In This New Cats Revival, It's Jellicle Songs for Voguers and Femme Queens | Playbill

Special Features In This New Cats Revival, It's Jellicle Songs for Voguers and Femme Queens

How a team of artists from theatre and ballroom decided to reimagine Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical, with no cat ears, at Perelman Performing Arts Center.

Company of Cats: "The Jellicle Ball" at Perelman Performing Arts Center Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

There’s a new band of Jellicle cats in town, but don’t get out your leg warmers too fast. Yes, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats is back in New York City in a new production at Off-Broadway's Perelman Performing Arts Center—but this isn’t the Cats you know from its 18-year original run, the 2016 revival, or even the (shall we say) unfortunately received 2019 film version. The brainchild of co-directors Bill Rauch and Zhailon Levingston, both with Broadway pedigree, this Cats moves the junkyard into a downtown club. This Cats is literally a ball.

If you’re the audience member over there with a look of surprise who’s not heard of drag balls and ballroom culture, a quick explainer. The ballroom scene is an underground dance, music, and fashion-filled competition event that came up in the ‘70s in predominately Black and Latine LGBTQIA+ communities and continues to flourish to this day. Balls are where we get voguing, the concept of throwing shade and spilling tea—basically much of what’s now thought of as mainstream drag culture via RuPaul’s Drag Race. Ball contestants go head-to-head in dance battles, or strutting the runway in set categories, like Labels for couture outfits or Face for the symmetrically gifted. If you’ve seen Pose, or better yet Paris is Burning, that’s the general world we’re talking about.

To find out how that world mixes with the world of Cats—a famously plotless dance piece built from the poetry of T.S. Eliot and Lloyd Webber’s trademark hybrid of rock and concert music—Playbill sat down with the creative team at a recent pre-production workshop (the show opens June 20 and runs until July 28).

The idea began with co-director (and Perelman Artistic Director) Rauch. Passionate about reinventing classic musicals, Rauch brought a new version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! to Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2018. “I saw classic musicals being reinvented racially, but I felt like gender was a final barrier,” he says. Under Rauch’s direction, Curly and Laurey became a lesbian couple, and Ado Annie Andy and Will two gay men. Suddenly a musical almost as old school as they come could speak to the world of today, as modern as Kansas City.

But Rauch wasn’t done. “I started thinking about Andrew [Lloyd Webber]’s extraordinary song ‘Memory’ in a queer context,” Rauch remembers, “specifically an older gay man in a bar. There’s such a melancholy in terms of lost youth in that song.” Once he started to look at Cats as a whole, he started getting the idea for something bigger. Rauch’s Cats wouldn’t just be about a cisgender gay man in a bar. “It’s a ball. It’s literally a competitive ball,” he remembers thinking. “It just made sense.”

CATS: "The Jellicle Ball's creative team. Clockwise from top left, scenic designer Rachel Hauck, co-choreographers Arturo Lyons and Omari Wiles, co-directors Zhailon Levingtson and Bill Rauch, and music supervisor William Waldrop

People like to dog (pun intended) on Cats for having no plot, but that’s not expressly true. Lloyd Webber and original director Trevor Nunn designed the piece to center on a tribe of felines—Jellicles, as Eliot called them—as they gather for their annual Jellicle Ball. That event climaxes with the tribe’s leader, Old Deuteronomy, making The Jellicle Choice, a move that will allow one lucky member to ascend to the Heaviside Layer and start a new Jellicle life. And that plot, thin as it may be, made Rauch’s new take on the story a better fit than you might think.

Rauch's first stop was Josephine Kearns, with whom he's collaborated with on the project from its earliest days. Kearns serves as dramaturg and gender consultant. Next to board the team was Omari Wiles, a ballroom fixture known for his vogue dancing and choreography. Now one of the revival’s co-choreographers (along with Arturo Lyons), Wiles says he immediately saw the connections to the ballroom scene.

“Understanding how everyone was trying to ascend to the Heaviside Layer, to me that was every character, every category in ballroom,” Wiles says. “Even just hearing the lyrics and what cats could do—how many lives they have, the tricks and things they do, having to be street smart, savvy, sassy—that’s half of my friends. That is the competitors I’m competing against.”

Adds Rauch: “There are a lot of issues in terms of the shadows of mortality that are in T.S. Eliot’s words and that are in Andrew’s music. There’s a spiritual underpinning to it all that I think, within this context, puts a depth in the words and in the reality of ballroom.”

André De Shields in Cats: "The Jellicle Ball" at Perelman Performing Arts Center (PAC NYC). Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman.

