Oh, meow, or why Cats is still a kick in the jellicles

Apr 30

Cats.

Feeling Friskies: the touring company (also seen below) of Cats is coming to the Orpheum Theatre. Photos by Joan Marcus

 

When they said Cats was “now and forever,” they weren’t kidding. Not even a little bit.

On May 11, the much beloved (and derided) Andrew Lloyd Webber musical about singing pussycats and tires that lift off to kitty-cat heaven marks the 30th anniversary of its London premiere. Yes, it has been three decades since Mr. Mistoffolees and the Rum Tum Tugger first bounded onto the stage of the New London Theatre in the West End. Elaine Paige was a late-in-the-game replacement for Judi Dench (not yet a dame), who had been injured more than once during rehearsals – first a foot injury, then, juggling crutches, a pitch off a ramp into empty seats. Paige had the distinction of introducing the song “Memory” into the public consciousness, where it has boldly resisted becoming the kind of memory it sings about.

On Broadway, Cats was the longest-running musical (7,485 performances) until another Lloyd Webber show, The Phantom of the Opera, broke that record in 2006. As you may recall, Cats was a true sensation, winning seven 1983 Tony Awards and helping redefine musical theater for the next decade. This is a show that shows no signs of going to that great litter box in the sky. In 1991, Cats became the longest continuously touring show in U.S. theater history, and the folks at Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group have some interesting statistics about the show’s touring history: five continents, 26 countries, more than 8 ½ million audience members.

That’s a lot of (cat) scratch.

It should not surprise you that Cats is coming back. SHN brings the tour to the Orpheum Theatre May 5-15.

Richard Stafford, the show’s director and production supervisor, has made quite a career of Cats. His Broadway dancing career led him to the musical in 1985, and 26 years later, he’s still helping re-create Trevor Nunn’s original direction and Gillian Lynne’s original choreography.

What keeps Stafford interested in returning over and over again to jellicle songs for jellicle cats?

Cats.

“Honestly, every time I work on it, I learn something more about the show, about the craft of theater, about musical theater in general, about myself,” he says on the phone from his New York home. Ironically, in the middle of his thought, Stafford’s dog barks. That’s right. He’s a dog person (but he insists he loves cats, too). “I love teaching new people the choreography and direction. With each new tour, it’s usually a young group of actors who haven’t done this before, and for many of them, this was a show they grew up loving. To share the show with them is moving to me. I have worked on this show for a long time, through many incarnations. I have been so fortunate to work with Trevor and Gillian. Carrying all that information along has been a huge part of my career. And I could not have done it if I didn’t love the show so much.”

Stafford, who has directed a regional production of Cats for Sacramento’s Music Circus (where he will return this summer to work on Oliver!), has had a front-row seat to watch Cats become legendary. His theory on why the show has such longevity starts with the source material: T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.

“The poetry is so beautiful and has its own kind of magic,” Stafford says. “Those words married to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s beautiful melodies created a new sound. Now we take it for granted, but the show really did sound different. Although for some the plot is hard to decipher, there are strong themes of forgiveness – almost literal re-birth. Whether audiences know it or not, it’s magical to see people transformed into animals. It’s childlike and not childlike at the same time, and that touches people. Really, it’s hard to explain, but so many elements came together in a magical way for the creative team.”

Of course, Cats has had its fair share of detractors over the years and been the butt of many a musical theater joke. But when something becomes as successful as Cats, backlash is inevitable.

“I know the show can be a challenge for those unwilling to suspend disbelief,” Stafford says. “They say it’s not about anything or not musically interesting. But if you look at the whole creation, there’s so much to it. There are so many haunting melodies in it, but some people have been brainwashed not to like Andrew Lloyd Webber, so they don’t really notice. One of my first jobs was in the first national tour of Evita and I just have to say that Andrew Lloyd Webber has given us so much. We tend to forget that in musical theater culture.”

One of the hardest parts of Stafford’s job, he says, is maintaining a high level of felinity in his performers – the catlike tread that has become the show’s trademark (along with the wonderfully fuzzy costumes by John Napier).

“It’s all about the feline movements,” he says. “Gillian Lynne choreographed almost every second of the show. There are a few moments of improve, but so many of the great details are Gillian’s. If the cast is fully into the feline world, the storytelling is better and the show is extremely successful. If, for whatever reason, the cast has let go of some of that, the show is much less fulfilling and feels like skits strung together. It’s still spectacular, but it doesn’t have the magic it might otherwise have. When I’m watching the show, I can see instantly if the performers are using their backs, continuing to contract and to feel the feline sharpness. If they lose that, it’s my job to get it back, and that’s something I’m good at.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Cats runs May 5-15 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets start at $30. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com for information.

 

[bonus article]

Read “The (more than) nine lives of Cats” here.

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