Gus the Theatre Cat Mews Out His Story
Relishing A Cat's Diary by Stephen Mo Hanan, of whom Filichia has been a fan since the days when he was known as Stephen Kaplan.
Sat down with relish to read A Cat's Diary: How the Broadway Production of Cats Was Born by Stephen Mo Hanan. For I've been a fan of this actor since March 5, 1967, more than 15 years before he scored as Gus the Theatre Cat in the original production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber mega-smash.
That was the night I went to Harvard University's Loeb Drama Center to see Georges Feydeau's A Flea in Her Ear and was convulsed by the antics of Stephen Kaplan (as he was then known) as both the august M. Chandebise and Poche, the simple-minded hotel doorman who looks exactly like him. For when M. Chandebise shows up at the establishment where Poche works--well, you get the point. Neil Simon has called A Flea in Her Ear the funniest play of all time, but I'll bet he would have thought it funnier still had he seen it with Stephen Kaplan, a 20-year-old tyro with a smile as wide as the Hudson and an even bigger handlebar mustache. He was earthy, boisterous, bigger-than-life, a forest fire of a performer who nevertheless played the former part with the requisite authority, harrumphing all the way, and the latter role in appropriately dim-witted fashion. And when the doors slammed and he exited as one character before coming out as another, he maneuvered beautifully.
Only 17 days later, I went to my very first Hasty Pudding Show, A Hit and a Myth, and found that two famous sons had penned the book (Timothy Crouse, son of Russel; John Weidman, son of Jerome) but that this same Stephen Kaplan had written the lyrics. And damn good lyrics they were in this show about Beotia (pronounced B.O.-sha), a down-and-out town in ancient Greece. The opening number went, "Athens it's not; Sparta it's not; even next to Thebes, it's gauche. The one thing we have in Beotia, is plenty of B.O.-tia. At least we can't decline and fall!"
Knowing this show came in handy 30 years later when I attended a press preview for big and it was my turn to talk to bookwriter JohnWeidman. From the look on his face and the way he slumped in his chair, I knew he had no interest in talking to me. He started droning that he had managed to avoid Detroit his whole life, but now he'd just have to go there for the tryout. I shrugged and said, "Athens it's not; Sparta, it's not; even next to Thebes, it's gauche." He leapt up out of his chair in excitement and has been adorably lovely to me ever since. But I would have been just another pesky journalist to him had Stephen Kaplan not bailed me out with his witty lyrics. (One other lyric that's stayed with me for the last third-of-a-century: In the show, one Greek god chastised another by saying, "You've got a lesson to learn. Go write 50 odes on a Grecian urn!")
After that, I followed Stephen Kaplan with the ardor that my friends were giving to John, Paul, Ringo, and George. He's in something called The Plebians Rehearse the Uprising? I'm there! A cameo in new play called Prince Erie? Where's the box-office? Even my hearing that he was directing a student production of The Dybbuk was enough to get me to that one. The best two, though, were White Sale, an original revue, and Peace, a rock musical of the Aristophanes tale (three full months, by the way, before Hair opened at the Public). His co-star in those shows was Susan Channing, who later changed her first name to Stockard. And even though I adored Ms. C and became quite fond of another student actor named Tommy Lee Jones (especially as Coriolanus), Kaplan was first and foremost in my heart.
In the '70s, I saw Channing and Jones in various projects, but not Kaplan, who dropped off the theatrical radar. In the late '70s, I got excited when I saw that a new company called the Manhattan Punch Line, specializing in comedy, had as one of its directors one Stephen Kaplan. I went right down to the theater, bought a ticket, and was shattered when the Stephen Kaplan who made a pre-curtain speech didn't turn out to be the same guy. I wondered what had happened to "my" Stephen Kaplan. Then, one summer night in 1978, I went to the Delacorte to see what would be a phenomenal production of All's Well That Ends Well and noticed an actor in the ensemble who looked amazingly like Stephen Kaplan. That name was nowhere in the program, but there was a Stephen Hanan listed. Could it be? I wouldn't know the answer for days, until I was walking through Central Park to get in line for another All's Well ticket and saw a man standing in a group of guys who looked like this chorus member.
