How a queer ballroom makeover gets ‘Cats’ off its paws & onto its feet

“He always has an alibi and one or two to spare.” We could be talking about a Tinder date gone wrong. Or, in this case, a lyric from Cats, reimagined by a cohort of just-crazy-enough theater makers through the lens of queer ballroom culture.

But pull those claws out of your armrest: This Cats has no cats. 

Deep in the bowels of One Liberty Plaza in lower Manhattan, director Bill Rauch sits upright, a stacked three-ring binder weighing heavy on his lap, his pencil flitting back and forth among the score’s dense pages. 

Rachel Hauck, Tony Award winner for her Hadestown scenic design, sits across the cramped break room, separated by a coffee table holding her production model, which combines two of the three flexible performance spaces at the newly opened Perelman Performing Arts Center (PAC NYC). 

Along with fellow director Zhailon Levingston, music director and supervisor William Waldrop, and a clutter of assistants and representatives from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s production company, The Really Useful Group, brows furrow as they work through “Macavity: The Mystery Cat” — here, reimagined as the ballroom category “Labels.” 

Rauch, Levingston and the team are flipping the script, turning the long-running hit, whose original production ran for 7,485 performances and grossed $1.3 billion, into an immersive metaphorical experience that celebrates Black and Brown voices through the chosen family of houses, “runway-ready choreography,” and trans empowerment.

“I’m talkin’ sh*t,” says Levingston, perched on the couch’s armrest, ready to pounce, “but I’m thinking of this moment as performative burlesque.”

Rauch’s eyebrows raise, and Hauck leans forward, suggesting, “What if the mannequins were human?” For the next 30 minutes, they banter back and forth, referencing the set model that sits before them and dissecting the score one bar at a time. Through a thin wall, the repeated playback of “The Jellicle Ball” vibrates as choreographers Arturo Lyons and Omari Wiles workshop the Act I finale. 

With exclusive access to a pre-production workshop, rehearsal, the creative team, and talent, INTO got an inside look at how Cats: “The Jellicle Ball is rethinking the modern musical and informing the vision of one of the country’s newest cultural centers.

The category is: Transformation

The original cast of "Cats" and voguing
(from left) The cast of “Cats” performs at the Tony Awards; a participant performs on stage during “The Fairy Tale Ball.” Photos by Getty Images.

Co-director Levingston, whose recent Broadway credits include Chicken & Biscuits (director) and Tina: The Tina Turner Musical (U.S. associate director), is no stranger to Cats. At a young age, the 29-year-old director became mesmerized by the 1998 pro-shot film release, demanding his mother take him to a Blockbuster Video after seeing the trailer. He watched the production repeatedly for months on end, completely enamored through its two-hour run time.

Now, the theatrical spectacle that captured his attention as a child offers the opportunity to collaborate on one of the 20th century’s biggest theatrical hits.

“A lot of times people go all the way back to the context of the landscape when Cats arrived, and how dramatically unusual it was for its time,” Levingston tells INTO. “For me, the spectacle of this production is humanity. We’ve had many years with Cats to see these figures on stage, just kind of abstracted extensions of poetry. And now I think what we’re doing is testing how many layers we can put on top of this poetry.”

Bill Rauch, then artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Company, was the first to consider that Cats might have a life other than feline. It was 2018, and Rauch was in the midst of staging an LGBTQ+-inclusive revival of Oklahoma! when he began to ruminate on the show’s iconic ballad. 

“I began to think about the song ‘Memory’ in a queer context, and originally, I thought about it in terms of an older gay man in a bar, and just thought, Wow, those lyrics and that music would be so moving in that context. And then I began to actually spend time with the material and realized, of course, it’s not a bar, it’s a ball — because Cats is literally a competitive ball.”

Early conversations began with dramaturg and gender consultant Josephine Kearns, whom he was introduced to mid-pandemic as part of a professional networking initiative to connect like-minded artists, and choreographer Wiles. The trio began dismantling the libretto one song at a time to see what kind of pounce this Cats might have. As the creative team grew, the queer possibilities of a ballroom setting became more apparent.

“There are so many lyrics that are about aging, mortality, and multiple generations,” says Rauch. “That’s really important, because ballroom is this vibrant culture that has been developed and passed down. It’s about community, right? And Cats says so much about the tribe, the community, and the relationship of the individual to the community. It’s about self-expression, which, of course, is completely what ballroom is about; it’s about transformation.”

