‘Cats’ Returns, Ditching the Junkyard for Queer Ballroom

Things seemed to change when the video came out.

At the end of May, the Perelman Arts Center posted a clip on social media of “Jellicle Cats,” the catchy, effervescent opening number from the musical “Cats.” It showed a group of queer performers catwalking in a rehearsal room before breaking apart to freely dance and vogue. One singer wore a cap winkingly topped with feline ears; another stared down the camera and twirled her ponytail with declarative swagger.

This was the first real glimpse of a new, ballroom-inspired revival of “Cats,” running through July 28 at PAC NYC, as the Perelman Center in Manhattan is known. Since it was announced nearly a year earlier, the show had been a subject of skepticism and mocking humor: “Cats” was ridiculous enough, but ballroom? Hardly a mention of the production went by without a snicker.

Then the “Jellicle Cats” clip went viral, and jaws dropped. Celebrities chimed in, with the comedian Ziwe saying, “Ok go off” and the filmmaker Justin Simien simply writing, “AYEEEEEEEEEEEEEE.” On TikTok, one person commented, “do I……do I suddenly want to see Cats?”

For over four decades, “Cats” has been something of a cultural punching bag. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s adaptation of poetry by T.S. Eliot, unfolding as a dance-heavy, revue-like show about cats gathering in a junkyard for their annual Jellicle Ball, has been seen as strange at best, and kitsch at worst. Its earworms have driven theater critics mad; its costumes of unitards and leg warmers are just as impossible to dislodge from your memory. Tom Hooper’s film adaptation, from late 2019, flopped disastrously, and was jokingly referred to as a dark turning point that ushered in the pandemic.

But, in a moment of stage directors reconsidering, and often reimagining, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals, such as a stark “Sunset Boulevard” transferring to Broadway from London this fall, perhaps it is also the time for “Cats” to shake off its pop culture clichés and say something new.

That, at least, is the goal of the PAC NYC production, called “Cats: The Jellicle Ball,” an immersive revival that is free of felines and unfolds as a ballroom competition. As a concept, it maps onto the musical with surprising ease and heart.

“Think about ‘Cats’ being street characters in a junkyard and ballroom being these historically marginalized people,” said Zhailon Levingston, the show’s co-director. “In ballroom, you have a centering of legacy and chosen family, the way cats have a tribe. Both take what’s given to them, and turn it into something beautiful.”

Levingston first saw “Cats” as a child; he basically forced his mother to rent the 1998 video release at Blockbuster. According to family lore, he watched the entire show inches from the television screen, without getting up once. That’s when it was clear, he said, that “my mom knew that something was going on, that this young person is not the same as the other kids.”

Fast-forward to the pandemic, when Levingston was at home with his roommate, playfully wondering what “Cats” would be like if the characters were “cats” in the older, slangy sense. Around that time, Bill Rauch, the artistic director of PAC NYC, happened to be trying to work out a queer take on the musical.

Rauch had already directed a queer twist on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” and had imagined a version of “Cats” in which an older gay man would play Grizabella and sing the show’s defining ballad, “Memory,” alone in a gay bar. “As I spent time with the material, though,” Rauch recalled, “I realized that of course it’s not a bar. It’s a ball.”

He began to assemble collaborators well-versed in the world of ballroom. But he also, one day, heard from Levingston, who wanted to meet over Zoom and, in a bold stroke, asked to join the production as a co-director. Rauch, quickly impressed, said yes. (Among the thousands of comments on the “Jellicle Cats” video was the performer Larry Owens tagging Levingston and saying, “Baby @zhailon isn’t playing.”)

As the production developed, long gone was the initial image of Grizabella the gay man. Instead, the Jellicle Ball was conceived as a succession of categories (said like “CAT-egories”), with performers vying for ballroom glory instead deciding which cat will ascend to the Heaviside Layer. Along the way, Levingston and Rauch found connections between their concept and the lyrics; the cats are described as “queens of the night,” for example, who “come out tonight” for the ball. So, they were able to maintain the architecture of the original musical, adding a few ballroom references but not cutting and replacing material.

