From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Ray Shell as Poppa in London, 1998

Poppa is a character from the rock musical, Starlight Express. He's a steam engine like protagonist Rusty and is the oldest train of all. Control introduces him as "Ramblin' Poppa McCoy". He preaches of the Starlight Express, a god-like figure that will help those who call on him. He is revered and loved by the Freight, and dismissed as a doddering old fool by pretty much everyone else.

Originally, after Rusty loses the second heat to Electra, Poppa races with Dustin and secures a place in the final race. The race, however, has used up the last of Poppa's strength, and he begs Rusty to take his place. In later productions Poppa raced because Rusty was sulking and didn't want to, not because he had already lost. At the end, Poppa leads the company in the Gospel-style "Light at the End of the Tunnel".

Poppa is generally believed to be Rusty's father, though their exact relation to each other is never explicitly stated. In the original London show, Poppa would refer to Rusty as "son", and also a line in "Laughing Stock"; "That's my boy" suggests that he has paternal feelings for the younger engine. As he never directly addresses any other character to any great length it is impossible to say whether these terms are exclusively for Rusty, or if he would refer to everyone in that vernacular.

In the German production, Poppa is translated to Papa, having the same meaning. Poppa was renamed El Jefe in Expreso Astral, the 1997 production at the Teatro Polanca, Mexico City. His songs translated as "El Blues De El Jefe", "Soy Luz Astral" and "Luz Al Final Del Tunel"


Poppa moves his arms in a circular fashion to symbolise he is a Steam locomotive. This is also used by Rusty and mimicked by Pearl.


Poppa was based on blues singers, like Louis Armstrong. This is also why he tends to be played by a black actor. His song, Poppa's Blues uses a traditional Blues baseline, often used by Louis Armstrong.

The Starlight Express[edit]

Carl Ellis as Poppa, Bochum, 2007

It has never been made definitively clear whether Poppa is pretending to be the Starlight Express to encourage Rusty to find the will to race again, or if the Starlight Express really is a separate, god-like being voiced by Poppa because it would make no sense to employ another singer just for one song. The actor of Poppa doubles up as the Starlight, but he doesn't enter the stage for the number and the part is sung as a voice over. Rusty looks straight up into the heavens as if he were talking to a force from above, like God. However, there are theories that Poppa actually is the Starlight Express, as in London he did come on stage for the "Starlight Sequence" although in this case he was very dimly and obscurely lit, to hide his identity. Perhaps, seeing as he is the one who tells Rusty the legend of the Starlight Express, in Rusty's vision the Starlight comes to him in the form of someone he is close to.

Inspiration for the Starlight[edit]

He is a fairy-god mother sort of character, which also supports the Cinderella theme.


These remain the same in every production.

  • Poppa's Blues (Papa's Blues, El Blues De El Jefe)
  • Starlight Sequence(originally known as "I Am the Starlight) (Starlight sequenz, Soy Luz Astral)
  • Light at the End of the Tunnel (Ein Licht ganz am Ende des Tunnels, Luz Al Final Del Tunel)


Poppa's costume is similar to Rusty's, as they are both steam trains, but where Rusty was once painted black and red (black and orange later on), Poppa was originally painted green and black.

The Broadway version of the costume, used in most productions, took more elements from the train-driver part of Poppa's costume design than the steam train, giving him more obvious shirt and overalls, a driver's cap and a red necktie. Though obviously intended to portray the same character, this version of the costume is very different from the London ones.

Even though he and Rusty are both steam trains, their costumes were nothing alike for Starlight on Ice. Poppa had a smoke stack on his back along with a railway hat, greasy gloves, a plaid patterned shirt, and a really scary looking hip replacement - pistons the length of his legs. Rusty looked more like the Haribo kid.

Casting Poppa[edit]

It is difficult to find someone to play this character as he is a demanding role. Poppa is a fairly standard mature singing and acting role, but then he also has to have the athleticism to race in skates. It has been known for past Poppas to be called in to do one night because they are unable to find an understudy, even to the extent of taking them from another show for one night.


This list does not include understudies/standbys.