Cats – The Challenge and the Power of the Team
Last year, after much chasing, my performing arts school – SGPA – obtained the performing rights for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats – a musical based on the poems of T.S. Elliot. It’s a household name musical – just like Grease or Annie (mentioned below) – especially in the UK and Ireland where it ran for a whopper 21 years on the West End. It also contains the No 1. Hit ‘Memory’ – originally sung by Elaine Paige.
My previous musicals this year were a tough act to follow, with one of the world’s most favourite musicals – Annie – at Easter (where – at the last minute – I donned the tux of Daddy Warbucks), and Hairspray Jr. in the Summer. Both shows showcased some of the fantastic young (and not so young) talent in the country and were huge successes. Cats had big paws to fill!
I am a true Irish man and there’s nothing more that I love than a good story. What struck me the most about this show was that an obvious narrative thread was hard to find, with the exception of the idea of the ‘Jellicle choice’ and Grizabella’s final ascension into the ‘Heavyside Layer.’
Although loose, it does run throughout the show, but for me, it proved a serious challenge to create more links between the various character songs. So in a theatrical panic, I called my colleague and friend (and extremely talented hair and make-up artist) two days into rehearsal and said ‘Oh Jesus, what the hell am I going to do? There is no story! This is a load of bulls**t.’ She replied ‘It is but it’s going to look pretty and you’ll do something.’
I finished the conversation still shook and in honesty frightened about the challenge ahead.
Four days into the rehearsal bootcamp and things began to shape up. I was up to my usual directorial and choreography antics – enjoying staging the cracker that is Skimbleshanks, choreographing the power opening that is Jellicle Songs, and having lots of fun with my tap shoes and the kittens ensemble with the Old Gumbie Cat (sometimes I do wonder who is the biggest kid of all). However, things did not really sit with me comfortably. This was until we hit day six and I got to really play with the show as such. There’s always that mucky piece it together day for me – it’s how I work. I love creating little pieces and then mashing it together. Only then did I realize, not only are there lots of really beautiful stories to be told in the show, but it was now time to make it truly my own. I did so both with character work and visuals.
Bombulrina, who I deduced is probably romantically involved with our villain Macavity, received relatively decent development through the show in subtle ways. As regards Grizabella, our leading lady, it was the styling that lead the way, where I chose a gothic velvet coat trimmed with lace, leather corset, chiffon square skirt and a rocker collar with grey wool hanging bedraggled and tragic from its neck. Other characters experienced stylistic change too to match the production – Jenny Anydots was portrayed younger with a high-street style leopard print coat, there was an addition of a more fantasy-based ensemble for conceptual numbers such as ‘The Naming of Cats’ and ‘Gus-The Theatre Cat,’ and my Magical Mr Mistofelees was clad in a pair of cut-away tails complete with four hundred LED lights.
However, these developments were not created by my mind alone but by the magic of collaboration. Alongside the most competent and energetic choreographers, a thorough and highly proficient musical director (with a smoking hot band of musicians), I was blessed to have a dream cast. Directors say this quite regularly, but I challenge any reader to ask an audience member if this was the case. I assure you they will say YES! Not only were the players both highly talented and committed to the story, they rose beyond their years (license only permitting performers age 21 and under) and added nuances and details to each of their characters which gave the show a whole new dimension. It is one thing for a director to direct and lead the character development but when actors make it their own, it leads to true collaboration and what I believe true performing art.
Visually, the set also experienced a massive shift from the original, where with the help of fantastic stage builders from ‘Made for Stage,’ I created the corner of an industrial dockland – complete with many platforms for the cats to pounce and play on, and decorated it with posters with a vintage Victorian feel bearing the names of each of the Jellicle tribe members. I am also lucky enough to have the backing of Sparkle Costume and its fantastic workers with whom I pieced together new character looks for the lead Cats (Rum Tum Tugger’s collar being favourite). Alongside this, I had quite possibly the best technical, visual technical and audio team in Ireland and undoubtedly the best Hair and Make-up artist. Together, I believe we all told a powerful story – full of beautiful characters and relationships.
I suppose what I have learned from Cats is it’s all about who is around you and boy am I one lucky guy to have had such a dedicated and trusting cast and creative team, who believed in me, held my hand and with the power of positivity we proved that anything is possible.
I reckon we made it an unforgettable experience.