Levingston was also eager to explore the overlapping of art forms.

“In making this show, there are some easy, overt connections,” says Levingston. “Cats is a pageant. Ballroom is a competition. Those forms can be seen as cousins, in a sense, especially since contemporary ballroom kind of comes from pageant history.”

One of the things that we’re really inspired by is what it means to hear a group of people who come from an underground community say at the very beginning of the show, ‘This is what my name is, this is who I am, and this is the persona I’ve created for myself.’

Zhailon Levingston

Cats opens at PAC NYC after a Broadway season that retreated from queer visibility. Lempicka, the only original new musical of the season with a prominent LGBTQ+ character, closed after 41 performances (as of May 19, 2024.) Off-Broadway has been more successful with Cole Escola’s comedy Oh, Mary! transferring to Broadway and Taylor Mac leading a new adaptation of Orlando. But Cats goes one step further, spotlighting intersectional queer identities. 

“One of the things that we’re really inspired by is what it means to hear a group of people who come from an underground community say at the very beginning of the show, ‘This is what my name is, this is who I am, and this is the persona I’ve created for myself,’” says Levingston. “That feels unbelievably resonant today in a way that makes the play not just relevant but urgent. We’re not just saying this is a space where we’re showing different kinds of bodies and stories that you’re used to, but we are giving those bodies and stories an agency within a form that people may have not even imagined.”

‘Now and Forever’

The original London cast of "Cats," 1981.
The original London cast of “Cats,” 1981. Photo by Albert Foster/Mirrorpix via Getty Images.

Adapted from T.S. Eliot’s 1939 book of poetry, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, the original New York production remains the fifth-longest-running Broadway show to date. (We won’t speak of the 2019 VFX film flop.) Webber had already achieved success with Jesus Christ Superstar (1971), Evita (1979), and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1982). Cats (capitalized at $4 million, or approximately $11 million today) laid the groundwork for an era of mega-musicals, including Starlight Express (1987) and The Phantom of the Opera (1988), which remains the longest-running show in Broadway history at 13,981 performances.

While Webber gained traction, so, too, did The Royal House of LaBeija, a safe haven for queer people of color. Presented by Crystal and Lottie LaBeija at Up the Downstairs Case in Harlem, the first annual House of LaBeija Ball (1972) jump-started modern ball culture and served as inspiration for Madonna’s “Vogue,” the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, and more recently, RuPaul’s Drag Race, Pose, and Legendary.

​But an unforeseen epidemic was about to take hold of both communities. The day after Cats’ first Broadway preview, the CDC used the term “AIDS” for the first time. Several members of the original company would eventually die from AIDS-related complications. Beyond Broadway, HIV infiltrated queer communities, with a disproportionate impact on Black and Latine men that continues today. The same members who flourished within the ballroom scene saw their numbers diminishing as the years went on.

But ballroom culture and the houses within it rallied, turning competitions into places for HIV and STI screening, education, resources, and destigmatization. In the theater world, the Council of Actors’ Equity Association founded Equity Fights AIDS in 1987. The following year, Broadway Cares took shape. Four years later, the two organizations merged into Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, which has, to date, raised over $300 million for people living with HIV/AIDS and other critical health issues.

As time went on, HIV treatment and prevention evolved, as did ballroom culture and the various houses that exist within it. Now, these two worlds converge — not through a lens of trauma, but through one of triumph.

“One of the driving forces in my work is doing shows about marginalized groups that are not about the pain of being marginalized,” Kearns tells INTO during a rehearsal break. Wearing a T-shirt that says “Abolish Everything,” the dramaturg and gender consultant says ballroom can be intentionally protective. 

“[Ballroom] had to remain hidden, especially in earlier times. It can’t happen in a park, right? It needs to be closed away. But at the same time, it’s in the political statement of sequestering ourselves that also allows us the freedom of fully expressing ourselves and celebrating these identities with other folks who share them.”

