Prior to its 1982 Broadway opening, Dramatics caught up with two original cast members from the London production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Cats for insights on the show’s development and fan reaction. Based on the West End enthusiasm, we predicted a long New York run.

Spoiler alert: Cats would go on to become the fourth longest-running musical in Broadway history as of 2019, with a long-awaited movie version scheduled for release in December.

SOMETIME NEXT FALL, the musical Cats will open on Broadway. It will run for a long time. It’s been sold out virtually since it opened in London last May. When we saw it in December, in the midst of England’s worst winter in 31 years, people by the hundreds were queuing up outside, hours before showtime, on the chance of snaring a turned-in ticket.

Finola Hughes as Victoria in the original London production of Cats.

Finola Hughes as Victoria in the original London production of Cats. Photo by John Haynes.

Cats’ success is no surprise, considering its pedigree: Andrew Lloyd Webber out of T.S. Eliot. Eliot, in case you’ve forgotten, is the one who won the Nobel Prize. Lloyd Webber wrote the music for Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar. It’s not your usual musical comedy writing team, but they seem to work well together (Eliot, of course, posthumously). With much help from director Trevor Nunn — one of the guiding geniuses behind the hit Nicholas Nickleby — and choreographer Gillian Lynne, Lloyd Webber has transformed Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, written in 1939, into a dazzling, hyperactive orgy of singing and dancing.

The dancing is outstanding — several of the dancers were borrowed from ballet companies — and Lloyd Webber, as usual, has written a number of tunes that stay with you after you’ve left the theatre — even when you wish they wouldn’t. The set by John Napier, the designer for Nicholas Nickleby, is a visual feast, an onstage junkyard scaled up to cat’s­-eye view. And there are enough pyrotechnics to dazzle even the most jaded child of the television and electronic-game generation.

In short, these people have a hit on their hands.

Several students participating in James Madison University’s Semester in London program somehow managed to see Cats two and three times last fall (there’s always a ticket somewhere to be had, and American students are nothing if not resourceful). Finola Hughes and Christopher Beeching, of the Cats cast, could have carried back good news to the show’s producers after they met with the Madison students: the Americans love it.

Although the show is coming to the states, it won’t do Finola or Chris much good; they won’t be able to accompany it as performers because of union rules that limit the number of British actors allowed to come to the United States each year. That’s a shame, because, according to Finola, the show developed very much as an ensemble piece.

“There was no book when we started out,” said Finola, who, as Victoria, is one of the lead dancers. “Another dancer and I started rehearsing with Gillian last February, before anyone else came in. She wanted to have the dances set, so when everyone else started she’d have a foot to stand on.

“But it didn’t work like that because nearly everything we did was scrapped and changed and rearranged. The whole cast started in March and for about six weeks it was just horrendous. Nobody knew what was going to happen. We were having workshops, and everything was always new. We felt like it could go either way: On the one hand, it was very exciting; on the other hand, it was frightening because nothing was written down. We would have liked to have been able to see it all — to see where we were going — but it was all up in the air.

“We did a lot of improvisation as cats. Trevor would say, ‘Do the most disgusting thing cats do.’ So, of course, people got up and did quite disgusting things. And then he’d ask us to do the most endearing thing cats do, so everybody rolled over on their backs and made themselves look endearing, as cats do. And then the most annoying thing, which I think is their capriciousness, when they come up to you and they’re sort of really nice, and so darling — and then they turn their backs and walk away.

“We were supposed to do projects, the way the Nicholas Nickleby cast did. My project was to talk about the 1930s, when the poems were written. But then we got behind schedule and had to scrap them. Trevor works very, very slowly.

“When we played to our first audience, we’d only had one dress rehearsal. It was the most exciting thing, ever. At the end of the show, we didn’t know what we were going to do — we’d never come up with an ending. So, we just all jumped off the stage and ran into the audience and started shaking people’s hands. It worked!

“That show was an amazing release because we’d actually done one, and they’d liked it. But then we had three weeks grace before the press was allowed in and lots of things were changed and cut, and spirits sunk again.

