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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

Is the Stage Cast of Cats Embarrassed? An Inquiry

The cast of Cats perform on stage at the Broadway on July 31, 2016.
Image: Getty
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It has been suggested that handling cat poop infects your brain with a protozoan (Toxoplasma gondii) that makes you fall in love with cats. (Granted, this comes via what is essentially an urban legend based on a rat study that I am nonetheless intrigued by enough to cite.) Similarly, talking with people who have performed in major stage productions of Cats makes you fall in love with Cats. That is at least my experience. Through email and phone interviews, I have communicated with nearly two dozen members of various Cats companies: People who performed in the original London and Broadway runs (starting in 1981 and 1982, respectively), as well as the more recent respective revivals (London had two, starting in 2014 and 2015, while Broadway’s revival began in 2016). I don’t know much, but I know one thing: Cats is good.

Whatever snark guided the conception of this piece was quickly batted away like a ball with a bell in it. Clearly, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats has a reputation for divisiveness (the headline of a 2016 New York Times story pegged to the Broadway revival said it all: “We Love Cats. We Hate Cats.”). But the sheer earnest enthusiasm of the show’s performers was enough to win me over. They love Cats. They lived Cats. Many of them spent years donning plush ears and tails eight times a week in a demanding show that required the majority of the company to be onstage for practically the show’s entire two-and-a-half-hour runtime.

Repeatedly, cast members compared the show to a rock concert. They emphasized the athleticism the show required. Georgina Pazcoguin (aka “The Rouge Ballerina”) took a leave of absence from the New York City Ballet to be part of the Broadway revival—she said Cats was one of the hardest things she’s ever done. A member of the New York City Ballet! Many of the people I interviewed spoke of “tribe” existing amongst Cats alumni. “Everyone who’s done Cats, you meet them and you’re like, ‘Oh my God.’ And then we all have stories to tell and we’re all immediately family, almost,” said Kolton Krause, another alum of the Broadway revival. Betty Buckley, a complete and total legend of the stage and screen, who’s been in major productions of Sunset Boulevard, Carrie, Hello Dolly, as well as TV’s The Leftovers and Eight Is Enough, to name a scant few, told me that Cats was “one of the greatest experiences of my life.”

Despite the overall positivity, there were some misgivings, a few admissions of embarrassment, a genuine willingness to wrestle with the polarizing nature of this show. Below are the results of our non-scientific poll about former cast members’ time in Cats, their memories, and their pride and/or shame.

Describe your experience in Cats

Terrence Mann (Rum Tum Tugger, original Broadway cast): It was unreal. It was like hitting the jackpot for an actor.

Shonica Gooden (Rumpleteazer, Broadway revival): Truly a blessing.

Sara Jean Ford (Jellylorum, Broadway revival): The hardest show I’ve ever done.

Georgie Leatherland (Rumpleteazer, second London Revival): Feline, fun, and fulfilled a dream!

Christine Cornish Smith (Bombalurina, Broadway revival): Thrilling, grueling, and inspirational.

Andy Huntington Jones (Munkustrap, Broadway revival): Sweaty, exhausting, and exhilarating.

Gabrielle Cocca (Tantomile, second London revival): Truly incredible.

Femi Taylor (Tantomile, original London cast): We were all athletes.

Shonica Gooden
Shonica Gooden
Image: Ambe J Photography

Benjamin Mundy (Coricopat, first London revival): As one of the most physically and vocally demanding shows around and my first professional job in musical theatre, it completely shaped me.

Laurie Scarth (Jennyanydots, first London revival): It was everything I had hoped it would be and totally fulfilling as a triple-threat performer.

Seeta Indrani (Cassandra, Original London Cast): Game-changing. How many shows are still relevant to be interviewed about 38 years on?

Dawn Williams (Rumpleteazer, first London revival): The most rewarding and energetic dream come true.

Janet Hubert-Whitten (Tantomile, original Broadway cast): I felt the dancing was not challenging to many of us who were chosen for being good dancers. Loved singing the score, though!

Georgina “The Rouge Ballerina” Pazcoguin (Victoria, Broadway revival): I always say, “Cats was a lifestyle.” I lived, breathed, ate, drank according to how to get myself through the two-and-a-half-hour arc of the character and the physicality of the show. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and also one of the most rewarding career risks I’ve ever taken.

Christopher Gurr (Asparagus (Gus)/Bustopher Jones/Rumpus Cat, Broadway revival): Weird and wonderful. Hitching a ride on a cultural phenomenon at least once in your life is something I recommend.

Christopher Gurr
Christopher Gurr
Image: Christopher Gurr

Nicholas Pound (Old Deuteronomy, first London revival/various international tours): I have been performing the role of Old Deuteronomy on and off for 21 years. I find it a very spiritual experience. Playing a very old, contented feline guru allows me to “Zen out” completely from our crazy, selfish and judgmental human existence. I would recommend it to anyone!

Betty Buckley (Grizabella, original Broadway cast): Grizabella is like my soulmate and my best friend and my teacher. I’ve been so privileged all these years, since 1982. It’s been a real gift to be her originator on Broadway and to be her student all these years.

