And Another Hundred People Just Got Off of the Train
There is something exciting and almost entrancing about the world of train travel. It affords efficient transportation, but with infinitely better views than you can get at a distance on an airplane. With the forthcoming revival of On the Twentieth Century about to make a station stop at the American Airlines Theatre, courtesy of the Roundabout Theatre, I started thinking about how many musical theatre moments take place aboard a train. I was surprised, as I started digging, just how many have moments aboard such a vessel. Have the Pullman Porter grab your baggage and climb aboard for a ride through the best musical theatre moments to take place on board a train. We'll call this list a "Train of Thought" exploration.
So many things happen in the musical Ragtime that its easy to forget a pivotal moment between the character of Tateh and his daughter, when he tries to put his daughter on a train and evacuate her to safety during a strike that has grown into a riot. He puts her on the train and, as it pulls away, changes his mind and decides to join her, leaping aboard where he calms the hysterical girl by showing her the moving picture book he has created.
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
The best way to get around the French Riviera is by train, presenting an opportunity to revel in the scenic countryside and the resort town of this vacation destination. Schemer and small-time scam artist Freddie Benson, while riding one of these trains, encounters Lawrence Jameson, a high stakes scam artist in his own right. Freddie decides he wants to be Jameson's apprentice and decides to depart the train when he does in a quest to learn how he can turn his talents into long-term financial solvency.
The Music Man
"Rock Island" is the title of the first song we hear in Meredith Willson's nostalgic The Music Man. What is "Rock Island"? Why it is the name of the last town in Illinois that a train full of traveling salesman is departing as it enters into Iowa, with River City it next destination. This inventive opening number actually takes on the personality of the moving train as the salesman reveal the story of a traveling salesman who has flim-flammed his way through Illinois by selling marching band instruments and uniforms, then skipping town before making good on his promise to create boys bands. The song starts slowly, just as a train does, picking up speed with the syncopated, spoken rhythms that evoke the sounds of steam train moving down the tracks.
Annie Get Your Gun
Sharpshooter Annie Oakley gets to sing one of her more subtle pieces aboard a train in the lovely "Moonshine Lullaby." On her way to Minneapolis for her next show, she sings the song to her younger siblings as she puts them to bed aboard a sleeping car. Irving Berlin's gentle music and lightly comedic lyrics roll along softly as the countryside rolls gently by in the background.
Bye, Bye, Birdie
The final moments of the musical comedy Bye, Bye, Birdie are spent at the small town train station of Sweet Apple, Ohio. In an effort to sneak rock star Conrad Birdie out of town, managers Albert and Rosie dress him in drag and put him aboard a train with Al's interfering mother, sending all of their problems off into the sunset. Al and Rosie revel in their new found freedom by singing and dancing across the train platform to the strains of the romantic "Rosie."
One of the most exhilarating moments in Hello, Dolly! concludes with most of the cast boarding a train and heading off to New York City in search of adventure and romance. "Put on Your Sunday Clothes" is incited when matchmaker Dolly Levi convinces several characters to leave the small town of Yonkers, NY behind and venture into Manhattan where she has set the stage to make amore happen while securing a tidy match for herself in the guise of the wealthy half-a-millionaire Horace Vandergelder. The final chorus of the song even takes on the rhythms of a moving train, as an electric energy comes over the musical arrangements, propelling these characters towards their destinies.
On the Town
New York City has never been captured quite as magically as in the musical about three sailors on a 24 hour leave in the Big Apple of the 1940s. Since subways are a big part of the NYC experience, our doughboys get around the city in many ways. It is perhaps their trip to Coney Island aboard the transit system that is the quintessential experience these sailors must explore in On the Town. The New York subway system is the magical portal that leads them to adventure and romance.
Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine crafted a serious look at the world of romantic obsession in the complicated musical Passion. A sickly, unattractive woman named Fosca becomes obsessed with a handsome soldier named Giorgio who is new to her brother's military regiment. The two explore a friendship that spirals out of control, teetering on the edge of manipulation and stalking on Fosca's part. When Giorgio is set to escape, he boards a train to leave, finding that Fosca has packed a bag and followed him to the station. On board a train car, she makes a desperate plea for Giorgio's reciprocation of her feelings. This sequence is sometimes referred to as the "Throw Fosca from the Train" moment.
It's not particularly easy to bring a dead man on vacation, but if Harry Witherspoon wants receive his inheritance from his recently deceased Uncle Anthony, he must adhere to the corpse's final wish to go to Monte Carlo for one last hurrah. Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's jubilant (and not-so-subtly ironic) "It's Good to Be Alive" is sung on the train by all of the passengers who are envisioning the paradise where they will party, gamble, and live like kings.
