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[Herald Interview] A feline state of mind

Cast members of musical ‘Cats’ talk about show, morphing into animal characters

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Published : 2014-06-04 20:38
Updated : 2014-06-05 10:24

Even if you never saw “Cats,” you would probably recognize the musical if you saw the actors, with their facial paint, furry tails and unitards, or heard “Memory,” one of the most popular songs from any musical.

Staged numerous times in numerous cities, including Seoul, for more than 30 years since its London premiere, the Andrew Lloyd Webber show has become something of a musical milestone.

The original production first came to Korea in 1994, and returned in 2003, 2007 and 2008, drawing some 1.2 million viewers in the country altogether. The viewer tally does not count some local productions with a Korean cast.

So one may well wonder what’s so special about the original production coming for a Korean run for the fifth time.

The Korea Herald met with two of the cast and a resident choreographer of the upcoming production who shared their views on the show and how they try to make it fresh and appealing.

Why ‘Cats?’

“Cats” has a very simple plot. In fact, some argue, it has no plot.

Based on “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” by T.S. Eliot, it tells the story of the Jellicles, a tribe of cats who assemble for their annual junkyard gathering where one is chosen to be reborn to a new life. One by one, the kittens take center stage to make their case for rebirth, singing and dancing.

A scene from the musical “Cats.” (Seol & Company)

Rather than a tightly-woven tale, it arrests attention with well-defined cat characters. Among them are Grizabella, an old, broken-down cat, played by Erin Cornell and the Rum Tum Tugger, a sexy rebel cat played by Earl Gregory.

For both actors, being cast in “Cats” is a dream come true.

“I have the privilege of singing ‘Memory,’” Cornell said, explaining her role during a group interview in Seoul on Wednesday.

Grizabella has always been her dream role ever since she saw the musical starring legendary star Elaine Page as the cat, at the age of 8.

In her youth, Grizabella is beautiful and glamorous. But as she always wants more, she leaves the tribe to explore the outside world. Now old and worn out, she wants to reconcile with the tribe, but is shunned.

“She’s got a lot of pride. At the same time, she’s very fragile,” the Australian performer said. “What I think is the most important (in portraying her) is to bring as much truth to her (as possible) for her journey to be shared with everyone in the audience.”

Diverse cat personalities and their genuine interactions on stage are what keeps the show fresh and exciting until now, said Gregory. “It is never the same show because our interactions on stage are different every time. Our interaction with the audience is different too.”  

Emma Delmenico, a former member of the cast who now tours with the team as a choreographer, said: “It’s also a very physical show. There’s no language barrier. It is all physically explained.” That is, she said, one of the key reasons why the show is so successful around the world.

Feline transformation

One of the key appeals of “Cats” is the cast members’ transformation into the animals.

The director has developed unique ways to recreate a world of cats.

One of them is the “creative exercises” that actors do every morning before rehearsal, where they get down on their hands and knees, scratch, sniff and look into a mirror to practice their facial expressions.

“At first, it feels awkward, but gradually it starts to work,” Delmenico explained.

Another tactic deployed to help the cast inhabit their feline characters is to give each member three adjectives that describe the type of cat they are supposed to portray. Actors are not supposed to share the words among themselves. They should figure it out only by interacting with one another in the “creative exercises” or other improvisation sessions.

“That was the fun part for me ― trying to figure out the different energies of other cats and how my cat should interact with them,” Gregory said.

From left: Emma Delmenico, Earl Gregory and Erin Cornell. (Seol & Company)

Cornell confessed that at first she had some difficulties adjusting to the show because it demands a lot of dancing and feline gesticulation, on top of singing.

“My background is ... I am not a dancer,” said the performer who before “Cats” starred as Elphaba, one of the two witches of muscial “Wicked.”

“Every single move we do on stage is resembling the cats. I started to think of it not as choreography or dance. I thought of it as acting. That change of mindset helped me a lot,” she said.

Due to the show’s physical demand on the actors, Gregory tries to manage his physical condition just like an athlete would, stretching before rehearsals or performances and trying to work out regularly, he said.

The actor is also perfecting his makeup skills, too.

All the cast in “Cats” are asked to do their own makeup.

“Now it takes me more than an hour, because I want all the lines to be done perfectly,” he said.

For Cornell, it takes around 35 minutes. Delmenico said she now has it down to about 10 minutes. “I’ve done it so many times. As a swing (stand-in), you’re supposed to jump onto the stage at any time whenever someone gets hurt or something like that happens,” she said.

The Seoul run of “Cats” opens on June 13 and wraps up on Aug. 24. It will be staged at the Blue Square, Itaewon. Prices range from 50,000 won to 140,000 won. For more information, call 1577-3363 or visit www.musicalcats.co.kr.

By Lee Sun-young (milaya@heraldcorp.com)

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