Let’s have a kiki

“If you can slay, you can slay anything,” says choreographer Wiles, also known as Omari NiNa Oricci, co-founding parent of The House of Nina Oricci (established 2019). The Senegal-born 36-year-old would know. Moving to Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, at 7 years old, Wiles says he had to learn how to survive during a time when the neighborhood motto was “do or die in Bed-Stuy.” Dance became a vital form of self-expression beyond what he learned and eventually taught at his parents’ school, Maimouna Keita School of African Dance

Wiles began to train and learn other styles, eventually dancing for Lady Gaga, Madonna, and Jennifer Hudson and choreographing for Beyoncé and Janet Jackson, among others. His own dance company, Les Ballet Afrik, blends African, vogue, modern, and house into a unique style all his own. It was at a Works & Process performance at the Guggenheim Museum that Rauch first saw Wiles’ work and approached him about the idea. 

“I could see the catlike instincts,” Wiles tells INTO during a workshop break, “but why would we want to do this?” 

“And then I started to dissect the characters and add them to [ballroom] categories. And I started to see, Oh, wow, this is really a story of ballroom and queer life. A cat has nine lives. How many lives does someone in the queer community have to go through to find themselves? Many of my friends have been cast to the streets and had to survive,” says Wiles. These are true stories of what people in the ballroom and LGBTQ+ community have lived and experienced. Then I was like, damn, this makes more sense than Cats itself.”

I could see the catlike instincts, but why would we want to do this? Then I was like, damn, this makes more sense than ‘Cats’ itself.

Omari Wiles

But unlike musical theater, which is traditionally choreographed beat by beat, ballroom relies on improvisation rooted in categories and style. Getting Cats off its paws and onto its feet requires a deft understanding of both worlds. Wiles says Webber’s music opens the door to ballroom’s evolution. 

“There’s a lot of queer dance styles. We’re tapping into street jazz, vogue fem, and the different styles of vogue — old way and new way, which is more hyperextension and flexibility. So you’re taking longer counts to get to that line than you would on a vogue fem beat. Old way is more staccato; it’s like a series of poses. New way is like a note that is elongated. Throughout those three styles alone, we are playing with the musicality,” says Wiles, acknowledging that he and co-choreographer Lyons are part of a much larger legacy.

“A lot of dancing comes from the queer community,” says Wiles. “So without our stamp, is it really a fab thing? Can it really become something without the approval of a Queen?”

The houses of LaBeija, Margiela, Miyake-Mugler, and Oricci are represented onstage and among the creative team, including Junior LaBeija, ballroom trailblazer and master of ceremonies for the annual Paris Is Burning Ball, as Gus. 

Lyons, winner of Max’s Legendary Season Two, is confident that theatergoers more familiar with Gillian Lynne’s original, Tony–nominated choreography will become fast fans, saying, “If you didn’t know what a ball was, by the time you leave, you’re gonna want to know, ‘When’s the next ball?’ ”

‘This is a revolution’

Levingston, Rauch, and the creative team have worked through the script, cat by cat: Rum Tum Tugger serves pretty-boy realness, while Macavity references the crafty “label queens” who, at times, resorted to shoplifting to acquire high-fashion garments. But anyone who knows Cats will be anticipating Grizabella the Glamour Cat.

Originally played in London by Elaine Paige and on Broadway by Tony-winning Betty Buckley, Grizabella provides the emotional thread that ties Cats together. While Cats: “The Jellicle Ball” serves ballroom beats, “Tempress” Chasity Moore hopes an emotional chord also resonates with a more modern and visceral take on what it means to ascend to the Heaviside Layer. 

Moore, founder and Queen Mother of Haus Maison Margiela (established 2018), has been with the production since its original workshop and brings an authenticity that roots ballroom culture in lived experiences. 

“I relate Grizabella to some of the older trans women and femme queens who fell on hard times,” Moore tells INTO. “And when they came back to the scene, they didn’t really feel the reception that they deserved. They had to remind themselves who they were and try to build up the confidence that, even though they were going through so much, they still were able to stand in their truth.”

Grizabella sings “Memory,” considered perhaps the most famous musical theater song ever written. Featuring a Puccini-inspired melody by Webber and lyrics by Trevor Nunn (adapted from additional material by T.S. Eliot), “Memory” has been covered by everyone from Barry Manilow to Barbra Streisand. Former Pussycat Dolls lead singer Nicole Scherzinger, who heads to Broadway next season in Sunset Boulevard, took on the song in the 2014 West End revival. Moore is finding the connection between the original concept and what it means in the context of ballroom. 

