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

Special Features   One Cat's Diary: Stephen Mo Hanan Offer a Cats Chronicle
Among the original cast members of the Broadway production of Cats, Stephen Mo Hanan (then called simply Stephen Hanan) received some of the most tumultuous praise upon opening night, Oct. 7, 1982. For his portrayals of Bustopher Jones, Asparagus and Growltiger, he won a Tony nomination -- one of only three felines to be so honored. During the musical's six-week rehearsal process, Hanan (who has since gone on to be a playwright) kept a meticulous diary. Just before the landmark show recently closed, on Sept. 10, Hanan rediscovered his journal. Following are selected excepts from the work, seen for the first time, and provided by Hanan exclusively to Playbill On-Line.
Top Row: Trevor Nunn, Stanley Lebowski, John Napier. Middle: Tim Scott, Gillian Lynne, Ken Ard.  Bottom: Cynthia Onrubia, Rene Ceballos, Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Top Row: Trevor Nunn, Stanley Lebowski, John Napier. Middle: Tim Scott, Gillian Lynne, Ken Ard. Bottom: Cynthia Onrubia, Rene Ceballos, Andrew Lloyd Webber. Photo by Drawings by Stephen Mo Hanan

Among the original cast members of the Broadway production of Cats, Stephen Mo Hanan (then called simply Stephen Hanan) received some of the most tumultuous praise upon opening night, Oct. 7, 1982. For his portrayals of Bustopher Jones, Asparagus and Growltiger, he won a Tony nomination -- one of only three felines to be so honored. During the musical's six-week rehearsal process, Hanan (who has since gone on to be a playwright) kept a meticulous diary. Just before the landmark show recently closed, on Sept. 10, Hanan rediscovered his journal. Following are selected excepts from the work, seen for the first time, and provided by Hanan exclusively to Playbill On-Line.

Day One: August 9, 1982

"First of all, would anyone who was able to sleep last night please raise their hand," are Trevor's first words, followed by: "And now, anyone who isn't a rictus of nerves please do the same." Then, at the risk of seeming "hubristic" he goes round the circle introducing every actor and the role he/she is playing, not stumbling until the very last one, a tall and strikingly beautiful black woman called Janet Hubert, whose character's name eludes him for a beat or two. "Just so you know I'm not perfect," he winks.

He fills the rest of the morning with the story of how Cats came to be: Andrew Lloyd Webber's home "Sydmonton festival" performance of the settings; the eventual decision to opt for a big theatre piece rather than a chamber recital; the enlistment of [choreographer] Gillian [Lynne] and the whole choreographic concept; and the cooperation of Valerie Eliot [T.S. Eliot's widow], especially her discovery and offering of a wrinkled sheet of paper with four lines sketching "Grizabella the Glamour Cat." A long scholarly digression on T.S. Eliot (how many cast members make sense of his "piling Pelion on Ossa," I wonder). And an often whispered but highly emotional reading of "The Naming of Cats" ending with his comment, "Now I propose that that is a serious poem."

Trevor is soft-spoken in the extreme, yet no one in the room seems to have any trouble hearing him. He exudes authority, gentleness, intelligence, commitment, interest. His flow of talk is precise, acute, and cultivated but without a trace of self-consciousness or self-importance. Speaking of the ensemble quality of the show (having already discussed at length certain key characters -- including mine, "that old heart-breaker, Gus") he says, "You'll never hear me say that all the roles are of equal size. But I'll always, always insist that all the roles are of equal importance." Pre-meeting scenes of recognition with Bonnie Simmons, Anna McNeeley from Goodspeed, Rene Ceballos from her [Macavity ?] audition. Also I recognize Hector Mercado from West Side Story, Ken Page, Harry Groener, and Kenneth Ard from his acrobatics display at my last audition. Now sweeping the circle, I note the racial and ethnic diversity, the blacks, blondes, hispanics, Asiatics, semitics et. al.

Andrew plays through major themes of the score. Quite a rush to hear him do "Memory." "Andrew's Puccini ingredient," Trevor calls it, "the kind of melody that makes emotion burst open too powerfully to be merely sentimental." We all sigh. Then we are led into an adjoining studio where chain-smoking, craggily handsome [set designer] John Napier takes the brown paper wraps off the set model -- the entire Winter Garden, four feet square -- and everyone gasps. A collage of the detritus (another Nunn word) of commercial civilization: discarded auto parts, bottle caps, broken phonographs, shredded magazines, old clothes, wrecked billboards, and everything spilling off the stage and into the house in so many directions that the proscenium is totally invisible. John shows off its little nooks and gimmicks like a ten-year-old with a railroad train set, taking special pride in the transformation that sets up the Growltiger scene (the back wall tilts down to display a full size pirate ship built on the reverse side) and the apotheosis of Grizabella (Betty Buckley shows anxious concern about her climb up the staircase that descends from the roof, and inquires -- quite seriously -- about insurance provisions in the event of permanent injury. John assures her that he always tries everything out himself). Then the strip of brown paper that runs along two walls is taken down and Trevor invites us to inspect the "John Napier gallery." "Oohs" and "ahs" greet the mounted costume sketches. Even [producer] Bernie Jacobs is smiling.

We return to the small studio and meet Stanley Lebowski, the music director, a little roly-poly Sancho Panza, with a fascinatingly rabbinical manner: kindness and patience, wry humor mixed with a firm adherence to musical exactitude. We learn the harmonies of the opening number, everyone delighted to discover the group's full-blooded, well-balanced sound. Trevor announces that tomorrow, like every day ahead, will begin with Gillian giving class; improvisation work will follow. After the usual Equity business, the day ends promptly at 6:30.

Day 2: August 10

Trevor draws us into circle again and gives us an assignment: pick a cartoon cat we know of, withdraw to ourselves and prepare a vignette of that cat, then return to the circle and each in turn will present. I choose Fritz the Cat making a pass at some kitty. Watching the others is a gas -- people's individualities are beginning to emerge.

Then Trevor's probing, earnest questions: Who is Sylvester? Who is Tom (Tim Scott sneaking at top speed along a flattening wall)? Do they walk erect or on all fours? Do they mix with humans or are they strictly feline? Why are cats such popular cartoon characters? Why are they so common? Mysterious? Aloof? Independent? What does it mean to be a "pet" ? He is receptive to all ideas, while subtly guiding the discussion in the direction he wants, which is that of group discovery.

[After lunch,] Trevor asks us to pick a specific cat we know, and explore its consciousness: walking, then stretching, then cleaning, then all three. Add neutral alertness, fearful alertness, anger. No interactions yet. Back to circle. Why did nearly everyone end up on all fours? Discovery of different relationship to the floor, closeness of it, "neat stuff on it," the body parallel to it rather than perpendicular. But how to bring these discoveries into two-legged dancing?

Now we're to investigate a specific vignette of our cat that was amusing or endearing. Some amazing work ensues. Janet Hubert leaves the circle and tucks her long frame against the window pane, trying to catch a bird outside and getting tangled in the drapery cord. Rene Clemente maintains the hypnotic stillness of an Egyptian cat statue, but with eyes frantically scanning the fascinating prey: two points of intensity capering across absolutely uncanny immobility. Rene Ceballos as a kitten in a frenzy of mouse-chasing, perpetually confused by its failure to capture. I do Dharma sneaking into the bathroom to take a vindictive dump. Cynthia Onrubia takes her dump in the backyard, sniffing at the turd, then directing a withering glance at a human caught watching her.

Trevor: "I must congratulate you all for committing so completely and accurately to the internalizing of the exercise. Every one of you avoided the temptation to perform or externalize, and thus to betray the intention of the inquiry." He talks about the difference between capturing and expressing an essence and imitation, discouraging the latter. The absence of self-consciousness, the "unawareness of being looked at" is what will create the innocence he spoke of yesterday as the key to the show.

Day 3: August 11

Harry Groener, a very witty man -- he and Terry are the class wisecrackers -- asks if now is the time for the male cats to spray the audience. "Some people can walk on a wire, me, I spray."

"I thought you'd been fixed," pipes Donna K.

I have to leave early for a costume fitting at [Parsons-Mears]. John Napier arrives as I do. He's such a gem, always Mr. Cool, but with a sly twinkle just below the surface. (Previous day I'd asked him to show me the Growltiger set again. "I couldn't wait for you to ask," he grinned.) The pneumatic shoulder device has arrived. John and Richard, its creator, examine the various tubes, pipes and tanks that tangle together in back. John wants a vacuum pump to make the shoulders lie flatter before they blow up. Can do, says Richard. My tunic slips on over it and we have a go. The gas, which is cold, fills the shoulders very slowly. But when the full shape is blown up, it's hilarious. We need to reduce it to seven seconds, says John. Can do, says Richard, but we need a bigger solenoid and an extra back-up tank. Then John has a flash. What if we eliminate the expanding stomach and stuff all the mechanics into a belly pouch that's concealed beneath the Gus robe? Less gas and time and power are required, plus I'll be free to roll on my back. We rejoice and consent. I sport around in my giant shoulders, each the size of a human head. "But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks, nor made to court an amorous looking glass"...John picks up the cue "sent before my time into this breathing world."

It's five to 3 PM. My whole lunch hour has been consumed. Fortunately, there's some cantalope in the shop and I devour two luscious wedges and bid everyone goodbye, till Richard returns in two weeks with the altered pneumatic tunic. I grab a fast food egg foo yung and gobble it up in the cab downtown.

Work in progress on the very top of "Jellicle Songs." I occupy the spot that Reed [Jones]'s been marking -- impressed by the speed and clarity with which he teaches me what I've missed -- and the number proceeds till we break to learn "The Addressing of Cats." Ken Page blows everyone away with his solo and the chorale leaves [production musical director Stanley [Lebowsky] speechless with delight. "Pret-ty good," he purrs.

"Well, what a week," marvels Trevor. Monday we'll return to the improvs and more character exploration, but for now it's day off, though I'm so thrilled with the work that's underway that I'd gladly return tomorrow. Or so it seems.....

Day 10: August 19

So now we're deep into [routining]. Classes with Gillie or Joanne every morning, dance work till lunch, then afternoons of singing with Stanley. The whole opening number is now finished and it is a gas. But we've also had two reminders of the fragile state of grace in which we function. Tuesday at a runthrough of the very top of the number Janet [Hubert] stubbed her toe during her twin rollout with Rene [Clemente]. She limped off the floor and at first no one knew what had happened or how severe the injury was. You could feel everyone shudder. Then yesterday, during his fourth or fifth back flip for the Ball Invitation, Steve Gelfer was thrown by a slower tempo and fell on his hand. Just revisioning it makes me flinch. It looked like he might have broken his arm, but he was just a little stunned and bruised his palm and hip. All the same, both events gave quite a shake to the ensemble sense of giddy joy -- we forget in our joy what risks we are taking.

The musical work is marvelous. Bonnie S[immons] and I were pulled out of the ball number for long enough to work on "Gus" with Stanley. It's a beautiful number, far more than the London album suggested to me. A wonderful simplicity in the steadily unwinding, subtly varying melody line as Gus breaks out of his shell and recalls his part, and on and on and on. Bonnie's line is lovely too, and she sang it with great beauty and tenderness, though constantly belittling and faulting her own efforts (not a trait to which I am prone.) If she could forgive herself as her character whole-heartedly forgives and humors Gus, she'd enjoy the process more -- and we all would. Hopefully I can assist.

Day 11: August 20

Today Andrew brought in the aria -- or at least the tune (having misplaced the Italian text-translation of Eliot) which is fabulous ersatz Puccini. We set the key best suited to me and concertina (E-flat modulating to F) and I sang it a couple of times in gibberish Italian, at which Stanley marvelled. The exact finish isn't set yet, but I'll climax on a high A -- what a treat!

Day 13: August 23

The day's first big news came as eyewitness reports from Janet Hubert and Diane Fratantoni (and later Trevor) that lines went around the block at the Winter Garden on this first morning of box office sales. Yippee!

Rest of the morning I worked with Stanley on Bustopher, Gus and the aria. Trevor came in and watched Bonnie and me do Gus, which he liked a great deal. He talked in some depth about the character relations, about using the text to establish Jellylorum's concern and respect for Gus. What he missed was the sense of how truly important "Firefrorefiddle" was -- how it was the one thing Gus did that really worked, his moment of true glory and pride. He promised to work with us line by line, but for the moment called the work wonderful.

Bonnie and I went up to the Winter Garden at lunch. Police barricades left on the sidewalk for the crowd that had accumulated before the torrential afternoon rain came. Inside, a furor of construction. The Winter Garden almost unrecognizable with our apron jutting way past the proscenium, and the ceiling covered over with the already magical starry sky panels.

Day 14: August 25

Work on the duet with Bonnie. Her soprano register is great and our unison high A is sensational. She laughs at all my invention and is loosening up more and more. And yet, while we do this work I feel regretfully absent from the rest of the company at the Ball. Not that I could keep up, but simply that I'm not with them, in there working as a group. So it's a relief when everyone comes in to sing for the last two hours. Stanley teaches us "Grizabella the Glamour Cat" (we also have our first brief moment singing a snatch of "Memory" -- sooo gorgeous). Trevor does another brilliant textual exposition (Tottenham Court Road -- desolation -- not even the "teeming late-night malpractice" of Soho) and then Betty sings -- her first solo before the group and it's goosebump time! Great sound, great acting, great feeling, another star pops out. Every time she was totally different, but always equally arresting and fine. God, this show is blessed.

I told Trevor that Bonnie and I were thinking of visiting the old actors' home. "Better be careful, Steve, they'll keep you there," he said.

This morning more work on the ball. The runthrough was even better than yesterday's. How I wish I had the physical control of a real dancer. I feel privileged to be in this company, as I promptly proceed to tell everyone. (They all replied that it was mutual, though what I've done to impress anyone as yet escapes me.)

What a range of styles: quirky Willie [Rosario, the original Skimbleshanks], virile Hector [Jaime Mercado], slinky Donna [King], regal Janet [Hubert], girl-Rene [Ceballos] so angular, Timmy [Scott] so elegant, Cynthia [Onrubia] so passionate, electrifying Kenneth [Ard]. Then Gillie called everyone together and made a speech. "Darlings, please forgive me, but I'm going to say something harsh. I know how painful the work is. I've danced it all through myself with Joanne. I know how it tears at your guts and your legs and your backs. But, though I won't mention names, I saw a couple of people marking here and there, and I must insist that you do it full out from here on in. If you don't get over the pain threshold now, you'll never do it by opening night. You must go through it now and keep on until it's so natural that it doesn't hurt anymore. It's the only way you'll find the stamina and endurance to make it work, and the only way you can get the images to become real. Do you all agree?" She was at her best, and we all applauded.

Then Bonnie and I had a long work session with Trevor, first on the aria, then on Gus. He talked about absurd romanticism, about the actor-manager tradition leading directly to Fairbanks then to Flynn and Lancaster, about the 19th-century theatre's curious mix of exact physical naturalism with inflated over-acting, about traces of Jellylorum's propriety surfacing through Griddlebone's "Stop-it-I-like-it." Before we sang Bonnie said apologetically that she had scarcely warmed up... He cut straight through and said, "But are you having fun? To which she unhesitatingly replied yes. And we sang the shit out of it (me atop the piano at first), continually breaking each other up, to his unconcealed delight.

As for Gus, it was the greatest 90 minutes I've ever spent in rehearsal. He analyzed text ("70 speeches seems like a lot to anyone who doesn't know that an actor learns 3000 in a season"), relationships (Jellylorum's describing Gus' frailties as if he weren't there, but recognizing some things as truly sensitive matters -- the palsy), excised my nodding bow to the gallery ("too early on to go into your fantasy world -- what would you mime if I said you'd played a championship season of baseball? Just the pleasure of having it be true.") and even suggested blocking, but always motivationally. His expression is so lucid and his direction so easy to follow that with each runthrough he'd say "Smashing" and add the next level. He said something about tearing one's kishkes out, and gave me the same look he did last week when using another Yiddish phrase, as if it was in quotes and he expected me to be surprised at his use of it. A delightful moment, one of many from this courtly, affectionate, brilliant, profound and altogether mind-blowing man.

--Click here for Part Two

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