Inside Broadway’s ‘Creating the Magic’ program gave more than 2,500 New York City public school students a glimpse behind the scenes of the record-breaking musical, ‘Cats.’
On Dec. 12, more than 2,500 NYC public school students were able to get a peek behind the scenes of the Tony Award-winning musical, Cats, through NYC art nonprofit Inside Broadway’s “Creating the Magic” program.
“Sometimes they [children] just think it’s the actors and that we turn the lights on and then we have a show. But actually there’s a whole army of people who are supporting the actors on stage, making it possible,” said Inside Broadway’s founder, Michael Presser. “So this is a way of introducing them to other careers in the theater besides just the acting.”
A Curious Crowd
Inside the Neil Simon Theatre—across the street from where Cats was originally performed—hundreds of NYC public school students are excitedly chatting away, eyeing the stage filled with oversized items such as a tire, undergarments, and trash.
Among the crowd were students from Ampark Neighborhood School in the Bronx, eager to learn more about the actors and the set.
“I want to know why everything is so big,” said Grace Hernandez, a 10-year-old in the fourth grade. “Because I saw the people, I saw the [Macy’s] Thanksgiving Parade of this and they were so small. So I wonder why it’s [the items on set] so big.”
“I’m excited [to hear] about their acting history, because I like acting and I like to see how other people got where they are,” said Nia Bligen, a 10-year-old student in the fifth grade.
Students watching ‘Cats’
The Magic Begins
Suddenly the lights went out and the students started to scream and shriek. Tiny pairs of eyes began to light up on and around the stage. The music gained momentum. The Inside Broadway experience had begun. Students heard from the actors, both in and out of costume, as well as the behind-the-scenes crew responsible for the lighting, props, makeup, music, set, and more.
To start, actors Jess LeProtto, Francesca Granell, and Richard Todd Adams told students about their journey to Cats, continually hitting the note about the importance of education. The cast members also described their characters: the energetic and adventurous Mungojerrie (played by LeProtto), his partner in crime, the sassy and mischievous Rumpelteazer (played by Granell), and the sage leader of the tribe, Old Deuteronomy (for which Adams is an understudy).
Then Adams stepped atop a large tire that rose above the stage while he sang “The Ad-Dressing Of Cats.” Though Adams wasn’t in his costume—which he shared weighs 30 pounds—his performance was enough to silence the crowd.
Putting a Show Together
Production Stage Manager Ira Mont helped introduce different members of the production crew to the students, from carpenters to the musical conductor.
The carpenters spoke about maintaining the scenery and moving pieces. The crew responsible for props walked on stage with two larger-than-life items—a dust mop and a top hat—on account of them being to-scale for human-sized cats. Students also learned how the elaborate scenery was composed of many individual pieces put up one by one, dictated by a set designer.
Students then heard from the crew in electric and got to see a demo on how the sound and lighting departments work together to make it look like glass is breaking on the stage. And the conductor spoke about the live music performed with Cats, which was one of the first shows to use the synthesizer, mixed with pop and rock music.
The air and make-up supervisor spoke about styling and maintaining the wigs made of yak hair (though Grizabella’s is human hair). She mentioned that she went to school for wigs and makeup, to which a student sitting behind me excitedly whispered to her classmate, “You can do that?” Which speaks to the educational benefits of a program like this.
Cat Take the Stage
There was plenty of singing and dancing for all at the Creating the Magic event. A soloist for the New York City Ballet turned Cats cast member, Georgina Pazcoguin, spoke about her extensive warm-up routine for the show and the importance of being prepared—both to dance and to move around on all fours like a cat across the stage. Pazcoguin, who plays Victoria, the white cat, then performed a dance for all the students.
Later in the show LeProtto and Granell reappeared on stage, this time in full costume. They—like the rest of the cast before a performance—did their cat makeup themselves. Though it’s a complete transformation, Granell said the makeup really only took her 15 minutes (though usually it’s 30). The duo then performed their characters’ namesake song “Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer.” At one point they grabbed each other by the ankles and did a cartwheel, impressing both the students and this editor (who has been a fan of the musical ever since she encountered Cats on VHS).
Georgina Pazcoguin demonstrates choreography from ‘Cats’ on stage.
Making a “Memory”
To end the 70-minute event, Jessica Hendy, who was part of the original company of Cats, came on stage to talk about her path to Broadway. Shocked gasps came from the students as Hendy spoke about growing up in Cincinnati before the Internet existed. Though growing up she didn’t know what Broadway was, Hendy said she just kept listening to her inner voice, telling her to sing. She encouraged students to listen to their inner voice as well.
I was fortunate enough to get a word in with Hendy before she took the stage and performed the iconic Cats song, “Memory” (which personally invoked chills). I asked her why she thinks theater is important for children.
“I think it gives them an outlet and an excuse to really explore their personality and really do that pretend play, that tangible play that sometimes gets taken up by video games and stuff like that these days,” Hendy said. “It’s also a way [for them] to express themselves in a safe space and just grow and take risks.”
What Makes Live Theater Special
“It’s the very nature of live theater that makes it very special,” Presser says. “…so much of what children are exposed to today are recorded, movies, television, Internet. But this is live every night…there’s a direct relationship between what’s happening on the stage and the audience and there’s a communication there. Movies can’t do that. Television can’t do that. The Internet can’t do that. Theater is special. And theater always will be special. So for children it’s an opportunity to really participate in something that’s very, very unique.”
Inside Broadway’s Creating the Magic program is a free presentation for NYC public school students that takes place three times a year and gives students a glimpse behind the scenes of a Broadway show. Presser founded Inside Broadway in 1982, with Cats as an original partner.
Cats, a revolutionary Broadway show by Andrew Lloyd Webber, features a cast of singers and dancers costumed to appear as felines on a stage designed to resemble a cats’ junkyard. It made its Broadway debut at the Winter Gardens Theatre in 1982 and closed on Broadway in September 2000, after 7,485 performances. It came back to Broadway this summer.
Photos courtesy Inside Broadway
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