“People think it’s going to be hip hop Cats. It’s not going to be hip hop Cats,” says Broadway’s latest Rum Tum Tugger, Tyler Hanes, just hours before the first preview of the revival at the Neil Simon Theatre.
There's been questioning and controversy around the choreography of Cats, re-imagined for this production by two-time Tony winner Andy Blankenbuehler. Most notably, original choreographer Gillian Lynne has said of possible changes to her work: “It makes me feel like I’d like to murder.”
But according to cast members (and Andrew Lloyd Webber), Lynne and loyalists of the show need not arch their backs in fear of change.
“He’s taken some of the classic Gillian Lynne iconic Cats choreography and then infused it with his own vocabulary,” says Hanes of Blankenbuehler. “The thing is, there’s so many different styles of dance that he’s incorporated into this because Andy Blankenbuehler is versatile. You’ve got a lot of technique, you’ve got a lot of contemporary dance, you have funk in there, you have some classic Broadway jazz, you’ve got everything. As a dancer, it’s a dream.”
Indeed, the cast includes two former So You Think You Can Dance contestants: Jess LeProtto and Ricky Ubeda. While the television competition seemed to intend to put dancers on a path towards a concert career, part of the prize in Ubeda’s season was an ensemble track in Broadway’s recent On the Town revival. Ubeda “got the bug” working on that production and continues his musical theatre career as Mr. Mistoffelees.
Ubeda grew up watching the VHS recording of the London production of Cats even before he was inspired to dance at the age of nine. A true fan of the show and a lover of its choreography, Ubeda sees the movement in this Cats as modern “without changing the DNA of it.”
“Andy commits himself so wholeheartedly to any project he ever does, I’ve noticed, and he is eating, sleeping and breathing to keep the production something that if you’ve seen it while you’re a kid and thought, ‘Oh God, that’s my favorite show,’ you’re going to think, ‘Oh, I remember that,’ but also ‘Oh, that’s new, and I like what they did there and how they accentuated that one part.’”
As Blankenbuehler told Playbill earlier this year, his approach is character-driven. “The choreography now hints at storylines within the cats that maybe you didn’t know were there in the original production,” says Ubeda.
With this narrative focus, Ubeda’s Mistoffelees “is a little different in the sense that he is a little more modern, but he has the same Victorian kind of feel to him—I like to think so,” he says. “But I think he’s a little more fun-loving and sometimes a littler cooler—a little Andy Blankenbuehler.”
The rock star of the Jellicle Ball, Hanes’ Rum Tum Tugger, isn’t just any rock star. According to the actor, “He’s a little bit Prince, he’s a lot of Elvis, and he’s a lot of Andy Blankenbuehler.”
While the DNA remains unchanged, Blankenbuehler has clearly imprinted this production with his DNA, as well. If you were to watch that old VHS side-by-side with this new litter, as Ubeda confirms, it is not the same.
Maybe that’s good news. After all, Cats may have once been the longest-running show in Broadway history (now beaten by The Phantom of the Opera’s 28-year record—another Lloyd Webber hit), but during its 18 years on Broadway, Cats did not charm all audiences.
“People do have very strong opinions about Cats,” says Ubeda of the notoriously polarizing show. “If you really care about finding the emotional content and the metaphors for the human condition, I think it’s extremely touching, and I think it’s extremely deep, and I think it tells such an important story of acceptance.”
“There’s so much more of a story to it than what people may think,” says Hanes. “Andy’s done a really good job of enhancing the story with his own work and bringing new things to light, and so I know audiences will really embrace this.”