Don’t look now, but it’s Now and Forever again. The second of Cats’ nine lives began July 31—this time at the Neil Simon, since composer Andrew Lloyd Webber has turned the former haunt of his alleycats, the Winter Garden, into a School of Rock.
The first time around, the so-billed “Now and Forever Musical” lingered there for 18 years, exiting after 7,485 performances as Broadway’s longest-running hit, a record Lord Lloyd Webber has subsequently trounced with The Phantom of the Opera (11,862 performances, as of yesterday).
The Playbill that marked the show’s departure on September 10, 2000 carried its legendary logo—two piercing cat eyes, but with a tear rolling out of the right eye. At the curtain call, the composer mustered a sunny, funny and, as it turns out, prophetic goodbye. “Tonight,” he announced, “is, in fact, the last night of Cats’ first life on Broadway.”
Those eyes—yellow and penetrating as ever in the darkness—are the first thing you see as Cats comes back to life and Broadway, blinking here and there onstage, in the aisles and gradually all over the house. First-nighters, suspecting a hit, purred contentedly.
Lloyd Webber—a determinedly casual lord going for the everyman look (coatless, tieless, open-collared)—entered stage right and added a touch of reality to the evening with a sad little postscript: “As all of you know,” the composer said, “one of theatre’s dearest friends—and one of my dearest friends—passed away this week or, to be more precise, entered a new Jellicle life. On the behalf of this wonderful company and the incredible creative team who’ve worked so hard on my show, all of us would like to dedicate this production to the great Jimmy Nederlander.”
James L. Nederlander produced the revival with The Shubert Organization, (an unseen) Cameron Mackintosh and Lloyd Webber’s own Really Useful Group—plus a posse of presenters (Roy Furman, John Gore, Stella La Rue, Grove Entertainment, Burnt Umber Productions, Independent Presenters Network and Peter May).
The lavish after-party, held at stately Gotham Hall, was crowded and festive, but Lloyd Webber negotiated his way through it visibly relaxed and unusually accessible for one of his opening nights. “I can sit back and say ‘I’m the composer, and I liked it,’” he beamed. But he can only relax so much. “As much as I enjoy producing, I’ve really got to get back to my day job—which is to try and write a new musical.”
Good ideas are hard to come by. Setting T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats to music was his son’s brainstorm. “He’s 23 years old and has never seen Cats.
“I really can’t overstress that it’s T.S. Eliot’s words. That and the fact it’s a very theatrical piece really make the show timeless and make it work. I hadn’t seen it for two weeks, so I’ve come back to see how it had settled. What I was first struck by is that there is much more character, I think, in the dancing. It’s more grounded. I think the dance has brought much, much more character than it had five years ago.”
That newly Tony-ed Hamiltonian, Andy Blankenbuehler, was hired to “tweak” the original choreography of Gillian Lynne—very much over her vociferous objections.
(Check out that tension on Playbill’s title page for the show. You can detect the stress in the stretch of letters where both artists are accorded a full line of type.)
The last line on the title page is a carryover from the original production: Director Trevor Nunn. He was missing in the opening-night action and said to be in Vienna, having moved on to his next production, supposedly a Stephen Schwartz show.
A staple at the Royal Shakespeare Company who had never directed a musical until he took on Cats in 1981 (talk about a life-changer!), Nunn won one of the show’s seven Tonys—and deserves custody of the Tony posthumously awarded to Eliot’s lyrics. The director always demurs. “T.S. Eliot was the greatest English and American poet of the 20th century. [His] doodlings formed the basis for this show, and [he] was my unwitting collaborator in writing the words to ‘Memory.’ Probably, he’d have been unwilling if he had been around.” Oh, well, there are the royalties . . .
At the show’s Broadway closing, Nunn confessed that he had supreme, unshakable confidence in the show right up until May 10, 1981, the night before Cats premiered in London, and the terrible thought occurred to him, “What if they don’t get it at all?”
Lloyd Webber well-remembers that terror: “The idea of doing a musical with human beings as cats was considered to be absolutely crazy. Everybody thought we were mad. We opened with most of the investment missing. I put a second mortgage on my house. Nobody thought this show could work at all. It sold out for months by the time we got to New York, but in London we were considered to be off our heads.”
The only other lord on the premises was the ancient patriarch who lorded over the cat litter—Broadway’s original Old Deuteronomy—Ken Page. He came in for the occasion from St. Louis where he’s rehearsing Elton John’s Aida with Michelle Williams and Patrick Cassidy. “My producers were kind enough to let me off to come up and see this,” he explained, “and I go back to rehearsal Tuesday morning.”
For him, watching the show with the audience was “very much an out-of-body experience. I was seeing the original cast up there. Some of them aren’t with us anymore, and I was seeing them, seeing moments that we all know we made.”
His most harrowing memory occurred the night after the Tonys when the levitating tractor-tire at the Winter Garden that carried him and Grizabella (the freshly Tony-ed Betty Buckley) heavenward to The Heavyside Layer broke down and a cherry-picker had to be used. “They called the cue backwards, and the cherry-picker went crashing through the ceiling, slinging wood everywhere. Betty was just standing there, shaking. She didn’t know what was going to happen. I said, ‘Stay here. Stay here.’ And she did. That night Grizabella didn’t get redeemed. She got sick.”
The only other original Broadway cast member in attendance was Anna McNeely, who played Jellyanydots. “We’ve actually been corresponding via email,” said the 2016 Jellyanydots, Eloise Kropp. “It’s a fun character to play. I like that she’s lazy, but I also like that she’s motherly. She’s truly like the mother of the tribe. Her main objective is to take care of the kittens and nurture them and teach them how to become older good cats and keep a good name going for everyone in the family.”
In this production, the Buckley star-spot is filled by a British vocal powerhouse named Leona Lewis. “It’s been amazing playing Grizabella,” she admitted. “The audience reaction has been greater than I could have hoped for. I’ve really enjoyed it, but I’ve only done 14 performances so I don’t want to get too carried away!”
The feline facsimile of Mick Jagger, Rum Tum Tugger, is socked across aggressively by Tyler Hanes. “This character’s a blast! He’s a party! He’s loud, he’s outgoing, he’s totally Mick—some of him, some of Prince, some of Bowie, some of Elvis, a lot of Andy Blankenbuehler. I just feel a lot of freedom doing it. There’s so much playful, and there’s so much play, that Trevor and Andy have been able for me to have.”
Ricky Ubeda, sporting an amazing Technicolor dreamvest that lights up when he dances, lives up to his big number, “Magical Mister Mistoffelees,” and Emily Pynenburg basks blissfully in the reflected glory. “I feel dazzled just to dance with Ricky Ubeda,” said Pynenburg, who also trips the light fantastic. “I’ve battery packs in my costume. They figured out how to hide it. Basically, I wear my regular leotards, then the light-up one and another on top of that. I come in three layers.”
Audience-wise, Cats pretty much preached to the converted on opening night. Anybody with a passing acquaintance with musical theatre seemed to be attendance, saved for the promised Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose flight from Puerto Rico was delayed). Otherwise, there were Jekyll & Hyde (Constantine Maroulis), Cinderella (Laura Osnes), Dirty Blonde (Claudia Shear), Elf and his wife, The Pirate Queen (Sebastian Arcelus and Stephen J. Block). Plus Tommy Tune, whose choreography for My One and Only took the 1983 Tony over Gillian Lynne’s cat-crawlings.
See photos from Opening Night: