood.

Leading directly into Entry of the Nationals, creating a more immediate, fact-filled mood as we learn the names of each National Engine. It also suggests that the entire show is not a dream, but the child's play.