Once I got a "Yes" to "Are you Stephen Hanan?" I asked the big question: "Were you once Stephen Kaplan?" And, oh, was I delighted to find that he indeed was. He wasn't unhappy to meet me, either, once I said: "I will never forget you in all your roles at Harvard. I thought you were one of the greatest performers I'd ever seen." "Tell that to him," he said, pointing director Wilford Leach, who had staged this All's Well and would later cast Hanan in his smash revival of The Pirates of Penzance.
Then came Cats, and a Tony nomination. Now, almost two decades later, it's nice to have the chance to learn what was going on in Hanan's mind--and in the minds of the entire company--from August 9, 1982, the first day of rehearsals, through Saturday, October 9, 1982, a few days after opening. The book is literally a journal that Hanan kept during that time, never intending it to be published; but here it is, courtesy of Smith and Kraus. As a result, many readers may come away with the feeling that Hanan has an ego the size of Rhode Island, which may not be big for a state but is enormous for an ego. Many a sentence has either he or someone else saying how good he is in the part--but isn't that the type of thing we'd all put in our for-my-eyes-only diaries? And he does admit that "what first made us want to be actors [was] performing for people and having them say we're fabulous."
Cats, of course, became a cliché, so it's fun to see Hanan and his cast reacting to it with fresh eyes and staunch feelings. He writes how "everyone gasps" when they see the set model for the first time (though Betty Buckley "shows anxious concern about climbing up the stairway that descends from the ceiling and inquires--quite seriously--a about insurance provisions.") He later admits that he has "tears in his eyes" when he sees the actual set on the stage of the Winter Garden. "Broadway has never seen anything like it," he purrs. When Trevor Nunn says, "This is one of the greatest scores ever written for a musical," Hanan reports, there were "cheers and bravos for the genius of Andrew. Quite a rush to hear him do 'Memory. We all sigh." As I read this (and "Our first brief moment of singing a snatch of 'Memory'--sooo gorgeous"), I had to laugh, because I recall Hanan's reaction years later when we were dining together and the restaurant pianist began playing that song. He let out a moan that suggested every tooth in his head had just been afflicted with a big Macavity.
It wasn't only the cast members who were excited about the show. The book is also a sobering reminder of how wild New Yorkers were in 1982 at the prospect of seeing this London smash come to our shores: "Lines went around the block at the Winter Garden on the day the box office opened." Like it or not, Cats was just what the veterinarian ordered for a Broadway that desperately needed a smash-hit to show it could still deliver the goods.
Hanan has some nifty details about readying the show. He and Buckley "have this deep conversation about love, romance, attachments, the supposed but imperceptible benefits of celibacy--till we notice how absurd we look waxing profound in our cat outfits." When Hanan is rehearsing his big "Gus, the Theatre Cat" number, Trevor Nunn tells him to get rid of "specifically human gestures" such as holding up an index finger. And who knew that the most dramatic moment in A Chorus Line--Paul's getting injured and not being able to continue--actually happened during Cats to a performer named Willie Rosario, who was originally tabbed to play Skimbleshanks. (His story turned out better than Paul's, though not as well as he might have hoped.)
No, not everything was coming up roses. "Some dissatisfaction with Gillie's choreography is buzzing about ... she designs at reduced speed and then expects everyone to perform too many steps at high tempo." They were "discouraged" and "alarmed" at the dress rehearsal; but, he says in what turned out to be quite the understatement, "I think we're a hit." Previews suggested as much: "The entire house is on its feet and everyone is Ecstatic." Hanan wasn't so blinded as to think the show was flawless. "Much of the 'plot' is incomprehensible," he writes, "but it doesn't seem to matter."
Then, out of the hat, it's that big first night. "Buckets of cat food boxes" are familiar opening night gifts. "The entire house stands even before we begin individual bows"--undoubtedly the exact same people who looked down on the show in the ensuing years. You'll want to get A Cat's Diary this afternoon, for it may not be in print now and forever. It's a worthy addition to your theater library.