Seven Tony Awards. Box office receipts of more than a billion
dollars. A Broadway run of nearly 8,000 performances. And yet, if I
asked you to name the actors and actresses who became stars because
of "Cats," you'd probably be stumped.
Okay, Broadway buffs, so you recall Betty Buckley for singing
In fact, although this was the ultimate ensemble piece, there was
one cat who outshone the others. His name is Stephen Mo Hanan, and
in the original Broadway cast, he played Bustopher, Asparagus, and
Growltiger. "Hanan is fantastic," purred Clive Barnes in the New
York Post. And the Times, Wall Street Journal and
New Yorker agreed.
Hanan has had to wait two decades for his next plum role --- this
spring he stars as Al Jolson in an off-Broadway production --- but
he's going to be immortal for a slim little book that he never
intended to publish: A CAT'S DIARY. Written during the rehearsal
period, these nightly entries are l00 pages of delight and
Disney World has spoiled us --- people disappear into animal
costumes and goof around, and we find them charming in a
sentimental, how-can-you-not-like-this way. But being a cat in a
musical inspired by T. S. Eliot and directed by Trevor Nunn? Not so
easy. Hard physical work, in fact. And that's just the outside
preparation --- as Hanan tells it, there's immense psychological
inquiry and tons of improvisation.
Although the diaries tell us a great deal about the technical
challenges of mounting this musical, there's a strong human
narrative (the march toward opening night) and one heroic figure
(Trevor Nunn). Mostly, Nunn stands on the sidelines, watching. When
he makes a comment, it's rarely what you'd expect --- before an
actress does a song in rehearsal, he asks, "But are you having
fun?" And, as it happens, that innocent query opens her up to
deliver a terrific performance.
Hanan, for his part, also serves up terrific little insights: "What
is the acting approach? Everyone had an opinion, and I began
to understand why it took so long to set up the protocols for the
Vietnam peace talks." He doesn't shrink from self-deprecating
anecdotes: "Trevor said, 'You've got to look like nothing anyone
has ever seen before, which is easy if you're Steve Hanan, but for
the rest of us...'" And, boy, does he ever show us how the gritty,
unglamorous work of acting takes its toll: "I come home so tired I
can hardly find my way to bed."
As the cast becomes an extraordinary performing unit, Hanan --- who
is predisposed to a lovely hippie-esque spirituality --- doesn't
fail to get the larger point. He's amazed at how far he's come,
he's constantly on the verge of tears. Trevor Nunn makes the
spiritual lesson less overtly. "You must remember what the greatest
power in the theater is," he tells the company. "It has nothing to
do with sets and special effects. It's what's going on in your
minds, and how that affects the minds of the audience."
Hanan's account of opening night is appropriately triumphant. And,
because this actor is as emotional as he is analytical, you'll tear
up when it's time for Nunn to leave New York and go on to his next
production. Fifteen months later, with a Tony nomination on his
resume, Hanan also left "Cats." To the indelible performance he
gave during his stint can now be added this slim but potent book.
"Cats" lovers will enjoy it. Actors, if they are smart, will turn
it into gold.
Reviewed by Jesse Kornbluth on January 21, 2011