One Cat's Diary: Stephen Mo Hanan Offer a Cats Chronicle

One Cat's Diary: Stephen Mo Hanan Offer a Cats Chronicle PART TWO

PART TWO

Day 16: August 26

Gillie suspended class this morning (Cynthia offered barre at 9:30 in her inimitable goofy dragon-lady style) to press through to the finish of the Ball. She worked all morning (I sat around idling and worked on the aria and Gus around noon with Stan and Bonnie) and by 1:15 was only two measures from the end. She stopped and ran it from the top, starting with the Jellicle Cats poem. I slipped out at my usual moment and crossed down to watch from the front. The familiar section was better than when I'd last looked; then all the new stuff started. I'd watched snatches of it but had no sense of its continuity. As it built and built you could begin to see everybody's strain and pain and agony. Groans and moans began to break forth. The non dancers, starting with Betty B, began to cheer everyone on: "Come on. Donna! Go for it! Yeah, yeah!" Rooting and urging like at an athletic event and somehow, in spite of the slips and blurs and glazed expressions, they kept right on. Rene Ceballos, always so willing and energized, seemed about to faint. There was no sparkle or flair, just sheer grit and with everyone offstage clapping out the rhythm and cheering, they got to the finish. Everybody burst into applause and kept up a sustained ovation. Timmy collapsed on the floor, people fell into one another's arms. It was stunning.

In the locker room en route to lunch everyone was abuzz with comprehension of the challenge posed by getting it right and doing it eight times a week. "We've got to run this once every day from now on," said Harry, to unanimous agreement. People were dazed...

Day 22: September 2 We went into Studio 2 to work on "The Naming of Cats" with Stanley. But we got totally bogged down in the quest of how to approach rehearsing it. Do we try to set an exact musical rhythm for the unison speaking, or do we have it grow out of the acting approach? And what is the acting approach? Everybody had an opinion and I began to understand why it took so long to set the protocols for the Vietnam peace talks. At last Stan, at a loss as to Trevor's intention for the number, said, "Well, how did he tell you to do it?" At that moment the door opened and TN himself walked in. Everyone burst into cheers and applause. Superb timing.

He talked about the number at great length -- to him it's the biggest risk in the show for each of us, as we must work our own sections of the audience personally, but without losing the unison vocal connection. We must grip the audience so totally, simultaneously affronting and engaging them, that by the time we return to the stage they feel that this is not like any other show they've ever seen. When we're out there they have to feel too intimidated to shift, cough, cross legs, etc. So they have to understand every last word. It's an enormous challenge and the rehearsal didn't really help much to resolve the question of balancing personal commitment with unison diction.

Day 24: September 4

After warmups Trevor announced that we would attempt to "achieve" (a favorite word of his) a runthrough of the whole show from the point of view of storyline, filling in the moments between numbers with continuity of event and character, answering everyone's questions on logistics and flow. A major order, and what with blocking everyone's moves into the house for "The Naming of Cats," return for the "Invitation" and so forth, we only reached the beginning of "Tugger" by lunch time. A large party. Girl-Rene [Ceballos], Bonnie [Simmons], Harry [Groener], Herman [Sebek], Terry [Mann], Whitney [Kershaw], Chris [Langner] Hector [Mercado], and Donna [King] -- went in search for Italian food, leaping and skipping down the street in high abandon, despite finding the first two restaurants closed. We settled on Chinese and dined in exuberant spirits. Whitney and Herman competed in grand jetes on the way back, bounding off the sidewalk like young gods.

Back to the same work. Even while essentially directing traffic, it's amazing how many pains Trevor takes to motivate, clarify and fill in. I sidled up to John Napier and said, "We're supposed to get through the whole show today," and he replied "You've got to get used to the fact that Trevor isn't fazed by time. He'll take as long a he needs to get something right rather than rush it through half-done."