“And then on our first night, on opening night, we had a bomb scare. Brian (Blessed, who plays the cat, Deuteronomy) came in to tell us we’d have to leave the building, just after we finished the show. He took his wig off because he figured that if some cat comes on with great big ears and says, ‘There’s a bomb in the building,’ well, you know what would happen.

“Anyway, there was no bomb, and then the reviews came out in the morning — I even got up for them — and they were raves. Those first three months were just amazing.”

Photo of actress Finola Hughes by S. Ezra Goldstein.
Photo of actress Finola Hughes by S. Ezra Goldstein.

Chris had his own traumatic introduction to Cats. He was added to the show after it opened, without benefit of the months of rehearsals, workshops, and improvisations. He didn’t even get to work with Trevor Nunn or Gillian Lynne.

“They needed someone to add to the cast. They needed more ‘top’ in the male voices — another tenor. And the show is so horribly taxing physically that people were just dropping, and they had no one to go on in their place. I mean, they had stand-ins for the leads, but there are 30 people in the cast, and it’s a rare day when everyone makes it in. So, they needed someone who could take on any of the roles and be in the cast when everyone was healthy.

“I think I won out in the auditions because I’ve got a pretty strong tenor. Then they kept me hanging on for three or four weeks before they decided whether they were going to add another person — whether they could afford to add another person. Then I got to rehearse for a few days, but only once with the whole cast, and then just for the opening number.

“Rehearsing steps was fine, and rehearsing the music I was going to sing was fine, but when I went on for the first time, it was hell. I had to find my way around the stage during a performance — the show was very loose placing wise, they told me — and that was terrifying. It was sort of ‘Now you find so-and-so and then that person, or that person, will be on your left. But I didn’t even know who they were talking about. I hadn’t met anyone!

“Getting people to react with me was very difficult too, because they’d all become a group, a family, and I was the outsider. I felt like an outsider for some time, until I’d managed to prove myself and become accepted as the new … cat.”

“I’ve been dancing since I was 3,” said Finola, as she sat in the Raven Tavern across Drury Lane from the new London Theatre, the home of Cats. “It seems to have taken up the whole of my life. I started ballet school when I was 10, the Arts Educational here in the city. That was a marvelous time. It was a half day dancing and a half day education, and we learned drama and singing too — it’s not every ballet school that does that.

Finola, who is now 22, left Arts Educational when she was 18 and became a dancer with the Northern Ballet Company, based in Manchester.

“It was a miserable life under miserable conditions. We’d tour, and the dressing rooms would always be cold. I’d play sylphs, who aren’t supposed to look like they’re working hard, but it was incredibly hard work. It was also — despite the conditions — very satisfying, but after a while there did seem to be a lot missing, so I left the company and came to London.”

She has done well in London. She has appeared in television shows as a dancer, including The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and had a principle dance role in the film Clash of the Titans. In 1980, Finola was picked from 600 women to represent Britain in a dance special on American television.

And then came Cats.

“Auditioning was awful. It was the most intense auditioning I’d ever been through — it took eight hours. Everybody and their wife was there. We had to sing as well as dance, and that wasn’t something I’d done much of, so I did a Noel Coward song — I’ve Been to a Marvelous Party — and I talked my way through it. Trevor Nunn quite took to that, I think. And then we had to do pieces from a play, which was also something I hadn’t really done before. After all that they decided to choose me, which was amazing.”

It doesn’t seem all that amazing, watching the show, that they picked Finola. She is a wonderful dancer, with a distinctive style, and seems perfect for a show like Cats where the dancing is an integral part of the lyric line.

“I don’t want to be an actor,” said Finola. “I feel far more in control when I’m dancing, when I’m expressing my feelings visually. I work on technique in class, which I try to go to every day, still. That’s when I slug away on those muscles. But when I’m onstage, I don’t think about technique; I think about what I’m trying to put over. For me, it’s just like acting. I put myself into the mood and feeling of each dance.

