We catch up with Marcel Brauneis, who plays Rusty in the German production of Starlight Express, still playing to packed-houses in Bochum after nearly 25 years.
How long have you been in the show?
I’m in my third year right now – I played Flat Top in my first year, and then Red Caboose in my second year.
Have you ever appeared in any other productions of Starlight Express?
I have not yet had the opportunity to be part of another production of the show – as long as I have been in the show there has only been the German production, although of course the new UK Tour of the show was recently announced. I would have loved to do that production, but my schedule in Bochum wouldn’t allow it unfortunately.
Had you ever seen Starlight Express before appearing in the show?
As a child, I had always wanted to travel to Bochum to see the show from my hometown in Vienna, and in my teens I used to listen to the original German recording over and over again, but it was 2008 before I got to see it onstage. That was when I was part of a German TV casting show to find the new Rusty and Pearl for the twentieth anniversary of the show in Bochum.
What is it like to perform in the show?
It’s one of the most unique stage shows in the musical business. It’s also one of the hardest, if not THE hardest show to perform every night. Because I always wanted to be in it, it’s also a dream come true for me. I constantly try to remind myself of how lucky I am.
What is it like to perform in the specially-built Starlighthalle?
It’s an honour to be standing on a stage where so many amazing artists have performed before me. You can feel the history of the show and all the memories in every single corner. Because the theater has been built especially for the show, the set is absolutely stunning, both visually and technically, even after 24 years! For the audience it’s not just a theater, it’s a little world in itself. From the moment you enter the foyer you’re in the world of Starlight Express, you feel like you’re in a train station and the team is making sure that that illusion is kept up every single day.
How far does the skating element of the show make Starlight Express different from performing in other musical theatre productions?
The skating makes for a more challenging and physically harder show. There is a good reason it’s called “the fastest show on earth!” It’s a thrill to perform on skates and it’s a thrill to watch it.
Did you know how to skate before appearing in Starlight?
I’ve used inline skates and ices kates all my life, but you can’t compare that to a real four-wheel-skate. The boots are also custom-made for the production! Part of the rehearsal process is a very intensive training known as ‘skate school’ that prepares each performer (skaters and non-skaters) for the show. You learn the skating techniques needed for Starlight Express and you learn how to skate the set with all its hills and drops.
How was skate school?
Going through skate school was the toughest thing I ever had to do (and I used to be a dancer!) But once you’re ready to be on stage and have mastered your first performance in front of an audience, it’s the most rewarding experience imagineable.
What are you like on your skates now?
I have come a long way since my first day at Starlight, when I couldn’t even stand up straight on my skates, but I’m still learning. The Creative Team (and especially our Skate Coach Michal Fraley) always encourage us to take the extra step and try to work on new things for the show. It keeps the show fresh and interesting to watch and perform.
What is your favourite song in the show?
My favourite song is the Starlight Sequence. I absolutely love to perform and to watch it. It is the highlight of the show, it gives both the audience and the performers on stage goosebumps. What the original Creative Team has created there is musically and visually stunning. Audience members constantly tell me that it’s their favourite part of the show and that it brings tears to their eyes.
What is your favourite part of the show?
I really like the beginning, where the theme of the show plays over and over again as an Overture, starting softly and eventually growing bigger and bigger until it fades into “Rolling Stock”. You can just faintly see Rusty and the Carriages crossing the bridge, followed by engines and different characters of the show that skate across the stage in the dim light like shadowy figures. It’s magical and transports everyone into the little boy’s dream.
What do you like most and least about performing this role?
What I love the most about playing Rusty is the story he goes through and his growth. Some people say that the story of Starlight Express doesn’t have a lot of depth, but there really is a lot going on there. It deals with topics that are very up to date, like cheating, competition and the most universal one of course – love. Rusty grows from an underdog into self-acceptance and I think a lot of people can identify themselves with that struggle. What I like the least about it is wearing the costume. I think John Napier has done a marvellous job and it looks amazing and truly “Rusty”, but it’s very heavy (20 kilos) and quite a load to carry around for the two hours of the show!
Are there any other roles in the show you would like to play?
I have already played Red Caboose, the evil character in the show, and that was definitely something that I wanted to do. Another role I would love to play is Electra, because he is so flamboyant and outrageous and quite the opposite to Rusty. I’m sure Lady Gaga got some of her inspiration from that character…
Was appearing in the show a personal ambition for you?
I remember sitting in my room as a teenager, listening to the show and imagining what it must be like to be part of it. I hadn’t seen the show and had no idea what it looked like so I made up my own version in my head. A few years later I played Rusty in a small amateur school production of Starlight and knew right then and there that I wanted to play that role on a big stage one day.
What inspired you to pursue a career in musical theatre?
Like most performers I started developing an interest in theatre at a very early age. I always performed for my family and friends and even at school for my classmates. The decision to pursue a career in musical theater came when I watched my first show in Vienna, “Elisabeth”. After the first number finished I turned to my mother and told her that this was what I wanted to do. She signed me up for a dance class the very next day.
Who has been the biggest influence on your career?
I would love to come up with the name of a certain artist or composer, but the people who have really influenced me the most were my parents. They never once doubted that I could make it in this business. They supported me every step of the way and I don’t think I would have gone through with it if it hadn’t been for them. It all sounds very dramatic, but it’s not easy spending most of your teenage years in dance studios and on small stages and it’s even harder getting your foot into the business after school, both mentally and financially. It all looks very glamorous, but it’s hard work to get there. And a big inspiration were the works of lots of composers, like Andrew Lloyd Webber or Sylvester Levay.
What would your dream role be?
I can’t think of one specific role right now. There are a few parts that intrigue me, like Alfred in Dance of the Vampires or Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard. I could probably name about twenty roles that are on my list.
Do you miss anything about home when you’re performing in Bochum?
I miss my hometown Vienna very much. The culture, the beautiful architecture, the theatres, the food, the celebrations and of course my family and friends. I have been away from home a lot in the past few years and have learned how to deal with that. Still “there is no place like home,” is there?
How would you spend your perfect day off?
At home recovering from a strenuous four-show weekend, in front of the TV, with a book and sometimes cooking for my partner and some friends. But whatever I do, I try not to sing or even whistle a tune from the show…even the mind needs some time off work!
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