Andrew Lloyd Webber’s mega-musical Cats opened on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theatre in the fall of 1982 and ran for a record-breaking 18 years. Now the show is back on the boards, this time at the Neil Simon Theatre. NY1 Entertainment Reporter Frank DiLella caught up with some cast members from the show—past and present—to chat “memories” and more.
For the current Cats, what’s one word you would use to describe the musical prior to your involvement and one word to describe the show now that you’re in it?
Sarah Marie Jenkins (current Jennyanydots): Before my involvement, I had seen the show as a kid, when I was 10. And when I saw it, it was everything that I was training for. So before my involvement with the show I would use the word inspiring. It was inspiring to watch the cast and think this is what I’m training to do in dance class and with my voice lessons. And as cheesy as it is, I would use inspiring now. I now look around in a different way and I’m inspired by the difficulty of the show. I think every night, at the end of the Jellicle Ball: “We just did that!”
Tyler Hanes (current Rum Tum Tugger): When I saw the show at a young age, it seemed impossible for me to achieve something like that. I saw it on Broadway, and it was the first musical I saw that was the closest to a ballet. So my word for before would be impossible — but that seems a little precious. [Laughs.] But now the word I would use to describe my experience is fun. The cast is fun, the show is fun. I’ve been doing it for a year and I’m still finding new things.
For the Cats alums, when you think back to doing the show on Broadway, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?
Liz Callaway (former Grizabella): I think about how much I loved being a part of a dance ensemble in a show. I often felt guilty that my coworkers were busting their butts for two and a half hours and then I would walk out and sing “Memory,” and that seemed to be what the audience responded to — so much. But I loved being a part of the ensemble of that show.
Lena Hall (former Demeter): The first thing I think of is the unitard. [Laughs.] You work so hard — dance so hard — the unitards become soaking wet and become a second skin that you peel on and off. The costumes are so famous and really a major part of the show, the wigs and the unitards.
Do you still keep in touch with your Cats family?
Liz: Absolutely! In fact, last week I had way too many margaritas with David Hibbard [former Rum Tum Tugger]. Many of us have stayed in touch, and not just the cast: many of the musicians as well.
Lena: There are a few people I see every once in a while, like Julius Sermonia — he was my Mistoffelees. And Jon-Erik Goldberg, who doesn’t do shows anymore, but he was my Pouncival.
Sarah and Tyler: Do you keep in touch with Cats alums?
Tyler: Some of my friends did the original run of the show — Jen Cody, Joyce Chittick, Charlotte d’Amboise, Terrence Mann — and they all said the same thing about the show, and that was: “If you let it, Cats can change your life.” It’s so much fun to be a part of this show, probably more fun to be in than to watch it.
Since Cats debuted in London’s West End back in 1981, it’s never gone away. What’s the secret behind the show’s success?
Sarah: This show has such a broad appeal to audiences all over the world. Because it’s so interpretive and danced and sung through, you don’t have to understand the words to understand the feelings that the show is conveying.
Liz: It touches people no matter how old or young you are, no matter what language you speak. It’s beautiful storytelling, incredible dancing, and wonderful music.
Lena: Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote some awesome tunes, and the best one, of course, is “Memory.” And by nature the show draws people in because they’re curious.
What does Cats mean to Broadway gypsies?
Sarah: I had a kind of special moment last night when a good friend who has done about eight Broadway shows came to see Cats. She looked at us and said, “You guys, this is so hard. I can’t imagine doing this. I’ve never been so proud of you in my entire life.” And I think we feel it in our bodies, but it’s not until our fellow gypsies come to see it and say “I can’t believe what you guys are doing on stage” — then it feels special.
Tyler: Once you’re on the train, you don’t get off of it. Our director/choreographer, Andy Blankenbuehler, talks about this all the time. When he moved to New York, all he wanted was to be in Cats. Everybody was in Cats — the best dancers were in Cats. I remember auditioning for this production — there was a hubbub about the new production. There’s an athleticism to this show that’s unlike anything else.
Are there any rituals or traditions backstage with the original Broadway production?