“Of course, that’s hard to do every day, two times a day on Tuesday and Saturday. In a way, it’s mind blowing that we all do that, and sometimes I can’t believe I’m still here, after all these months. I think I’ve dropped a stone in weight since I started. But then, on the other hand, I know there’s no reason I can’t do it, if I keep my body finely tuned. Injuries often occur when you let them occur. I mean, they’re often a result of a mental letdown, when you stop paying attention.

Stephen Tate and Susan Jane Tanner in th original London production of Cats.
Stephen Tate and Susan Jane Tanner in the original London production of Cats. Photo by John Haynes.

“Everyone in the cast has their own way of getting psyched up for a show. Some start getting up hours before they go on; others wait till the last minute. Some of them sing all their lines, backstage, every night, and it drives you crazy! I warm up, of course, but I don’t do anything special to get psyched. I wet the back of my socks before I put my shoes on, then I put resin on my slippers, then I just wait. I do whatever everyone else is doing. If they’re joking, I’m joking. If they’re quiet, I’m quiet.

“I just wait and see how I feel, and sometimes I find myself onstage before I realize it. I don’t force anything until the first number, The Naming of Cats. How I come over in that often will be how I feel for the rest of the show. If I do a good adagio — something I do just after Naming — I’ll feel good for the whole show.

“Of course, there are days when you just don’t feel like doing it. Sometimes I catch a look in someone else’s eyes, in the middle of a number, that tells me they’re miles away. Sometimes they don’t come back until they trip or fall down or something, and realize where they are. And some people save their energy for the big dance numbers. You know, they put a bit of energy here, a bit there. I just can’t do that. I have to get that energy going. You get through it, no matter how rotten you feel some days.

“The shows are never the same twice, and the dances never have exactly the same feeling. When you think you’ve hit the nail on the head, it’s a tremendous feeling. I still get excited at times when I stand back, mentally, onstage, and look at what we’re doing. I feel very close to the show. I’ve been with it almost a year now. It was a muddle and a mess at first. After 10 weeks, we still didn’t know if we had a show or not. But that first time, with an audience, when we didn’t even have an ending and we leapt out and starting shaking people’s hands — what an incredible buzz. ‘We have a show! We’re in business,’ we thought.”

Finola is considering several options after she leaves Cats, including coming to the states where the opportunities for a dancer are much greater than in England. “But,” she said, “I don’t really have any clear ambitions. I’m happy as long as I’m dancing every day. It’s incredibly narrow at times, being a dancer, I know. I have no regrets — my dancing always comes first — but it makes things like starting a relationship very difficult. It’s hard for other people to understand, unless they’re in the business.”

Or unless they happen to be Finola’s father who, she said, “thinks what I’m doing is just great.” Finola lives with her father and 13-year-old brother, who tried his hand at ballet but “decided it wasn’t for him. He’s very mature, very wonderful.” Finola’s mother died two years ago, and they’re a close family. And supportive, which will be an important factor in Finola’s life, as she goes after one of the hardest careers around, that of the professional dancer.

Photo of actor Christopher Beeching outside the theatre by S. Ezra Goldstein.

Photo of actor Christopher Beeching outside the theatre by S. Ezra Goldstein.

Chris Beeching, who is 38, could tell Finola a lot about the struggle theatre sometimes turns out to be. He’s been at it since he was 14, when he was winning amateur theatre prizes in his native Essex. When he finished school at 16, he joined a professional company — one of the repertory companies that do a new play every two weeks and that have been such a rich breeding ground for British actors.

“It’s a background I’d recommend for anyone,” said Chris, “even though I got one pound a week for 42 weeks. I did tech work and walk-ons. I learned skills — like how to make props — that have served me well all my life.

“When I was 18 or so, I decided I’d like to be a dancer, so I went and trained for that. And then I did some pantomime, worked in summer stock, and finally ended up at the Sadler’s Wells Opera, as a dancer. I did that for five years, but it got too easy, too secure. So I left.”

