Peggy Bendel


Cats Magazine
  Broadway Cats
by Peggy Bendel

From pampered purebreds to scruffy mongrels, from scrappy strays to lazy fat cats, from a wise old philosopher scampering twin kittens, Andrew Lloyd Webber's show "Cats" has them all and many more.  The Broadway hit employs a cast of 36 performers and features spectacular special effects to dramatize a wide array of cat characters and their incredible capers. 

Webber based his creation on a collection of poems published in 1939, "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" by the late T.S. Eliot. Eliot, whose affection for cats was widely known and who often used cat metaphors in his work, originally wrote the poems for his god children who adored their own pet cats. Webber remembered enjoying the poems as a child, and in the late '70s began setting the verses to music. After many trial productions, the show evolved into its final form -- an entertaining anthology of songs and dances celebrating cats of all kinds.
        Some say a real-life cat has nine lives, but this theatrical version may have even more. It opened in New York's Winter Garden Theater on October 7, 1982 and on June 19th of this year will set a record as the longest-running show in Broadway history. According to publicist Michael Borowski, the winning streak is likely to continue. "You'll find 'Cats' playing here in the year 2,000 and well into the next century," he predicts.
        The first thing you notice upon entering the theater is the amazing set, a feline nocturnal playground that won a Tony award for designer John Napier.   "He's transformed the whole theater into a huge junkyard from the perspective of a cat," comments Borowski, pointing out the more than 1,500 oversized fast food cartons, broken dishes, bent spoons, old tires, rusty cars, soda cans and other rubbish that literally surround the performers and the audience. Each item was sculpted roughly 3'/2 times life size to represent the way society's discards look from a cat's point of view.

One-half hour before a recent Wednesday afternoon matinee, three of the cast members gathered in the front row seats of the theater to talk about their work. As technicians tested the sound system, the orchestra warmed up and the ushers checked the house, these performers spoke about the unusual challenges of portraying cats on stage.
        "I'm an understudy or swing player," says Jon Paul Christensen, at 22 one of the youngest in the cast. Having been with the show only four months, he's also a newcomer. "I'm prepared to cover a variety of characters -- three are kittens and one's a really mean cat, so I cover the good side and bad side," he says.
        Christensen's careful to tailor the way he moves on stage for the character of the moment. "Kittens are very playful and bouncy. The meaner ones are more hunched over," he notes. "The majority of the action is in your back."
        This thoughtful young man acquired a cat soon after he won a role in the show. "It's a brown tabby kitten and he's so, so curious," he says. "I find myself just watching him and thinking, 'I should do that in the show.' You know, I never really thought about cats before I was cast in the show, but now I love my cat and I'm so happy to have one."
        Lynn Sterling, another swing player, has been with the show three years. "I cover four roles, and all are considered principal cats," she says, recalling the intensely competitive audition for the job, and then the months of rehearsals which followed. "I played Tantomile for four months and remember feeling stupid and awkward in rehearsal," she says, referring to the character of the female kitten twin. But then Sterling experienced an important transition during the first dress rehearsal. "I saw myself with the wig and nose on," she says. "When I put on the tail, I naturally went up on
my legs and then I could see 'my cat." Sterling also covers the role of the sultry Bombalurina and the elegant Cassandra, characters who have qualities in common with the pet cat she keeps at home. "I named her Freeda Girlee because she's such a showgirl. She just loves men! She is one fabulous cat, and I take her everywhere with me. We just traveled to Italy together," says Sterling, who especially enjoys her cat's talent for posing. "She knows she looks cute curled up on the wingback chair. She knows she looks really cute when she sits on the television and lets one paw dangle over the screen. I have an album full of photographs of her."
        Sterling claims her pet definitely has inspired her performance. Describing how she imitates Freeda on stage she says, "Everything is more elongated and drawn out. It involves every single muscle. If you don't feel all your muscles, you won't look like a cat. I even try not to blink on stage, but to lower my eyelids slowly and deliberately, the way a cat does."
      Angel Caban, who was midway through applying her cat makeup when she joined the interview, also draws inspiration from her pet cats. "I have two cats, a little black and white one named Sam I Am and a huge bruiser, a bully named Orange Pekoe. I bought Sam after I had been in the show a while, and then got Peke as a friend for him," she says, adding, "I find myself totally mesmerized by them. Next thing I know, I'm doing something in the show and realize I stole it from Sam or Peke."
        Like Sterling, Caban finds the costumes help her deliver a convincing performance. "The costume changes all of your costume changes all of your movements," she  says.