Not exactly one of the most fondly remembered of musicals, but a musical nonetheless, was Anna Karenina, based on the Leo Tolstoy tome of the same name. As is the case in most Russian literature, the characters are unhappy and trapped in loveless marriages. The titular character, married to a government official, but in love with another man with whom she has an affair, is the victim of her own virtuosity, refusing to leave her husband and child to find true happiness. When the affair is discovered, she throws herself in front of a moving train and kills herself. I guess you could say that this isn't exactly a musical that takes place aboard a train, but that rather, the train takes place aboard Anna.
Not so much set aboard a train, but instead featuring the actors taking on the personalities of toy trains competing against one another in a race to prove themselves as the fastest trains in the world. The Andrew Lloyd Webber musical featured actors on roller skates, navigating a set that was an enormous, multilevel series of tracks, ramps and bridges on which the action unfolded.
Lost in the Stars
Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson created an intense musical exploration of Alan Paton's novel about the social upheaval in South Africa that would eventually lead to Apathied titled Cry, the Beloved Country. The musical, rechristened Lost in the Stars, features the song "Train to Johannesburg", a haunting chorus number that accompanies Rev. Stephen Kumalo's journey to the city where he will visit his son Absalom. The spooky piece foreshadows the dark things that will happen when Kumalo arrives there.
Mack & Mabel
The romance between film director Mack Sennet and silent screen star Mabel Normand is an unhappy one. Even early on in the show, their budding romance seems troubled. Aboard a train traveling across country, Mabel invites Mack to her train compartment and confesses her love for him. He responds by putting up walls, singing the heartbreaking "I Wont Send Roses." There is a melancholy mood inspired by this song happening aboard a train, as the hills roll by with his noncommittal ditty, so does the opportunity to build a foundation for something extraordinary.
The Secret Garden
Little Mary Lennox has far to travel from India to Yorkshire, England when her parents die from the cholera and she is sent to live with her brooding uncle in his secluded country manse. One of her means of travel is the train which delivers her to the cold, spooky housekeeper Mrs. Medlock who accompanies her on the rest of her journey across the moors via coach.
Set aboard a NYC subway train that has suddenly come to a hault, Happiness is a musical that looks into the lives of a handful of callous New Yorkers who soon learn they have died in a crash. They cannot leave the car to "move on" until they have revisited the happiest moment of their lives. The Frankel-Korie-Weidman musical has so much to offer, but due to a lack of a cast recording, is certain to be a mere memory. Would someone please record this show?
The Scottsboro Boys
The opening of the Kander and Ebb musical about the true-story of a group of black men falsely accused of the rape of two white women has its tragic story begin aboard a train with the song "Commencing in Chattanooga." The men (some are merely boys) are riding aboard a boxcar, dreaming of the possibilities and prospects of their destination. As the train moves, the dreams seem to build, but when it comes to screeching stop, the nightmares takeover.
Subways are for Sleeping
This also-ran musical is mostly forgotten today, but its premise certainly did invite moments to take place on board a train. The musical is about a journalist who is investigating reports of a group of people, well-dressed, living on board the subway trains. It is eventually revealed that they are a part of an employment system for the homeless and the drifters on NYC.
On the Twentieth Century
Though I mention it in the introduction, no list would be complete without celebrating the musical that takes place almost entirely aboard a train. On the Twentieth Century does just that, taking its passengers (and the audience) on a whirlwind, luxury voyage across the country. Tony Walton's original scenery for the musical were a highlight, offering us views from all over the train, including an entire song sung with a passenger clinging to the front of the locomotive.
Honorable Mention: Company
Stephen Sondheim in the musical Company captures the daunting world of New York City and what it is like to arrive there with the hundreds of others simultaneously seeking their dreams. It's a frantic, cold and lonely song that imposes an overwhelming futility on the subject, painting pictures of the throngs arriving via mass transportation. It's not a song about trains, per se, but it uses trains as symbolic imagery of the mechanical and relentless machine that New York City can be.
Honorable Mention: Finian’s Rainbow
The first musical number in the 1947 musical Finian's Rainbow is the lively "This Time of the Year", sung by a group of sharecroppers who are trying to ward off the county sheriff from seizing their land. They sing about their leader Woody Mahoney who is on his way home via train with the money to help save them. The chorus sings the piece, first like a sit-in protest and then, as the train begins to arrive with Woody on board, the chorus and the music begin to take on the personality of the train itself, complete with its whistle blowing and the clickety-clack of the wheels on the rails.
Honorable Mention: Gypsy
Though we never see the cast aboard a train, the climactic Act I finale of Gypsy takes place in a train station. Mamma Rose, after learning that her more talented daughter June has run away, turns her sites on her less-talented daughter Louise and announces that she is going to make her a star. Something of a dramatic monologue married to a nervous breakdown, "Everything's Coming Up Roses" is all the more haunting because it takes place in a train station. The options to go elsewhere are endless, but Rose chooses to stay on the train that she has always ridden: the train of showbiz, a destination of her own supposed stardom, lived vicariously through her daughter, that will never happen.