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 "Memory."
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 insight.
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