Bernard B. Jacobs, a theatrical legend for his support of theatre and the late president of the Shubert Organization (theatre owners and theatrical co-producers) who was honored with a special 1997 Tony Award for lifetime achievement, visited his Winter Garden on October 8, 1982, the day after he, Gerald Schoenfeld, The Really Useful Company Limited, David Geffen and Cameron Mackintosh had transplanted there Andrew Lloyd Webber's musicalization of T.S. Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats."
Those who saw him that day recall how blissed out he was.
"For Bernie, even a little excited was a lot, and he was very excited," says Steven Hanan, one of the Cats in question, "thrilled about the box office. I vividly remember him saying, as if he were carving it in stone, 'This is going to run longer than A Chorus Line.' It's sad Bernie's no longer with us because I'd love to remind him of that prophesy that he made the day after we opened."
On June 19, this prediction turns statistic. A Chorus Line goes feline that day as Cats turns in its 6,138th performance and becomes Broadway's longest-running show. For almost 15 years the show has been a launching pad for a whole generation of performers, kids who went out there kittens and came back cats. Spawned by director Trevor Nunn and choreographer Gillian Lynne, stars were indeed born. Such is the stuff of memory -- or, rather, "Memory" . . .
The soaring, Puccini-esque "Memory" carried Betty Buckley's Grizabella to The Heaviside Layer (which is as close to Heaven as you can get from inside the Winter Garden), just as it took the actress to the Tony podium. Two other cats made the Tony running: Hanan's Growltiger and Harry Groener's Munkustrap. All agree the Cats premiere was purrrrrfection. Cynthia Onrubia, who was originating her first Broadway role (Victoria) in it, remembers the opening-night gifts: a bottle of champagne and some Purina Cat Chow. Groener recalls the show-biz axiom that crashed and burned that evening: the one that said opening-night audiences are a notch or two cooler in the Response Dept. than preview audiences. "I thought that would happen with Cats because the previews were fabulous," he says, "but at the opening they screamed and yelled. I thought, 'Oh, my God! I'll never hear anything like this again.'"
Terrence Mann and Charlotte d'Amboise, now Mann and wife, met as cats: Rum Tum Tugger and Cassandra. And Timothy Jerome learned he was going to be a father just before going on as Gus the Theatre Cat; that momentous news pushed every lyric out of his head, and he came up dry for Gus's song, forcing him to ad-lib in anguish three whole verses. "I'll never forget the looks on those kids' faces -- those stunned, shocked faces -- as I just sang a song from another world," says Jerome. "They told me the audience never caught on, but the cast sure did. Scott Wise (who went on to become one of Broadway's premiere and Tony-winning dancers and to branch out as a romantic leading man) was sitting backstage howling over what was happening." (Wise readily allows he "never laughed so hard in a theatre in my life.")
As Old Deuteronomy, lording majestically over John Napier's outsized junkyard set, Ken Page had to stay onstage during intermission, standing guard territorially by his throne, dealing cursorily with any paying customers who happened by to explore the fanciful environs. Only once, by his count, did he lose his cool: "Trevor never gave instructions about intermission, so what I did was stay in character. If it was something I had to respond to, I'd keep it hypnotic. I wouldn't get rambunctious. One evening I saw this little old lady coming at me with one of those I'm going-to-take-care-of-business walks. She planted herself in front of me, stuck out her hand and said, 'Deuteronomy? Ruth Gordon.'
"I thought, 'Oh, my God! What am I going to do?' I couldn't gush like I wanted to, so finally I whispered to her, 'I'm not really supposed to talk like this, but I adore you. I think you're wonderful.' She said, 'Well, I think you're wonderful, too. This is my husband, Garson Kanin.' We talked and talked, and she said, 'Make sure you tell everybody how terrific they are.' Some time after that, I ran into them in the street, out of make-up. They were walking arm in arm as they always did. I told them I was Deuteronomy, and they both looked at me like I was the Angel of Death for a second. I said, 'From Cats.' She said, 'Oh, my Lord! You're a baby. I thought you were an old man. Look, Gar, he's a baby.' It was the thrill of my life to have met them."
Page's primary rival for the role was another Ken, Prymus, who followed Page into Ain't Misbehavin' and is now in the sixth year of his Old Deuteronomy reign. These two Kens did a seven-round audition for that "fat cat" part, so perhaps predictably Prymus's favorite Cats memory is his next encounter with director Nunn: "At our tenth anniversary, Trevor came over to see the show. I was a nervous wreck, afraid this man wouldn't like me, so afterward at the party I avoided him like the plague. Then, our general manager came over to me and said, 'Trevor Nunn would like to talk to you.' I thought, 'Oh, boy, here goes my job.' When I went over, Trevor shook my hand and said, 'You were born to do this role.' That knocked me out, so I asked why he didn't hire me originally.