“We want this production to be authentic to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘Cats,’ to T.S. Eliot’s words and to ballroom,” Rauch said. “All those things are of equal weight and importance to us. If there’s a ballroom choice that doesn’t honor the musical, or a musical choice that doesn’t honor ballroom, then we don’t do it.”

In the spirit of the original production, this “Cats” is immersive, combining PAC NYC’s modular theater spaces to build out, in Rachel Hauck’s set designs, a 57-foot runway. (“Of course you can’t do it without a runway,” she said.) There are traditional, raked seats, but also ones near the stage, at cafe tables that are incorporated into big dance numbers.

“We wanted to play with the setting of ballroom to create something magical for everyone,” said Arturo Lyons, who choreographed the show with Omari Wiles. They preserved the dancing spirit of “Cats,” and thought of movement as way for characters to “come together and show their ballroom skills,” Wiles said.

“Cats” has always been difficult to cast. Despite having little plot, it has demanded classic triple threats, performers who could spin out Lloyd Webber’s tuneful songs, survive a dance sequence like the 10-minute “Jellicle Ball” and, well, act like a cat. The PAC NYC revival has the added element of ballroom, an idiom that can be easily, embarrassingly fumbled by musical theater artists.

During the casting process, a staggering range of performers auditioned, Rauch said. He and Levingston were touched by how many queer Black people spoke about how “Cats” was, as Rauch described it, “a huge safety valve of queer expression for countless youth.” Some people, though, showed up thinking that “ballroom” meant “ballroom dance” and prepared material more fitting for “Dancing With the Stars.”

In the end, the casting drew from theater and ballroom. The two elder roles in the show, Old Deuteronomy and Gus the Theater Cat, were represented by titans from both worlds: André de Shields from theater and, from ballroom, Junior Labeija, a star of the classic documentary “Paris Is Burning.”

There has been a learning curve for everyone involved. “It’s definitely been a teaching moment,” Wiles said. “People have had to learn a new language — a new vogue-cabulary — but also learn to read sheet music or process choreography in a new way.”

Chasity Moore, the ballroom veteran, is playing Grizabella, which she initially found “a little nerve-racking” because, she said, “I would go in and think, Oh my God, these people have all these musical backgrounds.” But the same was true for those actors, who had to learn from Wiles and Lyons not to just have a ballroom affect, but to persuasively embody it: throwing shade as a spectator, say, or interacting with others as a house mother.

At first, Moore said, she wasn’t sure about a ballroom-themed “Cats,” and was worried that it risked appropriation. But she was touched by the production’s treatment of Grizabella as an icon of old who comes back to the scene, only to be spurned by her community because she has lost her youth and fallen on hard times.

“You are only as good as your last ballroom,” Moore said. “And a lot of times, the younger kids don’t do their research, and when these older ballroom girls come back, they are not given the best welcome. With Grizabella singing ‘Memory,’ that’s her saying: ‘You’re looking down on me, but you have no idea what I went through for us. Touch me, I bleed just like you.”

That sentiment is the soul of “Cats: The Jellicle Ball.” It is still an interactive, dance-heavy show, but alongside its athletic entertainment is fresh gravitas, never more evident than in the finale, “The Ad-Dressing of Cats.” In the past, the song has attracted giggles, with lines like “So first, your memory I’ll jog and say: A cat is not a dog.” Judi Dench sang it, in the movie, from a plinth on Trafalgar Square, perched atop the mane of a lion sculpture. But in the PAC NYC revival, the cast members gather closely and proudly deliver the rules for behavior in their ballroom.

“What does it mean, by the end of the show, for Black and brown bodies who are also queer, at the center of their own narrative, to not be asking for permission of how to be treated?” Levingston said. “What if they are demanding that if you are in our space, this is what our names are, and this is how you should address us? It gives the piece not a different message, but a message that’s deeper, and more urgent.”

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