But to Zhailon Levingston, who is co-directing alongside Rauch, the match of ballroom and Cats is bigger than the fact the show has a ball in it. Cats has always been many things, perhaps chief amongst them unconventional and experimental—unusual words to be using for a musical that once was the longest-running juggernaut in Broadway history. But that’s what Levingston says audiences tend to forget. “Cats has an inherent queerness in it,” he says. “Queer is by definition having done something that is so outside of the mainstream. People don’t always connect the context of what Cats was coming out of, and how subversive it actually was. Our reimagining in some ways is us trying to return to the feeling of what it must have been to see the original for the first time.”

Levingston’s not wrong. The look and sound of Cats is iconic today, but when it debuted in 1980 it was so daring and fresh that it had borderline punk-rock energy. Clad in skintight unitards and leg warmers—not only fashionable for the time, but part of how original designer John Napier worked to bring feline proportions to human bodies—Cats featured a stage full of sexy, slinky dancers with wild makeup and wigs. David Bowie would have fit right in.

Lloyd Webber’s sound was revolutionary, too. Already known for mixing the worlds of rock and symphonic music with rock operas like Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, Cats pioneered the front-facing use of synthesizers, creating sounds so unique and linked to the legacy of the musical that even now they won’t let you produce it without renting Lloyd Webber-approved keyboard sounds.

Those sounds will carry through to this new version almost completely intact. Having been written towards the end of the disco era, Lloyd Webber’s groundbreaking original sound doesn’t actually need much to feel at home in the ballroom scene. “When we think of the era when Cats was created, we hear this classical feel with disco undertones underneath it,” explains Wiles. “When ballroom started, it was an underground scene in the disco era, so we find an easy connection there.”

But it’s not completely the same. Beats arranger Trevor Holder has been brought in to augment certain moments with the sounds of modern ballroom, giving us the beats and hits we should be hearing when these cats are voguing. There have been Cats productions that departed from the original’s iconic look and staging before, but this is the first to have Lloyd Webber approval to re-arrange some of the music. “[Lloyd Webber] and his company, The Really Useful Group, have been so collaborative and generous with how we’re able to approach this,” says music supervisor William Waldrop, who will be leading the musical’s 10-piece orchestra. “We haven’t found that we needed to do too many orchestration changes, but there are spots where we made adjustments to make a section feel more ballroom.”

What’s really different about this Cats are the visuals. You won’t see tails, ears, or leg warmers at this Jellicle Ball. Here, cats is a metaphor for queer human beings walking the runway at a seedy club in the Meatpacking District. And while they might not be in hand-painted unitards, these kitties come with fashion, courtesy of costume designer Qween Jean.

Company of Cats: "The Jellicle Ball" at Perelman Performing Arts Center (PAC NYC). Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

The team has made it so many of the songs get matched with runway categories—Flirty playboy Rum Tum Tugger is walking Realness, which asks contestants to authentically embody a macho straight man. “Memory”-singing Grizabella is a femme queen (ballroom parlance for a trans woman) who has gone out into the world and now seeks to return to her chosen family.

The creators hope this Cats won’t just be a fun new lens for a long-running, classic musical, but a tribute to a vibrant community that has largely flourished underground. And that’s not just in terms of the storytelling. Rauch and Levingston assembled a cast that is about half musical theatre names (Tony winner André De Shields is playing a particularly flashy Old Deutereonomy) and half fixtures from the world of ballroom (Baby is Victoria, Junior LaBeija is Gus, “Tempress” Chasity Moore is Grizabella).

“It’s important for our trans women, our gender non-conforming members as well, to get seen and to get that light,” says Wiles. “And it’s not just in the ballroom scene, but also the world of the entertainment world. They are as talented as anyone else. Talent is not defined by your gender or how you identify. If you have talent, you have talent. You should be given a chance and opportunity to take the stage. We’re not just creating a show. We’re creating space for people, for artists that need that space.”

"Tempress" Chasity Moore in CATS: "The Jellicle Ball" at Perelman Performing Arts Center (PAC NYC) Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

According to Rauch, this is the real reason Cats merges well with the world of Ballroom. “The piece is so much about transformation,” he says. “One of the first songs is ‘The Naming of Cats.’ They say you need to know the names us cats have chosen for ourselves. And the end, the last song is Old Deuteronomy telling the audience, ‘This is how you address a cat—because a cat is not a dog.” Suddenly what used to be musings of the imagined inner world of cats and a tribute to beloved pets becomes a poignant spotlight on a community that was shunned by a homophobic and transphobic world and invented their own fabulousness in the face of that trauma.

“I tear up thinking about it,” Rauch says emotionally. “We have a cast full or queer people, trans people, telling us I choose my name for myself—and give me the respect that I am due.”

Photos: Cats: "The Jellicle Ball at Perelman Performing Arts Center

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