He said, 'I remember why: You didn't have the low notes.' He was right, too. Back then, I was truly a tenor and didn't have the low notes." (Only the more devout of film buffs know a fresh-faced Prymus introduced that playfully plaintive dirge, "Suicide Is Painless," in the 1970 movie M*A*S*H . A pit singer and Old Deuteronomy standby, Walter Charles subsequently stepped up to star parts on Broadway in La Cage aux Folles and A Christmas Carol. The memory he carried away from Cats comes from the rehearsal period and is almost as much a paean to chorus-gypsy life as to the show.
"We were at 890 Broadway, and the kids were putting together the Jellicle Ball, the show's big dance number. It's long and difficult, and they'd worked on it for days. Then came the day they'd do the whole thing. Those of us who weren't dancing lined up in front with Trevor and Gillian. They started to dance. It was exhausting. They were gasping for breath, and we were shouting encouragement. It was the most viscerally exciting thing I've ever seen: All these kids, the best dancers New York City had to offer, in their headbands, sweats, and T-shirts, dancing their hearts out. And, when it was over, this tremendous cheer went up. I don't think it was ever that exciting again. It was absolutely wonderful. Sensational! Everything that Broadway is about is in that one moment of those kids busting their guts doing that number."
Laurie Beechman gets back into her Grizabella getup this month and will do the role on Broadway beyond Labor Day. She pounced on the part in November 1983 when she opened the first national tour in Boston. Six months later she bowed on Broadway and stayed there through 1988.
The house electrician during her tenure, Joe Newman, looked it up and discovered she was the longest-running continuous principal-player to work the Winter Garden, surpassing Al Jolson and Angela Lansbury (but, now, not Ken Prymus). "You know, I never got tired of it," she's amazed to admit. Her favorite Cats memory is seasonal: "I always had Chanukah in my dressing room. I'd have the menorah, bits of wine and gelt, the prayer phonetically printed out on the wall. Ethan Fine, a guitar player from the orchestra, would come up. It made quite a sight, kids in cat costumes celebrating Chanukah. For me, that's the spirit of the place."
Lillias White, a 1997 Tony winner for her Sonja in The Life, left Cats with a legendary last "Memory," singing the song Her Way. "For the entire run, she sang 'Memory' straight, the way everybody wanted it," reported her Munkustrap, Bryan Batt (who went on to Jeffrey on stage and film, and Sunset Boulevard. "For her last show, Lillias let loose and blew the roof off the place. There's still that hole in the ceiling of the Winter Garden (insider joke -- for those not inside, the huge opening was made in the roof of the theatre to accommodate the finale). The audience loved it, and so did the cast -- because she was popping it to the Establishment, so to speak." [At the time, White was feuding with the show's stage manager who insisted she wear high heels (as part required), even though she was having problems making a speedy, steep descent in them from The Heaviside Layer for her curtain call.]
"When I took my last bow," White says, "I took it in my bedroom slippers. The whole cast cracked up, but Bryan Batt fell down on all fours."
Of his own experience, Batt says, "I was reluctant to audition because I'm not that great a dancer," he's quick to concede, "but the Munkustrap role is mainly for a singer-actor, so I did it. I wasn't to the level of some of the dancers there, but they kept making me do the combination over and over again. Finally, I just looked out from the stage and said, 'You know, the audience will never know how long it took me to get this.' They laughed, then I sang, and that was it. I got cast right then and there. I never had a more gratifying audition. I walked out with the job. No waiting by the phone, no pacing."
Batt did the road show for six months, then rejoined the Broadway company. Two years later he auditioned for Darius, the Broadway dancer, in Paul Rudnick's Jeffrey. "Originally, the character was in the Grand Hotel chorus, and there were jokes about him almost dropping Cyd Charisse. At my callback, Paul looked at my resume and said, 'Are you really in Cats?' I said, 'Yeah. Now and Forever.'
Later he told me that's when he got the idea to rewrite the role as a guy from Cats. He said, 'From that moment it was you.'"
Now Batt, currently knocking 'em in the aisles with laughter in Forbidden Broadway Strikes Back), does a bit called "Stop Cats" (from passing A Chorus Line). Bernie Jacobs, who saw that coming nearly 15 years ago, would have loved it!