In 1977, Andrew Lloyd Webber began to set T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats to music. Four years later, his completed work (under the direction of Trevor Nunn) had its first public outing at the West End’s New London Theatre, and has since gone on to become one of the most successful musicals of all time.
In 2014, Melbourne audiences have the chance to experience Lloyd Webber’s feline-filled phenomenon once more as NOVA Music Theatre prepares to unleash its own production of Cats on the Whitehorse Centre stage.
Opening night is quickly approaching, but Chris Howe, taking on the role of Munkustrap, told Theatre People that things are traveling along nicely at rehearsals. Erin Shay is stepping into the shoes (or claws!) of Bombularina, and is equally optimistic about the way things are shaping up for NOVA’s Cats. “Everyone is so talented…vocally, everyone is ‘on’, the choreography is great and everyone is working really well together”.
Cats tells the story of a tribe of "Jellicle Cats" partaking in an annual celebratory ball. On each of these occasions, their leader, Old Deuteronomy, selects one member of the tribe to journey to the Heavyside Layer, in order to be reborn into a new life. As the show progresses, the audience is introduced to a cavalcade of wonderful Jellicle Cats, and ultimately learns the identity of the tribe member who will become the subject of that ‘Jellicle choice’.
It’s widely recognised that Cats requires the very highest calibre of music theatre performers and, fortunately, NOVA’s cast fits the bill! Ms. Shay's impressive past credits include study at the Victorian College of the Arts, performing at Universal Studios in both Singapore and Japan, and supporting Vanessa Amorosi, Shannon Noll and James Reyne on their Australian tours. A multi-talented performer, Ms. Shay is excited to be part of a show for which she has long held a great love. “It was the first musical I ever saw as a kid,” she told Theatre People. “I saw it and I was obsessed with it. I already knew all the choreography and music inside out walking into rehearsals.”
Mr. Howe took his first steps onstage as a music theatre performer at age 11, playing the title role in Oliver. Since then, he’s been seen in Beauty and the Beast, Guys and Dolls, Les Miserables, and even an earlier production of Cats, in which he played Alonzo. Mr. Howe recalls happy memories of watching a recorded version of the musical as a child: “I remember getting shivers every time I saw Jemima’s moment in “The Moments of Happiness…” Asked about his character, Mr. Howe told us, “Munkustrap is the alpha-type character…his role is everyone’s protector. It’s a very strong, grounded, confident character…A lot of people look to him for guidance. There are elements of Munkustrap’s character I find within myself.” He is looking forward to exploring the role as much as he can and trying to bring something different to his portrayal of the character.
Cats belongs to an elite class of music theatre works, managing to withstand the passage of time. A new work is often lucky to get in front of an audience, and luckier again if it can keep its name on a theatre marquee for more than a few months. It is a ruthless business, and a show will only survive as long as there is an audience for it. In its 33rd year, Cats is returning to the West End, is on a European tour, and will open in Singapore in early 2015. So why, after three decades, does this record-breaking musical continue to draw audiences in around the world? “It’s available for such a wide variety of audiences”, Ms. Shay believes. “It’s telling a story through music and song…there’s no dialogue….and I don’t think anything touches you like music and song.” Mr, Howe attributes the show’s longevity to “…a combination of the amazing choreography, the utterly beautiful music,” and the strength of the main characters in the show. He also points to the way in which human relationships are reflected through these cats. He told us, “Everyone gets something out of it because it’s so ‘full’ as a show. It has everything you need to have a great show.”
Both Mr. Howe and Ms. Shay assured us that anyone heading along to NOVA’s production can expect a great night out. Ms. Shay commented that “The cast is so together. It’s not just performers being individual performers. Everyone (works together) like a cast of one. I think that’s what is going to make it so enjoyable for everyone.”
If you’re as intrigued as we are to see NOVA’s take on the now timeless tale of the Jellicle Cats, we suggest you head down to the Whitehorse Theatre to experience for yourselves what happiness is!