One of Herman Sebek’s oddest memories during his time in Cats happened when he was walking onto the stage as Pouncival and an audience member ran up to him, screamed, ‘’What a cute kitty!” and kissed him on the mouth.
“I just had to keep going—I was a Cat,” says Sebek, now 54, who looks back fondly on the celebrity status that came with being an original cast member in one of the most popular Broadway shows of the ’80s.
With the revived version of the Cats slated to open July 31 at the Neil Simon Theatre, many actors, dancers and singers from the first production are thrilled and nostalgic to see what a new generation of performers will do with their time onstage.
Whitney Kershaw, the original Sillabub, says that her time in Cats was one of the most exciting periods of her life. From the cat improvisation exercises that she and other cast members did during rehearsals to the costume that designers painted on her to ensure the lines were just right, everything about the show felt unique and custom.
“It’s something that still comes back to me in my dreams a lot,” she says. “Sometimes those dreams are that I’ve forgotten the steps.”
Kershaw plans to return to New York from L.A., where she now lives, to see how Cats retains the magic of the original Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats-inspired musical more than 30 years later.
“I think the music is the music and T.S. Eliot is T.S. Eliot,” she says. ”Obviously they have to hold on to those two elements to keep it real.”
The producers are being tight-lipped about what will be different, but promise that “the DNA” of the show will be retooled for a contemporary audience when previews begin July 14.
Backstage Photos from the Original Cats
Sebek, who went on to do more Broadway musicals, including Shogun and Miss Saigon, says that the show’s unusual nature and furry appeal makes it especially receptive to new actors and new direction.
“I think you can go to anybody and they’ll give you their own version of what they think a cat sounds like and their own version of how they think a cat moves,” he says.
Steven Hack, another original who played Carbuckety, Mungojerrie, Pouncival, Tumblebrutus and Coricopat for extended periods of time during his five years with the show, says he sometimes feels as though barely any time has passed since the days when he danced to the tune of “Jellicle Song for Jellicle Cats.”
“Wasn’t it just over a minute ago?” says Hack, who now acts in film and television in L.A.
Hack and Kershaw recall the excitement they created years after their Broadway days when they would show up to former stage manager Don Walters’ third-grade class in L.A. to teach kids song-and-dance routines from the musical.
Sharing a dressing room with Hack was Brian Andrews, who joined the cast nine months into the original run. He says he was never more fit or had more fun than when he played Tumblebrutus, Pouncival, Macavity and Mungojerrie over his ten years in the musical.
“It is very rare in show business for a person to stay in a show for ten years because they’re having fun,” he says.
After leaving Cats at 33, Andrews moved to Florida to teach musical theatre, ballet and dance at the Maltz Jupiter Theater. He recently oversaw a dance class taught by Callan Bergmann, one of the cast members in the Cats revival.
“I’m trying to train people so that they can go back and be cats on Broadway now,” he says.
As the years since opening night roll by, most of the original litter maintain strong relationships with the theatre family that they grew up with onstage. Lily-Lee Wong, who stayed in the show for 11 years once she joined the original production as a swing performer, now works as a real estate agent in Harlem. She plans to go to the revival with Marlène Danielle, who began as an understudy for multiple cats and later took over the role of Demeter and then Bombalurina full time. (Danielle is the only cast member to stay in the musical for the entire 18-year run.) This time, when the duo revisits their old stomping ground, it will be with their kids in tow.
For them, the night will be a celebration of the people they were during their time in the theatre and how far they’ve come.
“I hope that in 2016, people will like it,” says Wong. “You never know. It’s a gamble that you take for your audience to accept something so many years later.”
Veronika Bondarenko is a freelance writer who recently moved to New York and loves writing about all things related to the theatre. Follow her on Twitter at @veronikabond.