Betty Buckley at the 37th Annual Tony Awards ceremony at New York’s Uris Theatre, 1983
Betty Buckley at the 37th Annual Tony Awards ceremony at New York’s Uris Theatre, 1983
Image: AP

Share a Cats memory (all alone in the moonlight)

Shonica Gooden (Rumpleteazer in the Broadway revival): My most vivid Cats memory is learning “felinity.” Through the felinity process, you truly learn to embody cat characteristics, mindsets, body language, and personalities. This process helps transform your performance from being a human who is “catlike” to fully believing that you are in fact a cat. In a show where you are basically on stage the entire time, it is important that you maintain felinity and connection to your cat character at all times. Trust me, some audience member is always watching and waiting for you to come out of cat character.

Terrence Mann (Rum Tum Tugger, original Broadway cast): We did a lot of crawling around like cats and games and improvs. Watching cat videos. Everybody got a cat. [Choreographer Gillian Lynne] came in and said, “Here are the gestures. Here’s what you do to your hands to make them like paws. Here’s how you flick your whiskers.” Pretty straightforward stuff. The biggest lesson was through all of that learning, we created a real ensemble of people that were always on the same page at the same time.

Christopher Gurr (Asparagus (Gus)/Bustopher Jones/Rumpus Cat) (Broadway revival): Gillian Lynne had a very brief amount of time with us. In the time we had with her, she attempted to cram 35 years of feline essence into less than 15 minutes of rehearsal. She did it. With some words but, mainly, with one gesture.

“Now—I don’t want to disparage American performers, but Americans on the stage are usually saying, ‘LOOK AT ME!!!,’” she said, and her body did an odd little ghost of a George-M.-Cohan-meets-Al-Jolson-meets-Liza-Minnelli-meets-Liberace gesture.

“But cats… Her eyes lit up and narrowed at the same time, “…cats say—” And, in a flash, she shot up, one foot off the ground, and spun every line of her 89-year-old body up-up-up in a plume of arms and hands and eyes and—“‘Look at me!’”

It was a one-second move. It said everything you’d ever need to know about Cats.

Christopher Gurr’s dressing room
Christopher Gurr’s dressing room
Image: Jeremy Davis

Kolton Kraus (Tumblebrutus, Broadway revival): For “The Naming of Cats,” a lot of [the cast] went out into the audience. Once, the guy behind me started grabbing my tail and pulling me. That wasn’t fun. I stopped singing the words, I hissed at him, and I hit his arm away. Sometimes they would offer us M&M’s and we’d be like, “Okay.” And I’d eat an M&M.

Harry Groener (Munkustrap, original Broadway cast): When we went for one anniversary, 10-year or something, a bunch of us from the original company were in the orchestra. Jeffrey Denman, who took over Munkustrap, came down. Jeffrey, as he passed me, he turned and looked at me and he bowed. The tears just popped out of my head. The music starts and we all just start crying.

Betty Buckley (Grizabella, original broadway cast): For the year and a half that I did the show, people would come backstage and bring me Cats memorabilia and little ceramic statues and stuffed animals. They would pat me and tell me stories about their cat or their family’s cat or their friend’s cat. I was like, “Do they know this is a show? What is going on here? We’re not really cats.” But then when I saw the show in London and they came out, I was like, “Oh my God, I want to touch them, I want to hold them! They’re so cute!” I understood what the whole thing was about.

Cats has a reputation for being polarizing. Were you ever embarrassed about the show?

Femi Taylor (Tantomile, original London cast): We were embarrassed during and up until the first night when [director Trevor Nunn] came onto the tannoy and said, “Congratulations we have a hit.” To this day, I am so proud of being a part of history.

Kolton Kraus (Tumblebrutus, Broadway revival): I think you either love it or hate it. There’s really no in-between. I’ve never heard anybody go, “Oh, I kind of liked Cats.” I never got embarrassed because I was having fun so it didn’t really matter what people were saying.

Shonica Gooden (Rumpleteazer, Broadway revival): When I first got cast in the show and went to look at the original movie version, I was like, “Oh Lord, what did I get myself into?” After going through the process and learning the deeply rooted values and truths behind the story and the characters, I became very proud and honored to be a part of this legacy.

Sara Jean Ford (Jellylorum, Broadway revival): No. It is my job to find my purpose and pride in every piece of art that I have been hired to breathe life into. Otherwise, what am I doing with my life?

Georgina “The Rouge Ballerina” Pazcoguin (Victoria, Broadway revival): It’s not a perfect show. It never has been. I don’t think that’s where its magic is. The magic of Cats is seeing our human selves in these characters. That’s why it resonates still. We’re looking at cats, but we’re also looking at humanity through these characters and through T.S. Eliot’s poems.

Christine Cornish Smith
Christine Cornish Smith
Image: Matthew Murphy/Jennifer Anderson

Christine Cornish Smith (Bombalurina, Broadway revival): Embarrassed? No—I was thrilled to be fulfilling a dream job in a dream show! But I pass no judgment on people who think Cats is bizarre... because IT IS!!!!