And indeed he does. A long time working on the first Grizabella entrance, until it crackles with tension and grief. I began to understand more of TN's method. He has spent the previous weeks reiterating the facts of everyone's relationship to Grizabella, so that now, when we are essentially improvising on our feet, there is a wealth of history to draw upon and it comes leaping forth. Betty [Buckley] is just electrifying. And what follows this but the silly old fart Bustopher Jones -- me. Trevor leads me around the edge of the stage, sketching in the basic points of action. I punch out the bottom of a coffee cup to make a monocle and strut around with a spoon-swagger stick left over from "Gumbie." Totally winging -- but everyone seems to like it. I suppose it's a mark of Trevor's trust in me that he leaves me entirely to my own devices, though we haven't ever discussed the part since the day he confirmed my playing it. I'm certainly not above making a fool of myself -- and do so!

The afternoon is waning, but we press on through Mungojerry, the first Macavity scare, the quasi-religious entrance of Old Deuteronomy (truly a magnificent moment), the Pekes and Pollicles, the Jellicle Ball, and the entrance of (and retreat from) Grizabella which closes the act. It's 6:32. Trevor says, "Well I hope everyone's sense of the story is much clearer than when we started. I'm going back to London for two days to handle an urgent crisis at the RSC, and on Wednesday we'll work the same way on Act Two." Enthusiastic applause.

Day 25: September 5 (Labor Day)

At three we warmed up with the opening and went on to the Ball. Midway through the first men's quartet, landing from a double tour, Willie [Rosario] let out a yelp that grew into agonizing howls, groans and sobs. Some people helped him over to the side, put an ice pack on his knee (an old injury) and waited. His pain filled the room, sobs of more than physical grief -- clearly the apprehension of being unable to do the role. We huddled or knelt together in small groups, praying, crying, whispering, while the stage management bustled about for a medic. Reed (his standby) massaged Willie's heart, Cynthia [Onrubia] held his hand, Bonnie [Simmons] pressed the ice to his knee and Terry [Mann] held a compress to his forehead. Gillie came over and kissed him. "Willie, darling, you tell the doctors to do whatever they like as long as I can have you on opening night. It doesn't matter if you miss a few previews, you can learn a lot from sitting out here and watching, but what counts is that I have you on the 7th." Gerry Schoenfeld called the head orthopedist at Bellevue and arranged for an ambulance to take Willie direct to an examination. Cynthia and Hector [Jaime Mercado] spoke to him in Spanish, getting his locker key and retrieving his stuff and at last [Production Stage Manager] David T[aylor] and Hector carried him from the room. Oh God how sad! Lovely, affable, funny, popcorn-dancer Willie. We all pray for his speedy healing and return to our midst.

Day 28: September 9

Timmy [Scott] and I hopped in a cab up to the [Richard] Avedon studio on 75th Street for our Vogue [magazine] photo call. There was a table spread with food and drink and venerable Leo Lerman himself to welcome us. Ken P[age], Betty [Buckley], Terry [Mann], Cynthia [Onrubia] and Donna [King] soon followed. Noshing, schmoozing, etc. Finally Napier wants to get the show on the road. Tim [Scott], Cynthia and Terry are the first shift. Make-up and wig people swarming over them like bees in a hive. Then I'm up. It takes hours but finally we're ready. Tim, Terry, Donna and I stare and swarm over each other in a full-length mirror, just as Dick Avedon arrives. He loves the image of the four of us overlapping and decides to base his composition on it. Everybody looks fabulous. The make-ups leave us nearly unrecognizable, yet they're remarkably expressive. I feel several levels deeper into Gus, who looks rather like Richard Kiley as Don Quixote. Timmy is elegance itself in his bead-riddled black satin.