Since then, Chris has done “shows here and there and everywhere”: musicals, television, whatever he could get. “I’d felt I’d proved I could act and sing, but I kept getting parts as a dancer. I wanted to do more than that. At one point, I said, ‘No, I’m just not going to dance anymore,’ and then things got real rough. You do good work and then nothing happens after that; you have to start all over every time. I also still get sent up for juvenile parts because I look so young. Sometimes I feel like I just have to sit back and wait for my face to catch up with my age.”

Chris has done much more than sit back between parts. He’s done something called Pollock’s Toy Theatre for years. Pollock’s was very popular among the Victorians. It consists of miniature theatres complete with characters to cut out and maneuver around stage, all the different sets needed to mount a show, and scripts. Chris has done Pollock’s shows for children for years and is working on a new show adding puppets to the stock characters.

Chris also has a music hall act that consists of numbers like “Gorgonzola Cheese,” complete with a worm that crawls out of a moldy hunk of cardboard cheese, and “The Belle of the Ball,” with a full size and very maneuverable mannequin. (“It’s all those prop-making skills I learned so many years ago,” said Chris.)

“The Belle of the Ball” was originally performed by a Music Hall star known as Champagne Charlie, a big hit of the 1880s who, onstage, sang about dissipation and, apparently, acted out the same theme offstage. With his friend, playwright Glyn Jones, Chris is working on a one-man show based on Champagne Charlie’s life.

“He was a fascinating character,” said Chris. “Chandon kept him supplied in champagne in his heyday, as long as he endorsed their product, but Glyn and I found him buried in a mass grave covered with briars, with a broken headstone. I thought Cats would give me the time and money to do research on Champagne Charlie. Unfortunately, up to now, there hasn’t been much time left over. And it’s so taxing! But I love the show. It’s theatrical, with capital letters.

“Here, if you’re a dancer and a singer and an actor, you’re thought to be rather strange. This is a rare show for London, that lets you be all three. Cats has done a lot for West End musicals. It has shown that we can do musicals here that work, that combine every aspect of entertainment, and that are great fun.”

Finola is the virtuoso dancer; Chris is just what he says he is: a man of many talents. He throws himself into the show, giving every appearance of thoroughly enjoying himself. And as a kind of understudy without portfolio, he has played almost every male role in the show at one time or another. Two days after he first went onstage, he took over the important role of Mungojerrie. “I really was flung on. I wasn’t joking. It was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done. Now I think it’s wonderful not knowing what part I’ll be playing until I show up at the theatre.

“I love all the contact we make with the audience. That helps keep the show fresh, too, even when things don’t go perfectly. We have these drainpipes that we dive through to get out to the audience. Well, one day I dove in and there was somebody sitting in the front row, with his feet stretched out down the other end of the drainpipe. Smack! And then after I fought my way out of there, I tripped over all these shopping bags that were sitting in the aisle. It was a matinee, you see.”

There are unexpected rewards: At one matinee, a woman reached into her shopping bag and handed Chris a can of Whiskas Cat Food.

Other rewards: Finola has gained new respect for cats. “I used to think they were just something that walked away from you when you wanted to talk to them. Now I can just take them for what they are. I look at them sitting on a wall, the way they stare at you — it’s really amazing. I want to watch them more than I used to. And every time I see one, it gives me new ideas, and when I go on, I say, ‘Oh, I feel just like that cat looked.’”

Of course, not everyone shares Finola’s enthusiasm. There are stories of dyed-in-the­-wool (but not cat hair) theatre buffs who refuse to see the show because of the way they feel about cats. And one of the leads remains allergic to the animals and will have nothing to do with them.

But cats, regardless of one’s opinion of them, do move well. And to see 30 enormously talented people doing their imitations of cats — well, there’s no denying that cats are the kind of stuff good dances are made from.

NOTE: Finola Hughes moved to the U.S. several years later, where she landed starring roles in the movie Staying Alive and the television show General Hospital, for which she earned a Daytime Emmy Award. Actor Chris Beeching’s one-man show about Champagne Charlie did come to fruition and has been performed all across Great Britain.

This story appeared in the May 1982 print version of Dramatics. Learn about the print magazine and other Thespian benefits on the International Thespian Society website.

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