One of the most indelible images in musical theater is the moment when Grizabella, the lonely and bedraggled “glamour cat,” faces the tribe that rejected her and sings longingly of happier times and a brighter future. Betty Buckley won a Tony Award for introducing “Memory” to Broadway audiences in 1982, and now Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most famous melody is being dazzlingly performed by Mamie Parris in the hit revival of Cats.
You may not be familiar with Parris, whose Broadway credits include supporting roles in Lloyd Webber’s School of Rock,On the Twentieth Century, and The Drowsy Chaperone, but her rendition of “Memory” is worth a trip to the Neil Simon Theatre. Unlike many stars who have tackled the song (Elaine Paige, Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion, Heather Headley, Lea Salonga, Susan Boyle, and more), Parris belts the climactic 16 bars — “Touch me, it’s so easy to leave me, all alone with the memory of my days in the sun” — without taking a breath. Most singers take three.
It’s all in a day’s work for the friendly young actress, who deflects praise by quoting Walt Whitman. “There’s a line of his that describes Grizabella: ‘I sound my barbaric yawp,’” she says of her character’s state of mind as “Memory” begins. “It’s her desperate cry to the gods, and if nothing comes of it, she’s done. It’s her ‘barbaric yawp.’” As for her astonishing power in the “Touch me” section, Parris insists, “I didn’t really think about it. My breath was where it needed to be to support me, and in the moment, it felt right to let it all out. The song is beautiful and timeless, and I just approached it by thinking about what the character is saying.”
Growing up outside Dallas, Parris sang along to a double cassette tape of the show’s original cast, responding to lyrics drawn from T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. That poetic underpinning gives Cats a mysterious quality, along with the fact that the entire cast is costumed and made up to resemble a pack of junkyard-dwelling felines. “There are moments backstage when you look out and see these incredible dancers dressed like cats and think, ‘This is how I make my living?’” Parris says with a laugh. “But it’s wonderful, because unlike any other show, my fellow actors are always alive and in the moment. You’re not just saying a line and crossing stage left; you’re living these characters. There’s never a question of anyone not being present or paying attention.”
That’s especially comforting to Parris when her big moment arrives. “It would be very different to stand on stage and sing ‘Memory’ alone,” she says. “There’s something about being surrounded by the tribe who shunned Grizabella that amplifies the power behind the song. They don’t understand until then how much she wants to be loved and accepted and touched. To have them on stage with me brings so much meaning and importance to the piece.”
The elusive nature of her character creates a different set of challenges than, say, playing Elphaba in Wicked, which Parris did on tour. “‘Defying Gravity’ is a marathon,” she says of the green witch’s anthem, “but in a funny way, there’s more pressure behind ‘Memory.’ Grizabella appears on stage only five times, and yet she has a huge story. I feel a responsibility not only to tell the story of the character but also the story of the entire piece in those five small appearances that culminate in ‘Memory.’ It’s exciting.”
Before Cats, Parris worked closely with Lloyd Webber during the creation of School of Rock, in which she played Patty Di Marco, lead character Dewey Finn’s ultra-practical girlfriend. A major song written for Patty, “Give Up Your Dreams,” never made it into the show, but at the recording session, Lloyd Webber asked Parris to learn and sing it on short notice. She immediately agreed, and the song became a “bonus” number on the original cast album.
“It was such a unique experience to work on a new musical with Andrew Lloyd Webber,” she says now. “During rehearsals, they were trying to figure out my character’s sensibility and how she fit in, so I had the good fortune of singing a lot of stuff for Andrew — we tried different pieces, different reprises that would go in and then get cut. You get to see his brain at work, and see that he really is a genius. I was lucky to sing a great song on the album, even if it wasn’t in the show.”
Parris’s experience on School of Rock helped her feel at ease when Cats came along. “The fact that Andrew got to know my voice was serendipitous,” she says. “I was able to go into the audition and not worry, because if he thought my voice was right, I felt I could sing the song in a way that was comfortable for me.” The song, of course, was “Memory,” and when she finished, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler paused before asking, “Did you not breathe during that phrase?” A new moment in the history of a classic tune was born.
As Cats approaches its December 30 Broadway closing date, Parris is savoring her time in a show that means so much to several generations of theatergoers. “I meet people who say, ‘My grandmother brought me [to the original production] and I never forgot it,’” she says. “People have such a connection to Cats because it was their first theatrical experience. It feels amazing to tell a story like this and have so many people connect with it.”
After enjoying a bit of downtime at the Pennsylvania mountain home she recently purchased with her husband, Johnathan Shannon, Parris hopes to work on new musicals and build on the experiences she’s had on and off Broadway. “There are so many dream roles out there that haven’t been written,” she says cheerfully. “I really feel like opportunities for women are expanding, and every experience I’ve had on stage has made my work better.”
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