Cynthia the most pristine and precious white kitten. Ken sage and reverend. Betty downright Zola-esque in her faded glad rags. Avedon clumps us together and begins to play with composition and focus. He's like a playful little kid, bursting with enthusiasm, full of ideas and appreciation. "You're beautiful, beautiful. White cat, can you lift your breasts?" At one point he asks Napier, "Is Steve over-acting?" "He has a tendency to over-act," says Napier. They're a perfect match. We switch from a vertical to a horizontal position, all of us sprawled over each other on the floor. It's obviously a great picture but hard to maintain. Groans and giggles. Throughout, Avedon keeps up his flow of wit, good cheer, and joyous effervescence. Mastery in action. At last we break and gather at a restaurant for beer and munchies, exchanging theatre stories and feeling very convivial, indeed. Napier pays with $100 bill.

Day 30: September 11

This morning I slept in. What a luxury (the shape of things to come) -- and about 12:45 I ran into Harry [Groener] approaching the Winter Garden stage door. "It's come to this!" checked out my dressing room -- about the size of the one at the Minskoff, on the top floor, but with a window! I'm lucky to have it. The company collected downstairs, marvelling over the vastness and complexity of the outsize collage that reaches out and absorbs the entire house. Strings of Christmas lights criss-cross the ceiling beneath multiple panels of star motifs. Teapots, bicycles, empty food boxes and cans, plates, eggshells, fish skeletons, saucers, toothpaste tubes -- it would be impossible to catalogue every visible object -- not even Napier knows. Trevor's first words when we assembled were, "Well, I suppose first we must all acknowledge that John Napier is a genius." A round of substantive applause. Then we toured the set, discovering all the nooks, crannies, manhole covers and recesses through which we can enter the scene. Back in the house, we watched the hydraulics operate, as Napier clambered and leaped over every surface like a mountain goat. The car boot [trunk] opening, the Macavity light show, the Heaviside Layer Journey and finally the ship. We all gasped, shrieked and clapped, and at last TN said, "You remember what I said the first day about our sense of innocence. Now that you've had your own reaction to the set, you'll understand that one of the main concerns of this show is to allow the audience the experience of becoming like little children again." My eyes were filled with tears -- Tim [Scott]'s also. One of the most moving incidents of the entire process.

After dinner, we have what Trevor calls a "stagger-through." Actually it goes very smoothly. The first act flies by and we're all astonished to learn it actually ran 62 minutes. The second act is done without Growltiger, but doing Gus on stage for the first time leaves me utterly exhausted. The most intense acting concentration I've ever done. Onstage and in the house there is much dabbing of eyes, yet I feel the real cathartic payoff of the end has eluded me -- as it must until Growltiger is incorporated. Skimbleshanks , like Gumbie, seems much too long (Reed doesn't make it work the way Willie did, and he's still halfway between his own characterization and a Willie imitation). Donna [King] is fabulous in Macavity -- how can anyone so cool be so hot? -- and then we are given our first glimpse of Mistoffelees. Tim [Scott] is simply wonderful, but along about the pirouettes he begins to give out and has to walk through the rest of the number. We're all rooting for him (his mock-embarrassed gesture at "7 Kittens" is a huge laugh moment), but he's clearly at the end of his stamina and most distressed. The rest of the show, from dawn onwards, is superb, moving, exhilarating and uplifting. The feeling on stage is just fabulous. Trevor and Gillie come forward and we all sit on the stage. He says: "Two things are obvious: you are a wonderful company, so wonderful together that our success is assured. Second, the star of the show is the company. One cannot help but be emotionally pulled in by the quality of your work together." But there's still much to achieve and particularly developing stamina is crucial for everyone. He warns of the dangers coming with tech week, but his mood is clearly exhilarated -- through his natural buoyancy hasn't been much in evidence since we entered the theatre. He is not exactly nervous, but there's a tension about him that actually makes him quite electric. He's working quickly, being more authoritarian. "I want quiet and I want it now!"), rationing his energy, juggling a million variables, and everybody's faith in him is still strong. In fact, it's a remarkable demonstration of grace under pressure.