Joseph Corella (Mistoffelees, limited engagement run in Los Angeles): I mean, I have pictures of me dressed as a cat. Enough said. However, I not embarrassed at all by it.

Andy Huntington Jones (Munkustrap, Broadway revival): I always felt proud and safe performing Cats in our Broadway theatre, but I did feel pretty stupid walking in public down 34th Street in full costume to perform on the Macy’s Thanksgiving telecast in 2016. That was a weird (and cold) day for us. I loved the show as a kid, but as an adult performer, I learned some valuable lessons about putting my ego aside to dress up like a cat.

Paul F. Monaghan (Asparagus (Gus)/Bustopher Jones/Growltiger, first London revival): I don’t think the show is polarizing at all. It was certainly revolutionary for its time, and it was the first “triple threat” English musical to compete with an already burgeoning U.S. form of the art. I can honestly say I’ve never been embarrassed by anything or anyone in the show except for, at 50 years old, how ridiculous I thought I looked wearing lycra!

Benjamin Mundy (Coricopat, first London revival): I was never embarrassed as a result of the show. In fact, I was nothing more than honored, grateful and proud to be a part of it.

Laurie Scarth (Jennyanydots, first London revival): I feel incredibly honored and lucky to say that I have worked on this show. I worked alongside the most incredible team of creatives and an insanely talented cast who worked so hard each night to tell this story.

Seeta Indrani (Cassandra, original London cast): I’ve never heard that. Initially, of course, the British press “took a view,” but that was blown out of the water as soon as we started previews. No one quite knew what we had, but the audience reaction on the first preview was overwhelming and continued to build.

Lili Froehlich (Electra, Broadway revival): I was never embarrassed by the show; however, sometimes I had trouble with the thin and whimsical storyline. It is a pretty sexist show but ultimately has a message of love and acceptance. That is what helped me to tell the story—knowing that at the end of it all the show is about pushing past our biases and accepting and loving everyone. We also had a fan base of LGBTQ+ teens and young people that found solace in the show, which made me love being a part of it even more.

Janet Hubert-Whitten (Tantomile, original Broadway cast): No, never. It was an honor to be chosen as a part of the original Broadway production. I had fought hard to get the role: Flying in from Indiana with two shows later that day, being cut and showing up at the open call to be chosen was an honor.

Harry Groener (Munkustrap, original Broadway cast): No way. It was cool! It was really cool to be in that show. My God, you’re in Cats! You’re in the hit of that particular season. You were fortunate to be cast in it. You could tell by the response from the audience. It’s for kids, basically. But I think it’s pretty entertaining. It’s a silly little piece. My God, we’re dressing up as cats! It’s silly, just go with it.

Betty Buckley (Grizabella, original broadway cast): I remember David Letterman really hated it and made fun of it. That used to piss me off. I was like, “You don’t understand! This is storytelling at the highest, but you’ve got to be a subtle human being in touch with your feelings and clearly you’re not!” [Editor’s note: The tone in which Betty Buckley recalled this hypothetical response to Letterman was one of humor and kidding around. Her delivery made it clear that this was, in effect, a sarcastic “bit” and not intended to be taken literally.]

I think a lot of the people who didn’t get Cats or don’t get Cats don’t know how to trust their own experience with subtlety. Even if you let it wash over you, from the visual and aural aspects of it, that’s enough. But there’s so much more to it than that.

Emily Pyenberg (Cassandra, Broadway revival): I would never describe it as embarrassing. When you’re working on that stage with the creative team that was behind it and the people on stage, you can’t be embarrassed. I just felt humbled. But that being said, I’m not a huge Cats fan. I loved doing it, but I can totally see how for some people it’s hilarious. You’re dressed as a cat for a job every single night. Sometimes you build a train; sometimes you talk about Skimbleshanks or Jellicles. Like, what are we saying? But sometimes I felt empowered. Being in a catsuit in front of like 1,000 people every night, you just kind of have to accept yourself. I think that’s part of the bonding too: When you have a bunch of people doing absurd stuff, everyone just becomes human.

Terrence Mann (Rum Tum Tugger, original Broadway cast): I was not—not at the time. I was proud to be a part of something that I thought was cutting edge. Looking back at it 30 years later, of course, you’re gonna go, “Wow.” But in 1982, things were different. I was lucky and proud to be working. At the end of the day, it sold tickets and everyone was entertained. Every time I would run out into the audience as the Rum Tum Tugger and grab somebody and bring them up on stage to dance, they were having a ball. I never ever regretted that. I just always felt so lucky to be part of somebody’s enjoyment of the theatre.

Christopher Gurr (Asparagus (Gus)/Bustopher Jones/Rumpus Cat, Broadway revival): To be honest, I was always embarrassed as a result of the show, but most of the time, at the same time, deeply proud. Cats is to a great slice of my profession and to a lot of the world, in general, a punchline of a show. You can’t not have that in your heart as you put on the makeup and yak hair every night. Turns out, though, it also the culmination of work of some of the finest theatre and literary artists, living or dead. A lot of people love it dearly. And I was on Broadway in a truly wonderful part performing with an amazing tribe of actors. Pride and shame. Cognitive dissonance. It’s what working in theatre is all about.