Lena: I had my own tradition: I would watch Marlene Danielle do her Cats makeup in five minutes. Marlene was a member of the original company, and at places she would start her makeup.
What about backstage traditions for the current company?
Sarah: Some things we can’t talk about. [Laughs.] After the show there’s a lot of cooling-down that happens. The girls’ dressing room in particular is something we describe to people — and they can’t imagine it. The girls all share one dressing room — you’re talking 14, 15 girls in one room. So to have accomplished this whole show, and then all of us go upstairs … There are literally two sinks for all the girls. We go up to that room and slather our faces with coconut oil and talk about our show, talk about our day, and it’s ridiculous and funny. The visual is ridiculous.
Tyler: I start the show a different cat before I turn into Rum Tum Tugger, so before the show at places, I have to touch my Tugger collar just to be “I’ve connected with you.” [Laughs.]
What’s one thing you’ve learned doing Cats that you’ve applied or will apply to your career?
Liz: One of the challenges of doing Cats for so long is, of course, when you do the same thing every night, you have to find a way to make it as if it’s the first time you’re singing it because for the audience it’s the first time they’re seeing the show. And I always felt pressure singing “Memory.” But I always found new ways to do it with different things going through my mind. And the discipline of that carries into everything I do. Trying to always discover more in a song or in a scene.
Lena: One should always warm up.
Sarah: I will never complain about a show being hard ever again in my entire life.
Tyler: There’s a sense of fearlessness that being in this show you have to have that I’ve never experienced before. It’s changed me as a person. They gave me a lot of freedom with Tugger, and for me, every night being in the moment and being completely fearless has changed me.
How long did it/does it take you to put on your Cats makeup?
Liz: At first it took me an hour — I’m not good at drawing and painting. I live outside the city, so one day I was driving in and got stuck in traffic, and I arrived at the show 15 minutes before the matinee, and I discovered I could put on my makeup in seven minutes. And it looked much better. So after that, it didn’t take me so long.
Lena: It took me an hour and a half to do my makeup. I was always the first one at the theatre. For me, it was anxiety-inducing. I was obsessed with the perfection of the makeup.
Sarah: I’ve gotten my makeup down to under 30 minutes.
Tyler: I started off an hour and a half, and now I’m at 35 minutes. I’m not really skilled with a brush. [Laughs.]
If you were told tonight that you were on in Cats, could you go on?
Lena: I could do all of the choreography right now. It’s the only show I’ve done for two and a half years, and I can do all of the “Jellicle Ball” and “Macavity.”
What moment in Cats do you connect with the most?
Liz: I love the “Jellicle Ball.” I found it thrilling — it’s a thrilling piece of theater. Even before I did Cats I loved it. It’s just one of those iconic moments in musical theater.
Lena: I think my favorite part of the show is at the end, when Grizabella is catapulted into the Heaviside Layer and there’s tons and tons of smoke on stage. And we’re all standing there in our Cats pose. It was just cool to be a part of it.
Tyler: My favorite part to watch is “Gus: The Theater Cat.” The storytelling is so clear, it’s simple, and I’ve always loved watching it.
Sarah: I have two. I love my number “The Old Gumbie Cat.” I don’t know if there’s another female tapping on Broadway right now. And sometimes I have this moment where I think I’m doing a tap solo on Broadway and I couldn’t be happier that it’s happening. I also love the very end of the show, that final addressing where we’re standing together; I just love it.
Like many shows on Broadway in the ’80s, the original production of Cats was plagued by AIDS. A good number of performers lost their battles with the disease shortly after performing in the musical in New York and on the road. Do you feel like you’re carrying a torch with performing in the revival, keeping legacies alive?
Tyler: Definitely. I didn’t realize the depth of what we’re doing until we started doing it. And with the performers who came before us and the art they created with this show, to be doing this is very special. There’s history with this show. And I feel the gravity of that every night.
Sarah: Sometimes people at the stage door don’t realize that the show closed for 16 years, and the idea of that is that this show is so much a part of people’s lives. People who aren’t from New York don’t even realize the show has gone away because they can’t imagine a time when Cats was not on Broadway. And to think about that is so cool. We’re propelling this legacy forward.
Photos by Matthew Murphy.