Anyhow, everyone watching seems quite impressed with the runthrough. Napier tells me, "the two parts I was most afraid of not working in America were Bustopher and Gus, and I don't want to swell your head, but I've got to say you're superb." Fred Nathan calls me brilliant. It's all very exciting, but I won't be happy till I know what Growltiger's demands are.

Day 32: September 14

Walked in this morning and the boat was in place. "This can mean only one thing," I thought. Then it went up again. Trevor said we'd go on with tech-ing Tugger. "I see a lot of worried faces wondering when will we do Growltiger. But it's useless to do it until all the pieces are in place, and we've decided to spend all of Saturday on it." His eyes met mine at that moment and saw my shock, disappointment and fear. I've not felt so disheartened during the entire process as I subsequently told Tim [Scott] and Nancy Bell, the wonderful production assistant whose serene and loving presence I may not yet have noted in these pages. They urged me to ask TN for a pep talk, but before I had the chance to do so, he came over to me, reading me clearly, and with his arm around me said, "I can see how this can be worrying to you, but don't let it be. After all, what's the point?" He explained that Gillie and Andrew each wanted the other to produce first. "But we've made our commitment and it'll be kept." My mind continued to brood for a while, but basically I felt healed by his words.

We teched Bustopher and Trevor loved my performance (Tim simply said, "You're great"), but I told him I always felt lost in the midst of it, without any clear preparation. He gave me the image of a Tory MP coming out for the obligatory handshaking and baby-kissing with the lower classes, cultivating the people they've been grinding down for centuries: "Yes, my dear, and how is the shopping?" "You say you've been eating beans? How delightful." The number proceeded to improve markedly. Then he prepared us for the Mungojerry entrance. "You know how adults are when the theatre lights go down (clearing his throat and miming the finicky assumption of over-earnest attentiveness), but for children, it's like this (miming wild excitement) because the lights are going down!" It was one of his most effective communications. Also the number keeps getting better and better. Rene [Clemente] and Christine [Langner] were in costume, looking sensational. We got up to the distribution of the Peke and Pollicle costumes -- utterly hilarious. Then broke for dinner.

Day 36: September 19

Dress rehearsal. Everything and everyone looks great but creates a lot of problems. First, the Gumbie costume change. Both Anna [McNeely] and the "beetles tatoo" are late. Everything stops and we work it out. Trevor and John in tandem patient and cool and totally in command. But the work goes very slowly. People can't see out of the beetles' helmets or their wigs are crushed. Timmy [Scott]'s dislike of his costume creates a palpable field around him, but the moment the wings open is incredible. More trouble with Tugger quick changes. Everybody scrambling around in the wings with tap shoes, etc. My dresser, Steve Smith, is gentle and solicitous and most helpful. We do the Bustopher change -- only the makeup at this point -- after the dinner break (Joanne [Robinson, Assistant choreographer] brings back food for those of us who don't want to change to go out.). No problems -- but I can't get into my Pekes and Pollicles foot cartons with my own shoes on. So it goes.

The Rumpus Cat costume drives everyone wild with its airbrushed musculature clinging exquisitely to Ken Ard's. The Ball goes great in the costume -- brings down the small attending house. We move to the second act and everything is fucked. I can't make the bandanna work for the Gus to Growltiger change, which means I can't get the robe off in time to throw under the boat. Napier immediately locates the problem and solves it. The Siamese and Raffish Crew masks mangle everyone's wigs and makeup. Trevor cuts Growltiger after a few bars in, which is just as well as I'm ominously certain that in the heat and pressure of the costume I'd never get through it. It's scary and I'm exhausted. Tim [Scott] is furious, quoting Gillie as saying that everything that made the show great in London has gone. The humanity is submerged under the weight of special effects. A palace revolt is brewing, but I know only that I'm exhausted and alarmed and discouraged.

--Click here for Part Three