“In the original version of Cats, they turned their back on Grizabella because she was old,” says Moore. “And you know, you have ageism in the ballroom scene, too. So that’s how I relate to both worlds, like the icons who feel like they’re being erased.”

Cats: “The Jellicle Ball” is also gathering some of Broadway’s best. 

The cast of "Cats: The Jellicle Ball: at PAC NYC.
The cast of Cats: “The Jellicle Ball” at PAC NYC.

For Sydney James Harcourt, who was a member of the original Broadway company of Hamilton, portraying Rum Tum Tugger is about celebrating “realness.” Not even fully aware of the role’s size, Harcourt accepted the role to be part of a production that centers Black and Brown communities, and ballroom. 

Rum Tum Tugger, previously known as the charismatic rock star, becomes the category of “Pretty Boy Realness,” part of a realness archetype that’s been questioned in recent years. While some may argue that realness promotes rigid stereotypes, others see room for the category to evolve. 

‘The push to rethink ‘Realness’ also has its merits, and offers the ballroom scene a chance to evolve and adapt to the times,” Sydney Baloue wrote in the New York Times. “It would be powerful if the category began to place less emphasis on aesthetics and more on character.”

“But realness is a fact of reality,” Harcourt tells INTO. “In every walk of every life, realness is people who are poor and uneducated, walking into a room and feeling like they’re going to put something on so that they feel like nobody can clock that they didn’t finish high school and that they don’t have the best grammar in the world, but they’re going to be on their best behavior. That is just a way of presenting yourself to people so that you can control your perception at times.”

Inside the first day of rehearsal for Cats: “The Jellicle Ball.” Video courtesy of PAC NYC.

Through this new lens, the cast has found that perception is malleable. For many queer individuals, birth families often give way to families of choice, who accept us for not only who we are, but also who we hope to become.

For Antwayn Hopper, family manifests in multiple aspects of Cats: “The Jellicle Ball.” Hopper, who appeared on Broadway in the Pulitzer Prize–winning A Strange Loop and Billy Porter’s New York City directorial debut The Life, plays Macavity — mischievous rather than villainous in this production; a protector rooted in his real-life experience.

“I always build my roles off of my family members, because I know that I’m going to bring integrity to that,” Hopper tells INTO. “Macavity is based on my father, who is a military veteran of three wars. He’s a protector. There’s nothing villainous about him. I’m a protector. I’m modeling him after a guardian angel, meaning I’m of the people. I’m sly; I’m unsuspecting; I’m unpredictable. Don’t get in my way. Let me do what I’m going to do. There’s heart, and I’ll explain later. That’s Macavity. We’re making sure that Macavity is not thought of as evil or a villain. He’s just another person.”

Hopper has his own protector in Broadway legend André De Shields. The Grammy, Emmy, and Tony Award–winning actor plays Old Deuteronomy, the wise and beloved patriarch of the Jellicle cats. Of De Shields’s many roles, including the O.G. Wiz (now playing on Broadway with Wayne Brady in the title role), Hermes in Hadestown, and the pants-dropping “Horse” T. Simmons in The Full Monty, mentor is perhaps the most important. 

Once the trail has been uncovered, you mustn’t hide it again. 

André De Shields

“It’s my responsibility as someone who has opened the doors, blazed trails, and learned the lesson that once the doors open, you mustn’t close it,” De Shields, arriving for rehearsal dressed from head to toe in blazing red, tells INTO. “Once the trail has been uncovered, you mustn’t hide it again. It’s my business to leave indicators, cosmic indicators for those who are following in my way.”

De Shields, whose career spans over five decades, has seen Broadway change over time. Those changes may not have always proved fruitful for anyone living at the intersection of Black, Brown, and queer communities, proving to be more of a hindrance instead. But with this rendition of Cats, he sees a new theater revolution beginning. 

“Many people reacted to the pandemic by moving in reverse, moving away from the light, because that’s what fear does,” De Shields said. “Then there are those of us who have been traditionally marginalized to the edges of society. Well, that’s our calling card. We can’t be afraid. We must look to the future, understand, and know that there is a positive solution on its way. So what Old Deuteronomy is doing for me is giving me the opportunity to stay on the edge of the revolution. Because this is a revolution.”♦

Cats: “The Jellicle Ball” runs at PAC NYC from June 13 – July 14.

Featured image: The cast of Cats: “The Jellicle Ball.” Photo by Marc J. Franklin.

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