 "In rehearsal, you feel as if you're acting like a cat. But when you put on the hair, the costume and the tail-you find yourself moving differently.  It just pushes you right over the edge into that realm."

Indeed, the costumes -- which like the set, were designed by John Napier and won him a Tony award -- bring the show to life. "If you look very carefully, each design tells the entire story of the character of the cat," says wardrobe supervisor John Laurino as one of his assistants pulls out the elements of a representative cat costume.
        The basic garment is a form-fitting, stretch knit unitard that's been hand painted in a fur pattern. A matching tail ties around the waist and snaps onto the back into a loop of elastic. Most characters also wear fuzzy, hand-knit arm and leg warmers to suggest paws. A matching wig made from dyed yak hair includes the ears. Napier created a copyrighted make-up design to go with each costume which the performer follows to paint his or her own face before each show.
        Laurino has great admiration for Napier's work. "One costume I think is especially effective in the show is Macavity, the mean cat with all the spiked fur," says Laurino. "I remember walking on my street one day, and there was a cat just like Macavity in my way. He's more than just an alley cat -- he's crazed, he's vicious."
        Another of Laurino's favorites is Bustopher Jones, the stout, black, cat-about-town with white paws and chest. "I call him the Pavarotti cat," says Laurino. "He's very elegant."
        The costume for Gus, the old theater cat whose "fur" is a hand crocheted coat in muted colors, also rates raves from Laurino, as does the costume for Grizabella, the character who sings the hit ballad "Memory" in the show. "If you look at her costume, you can see that she was formerly very glamorous and now she's all beat up," says Laurino. "She still wears the last of her beaded dress, but it's all straggly. Her lipstick is smeared. Her coat is torn, in tatters. I've seen cats walking around like that a lot, those poor old things. You can see them very clearly in Grizabella's whole look, especially if you're a cat person."
        Because the cast is on stage on all fours most of the time, it's not surprising that the costumes take a beating. Laurino's staff of dressers comes in early before each performance to mend, replace and clean the costumes to maintain the integrity of the show's look.
The intense workout also takes its toll on the performers -- the reason there's a massage therapist listed in the Playbill~ credits for the show. "We also offer orthopedic services and keep a chiropractor on standby," says Borowski. "You have to assume portraying the physicality of the animal will affect a player, let alone the strenuous dancing involved.
        Playing cat characters for eight shows a week also affects the performers another way-it can be as challenging to get out of character as it is to get in.
        "Cats move their head very fast, so sometimes I'll find myself doing that," says Christensen, laughing. "1 realize I'm still in show mode."
        "My friends have noticed a difference in me, which they're sure to point out," says Caban, smiling about certain off-duty experiences. "It can be embarrassing to find yourself acting like a cat when you're, say, in a restaurant. You find yourself making cat faces or licking your lips."
        "I was working on this other gig, and the director stopped the rehearsal and said, 'I can tell you're in 'Cats.' Now, don't be an animal," says Sterling, demonstrating a few catlike mannerisms. "When you play a cat, your body is so awake that afterwards you have to consciously calm it down."
        As the stage manager called for the performers to take their places, one couldn't help but wonder if there was a cat somewhere on the premises, a mascot or perhaps an old back stage fan like the character Gus. "Oh no, we couldn't possibly have a live cat here," says Borowski in parting. "The theater's closed on Thursdays and no one would be left to take care of it. Besides, it would be much too risky to take the chance a real cat would get loose and run out on the stage during a show!"