The quirky, playful musical Cats returned to Broadway July 31 at the Neil Simon Theatre after one of the longest runs in history that ended in 2000. The revival is the fourth longest-running show on Broadway, surpassed by another of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber’s iconic musicals, the record-holder The Phantom of the Opera. Having won the 1981 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Musical from the Society of London Theatre and numerous Tony Awards in 1983 including Best Musical and Best Score, the new Cats production mystifies theater-goers with an update that includes skin-tight body suits, vibrant, moody lighting, non-stop choreography and Leona Lewis performing the show’s center- piece, “Memory.” The British pop singer’s Broadway debut is not her first foray in theater, however she is best known for her lyric soprano voice which has gone on to sell 20 million albums since being crowned the champ on Season 3 of the UK’s The X Factor (fun fact: she is 2nd in sales following only One Direction).
Playing Grizabella, the Glamour Cat who is ostracized from her community, Leona alluded to the various scenes of Cats as a microcosm for society today. The “Bleeding Love” singer had lots to meow about – she spoke with NYC Monthly about the call from Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, her first time living in New York and what she hopes audiences will gather following her performance.
You emerged on the scene on one of TV’s largest reality competitions ever in the UK, The X Factor, you have platinum-selling hits on your catalog like “Bleeding Love,” “Better In Time,” “Happy” and “Collide.” What is the biggest difference about theater and Broadway compared to performing at concerts or on live television?
Well for me, when I’m performing at live concerts or live TV I’m performing as myself and it’s my own music, it’s a completely different world. Especially in this show, I’m not only performing as a human but as an animal, because I’m a cat, it’s about embodying a character as well; in the theater it’s much more intimate. I’m with a live orchestra which is really special for me, as a musician. So it’s a whole other level of performance to do theater. I’ve never done anything like this before. Sometimes we have to be feline, and sometimes we have to connect back with the audience, it’s a really delicate balance.
Cats of course is one of the longest-running musicals of all time. How did the opportunity to play Grizabella (The Glamour Cat) come about in one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most admired works?
I actually got a phone call from Andrew and he asked if I wanted to play the part. They had run it for a while in the West End in London and Nicole Scherzinger was going to play Grizabella here, but she decided to do the X Factor judging in the UK so he asked me. He didn’t even know if I’d be interested in coming to audition and I was immediately up for it, I had just come off a tour and wanted to try Broadway in my career.
Is musical theater new for you and what has been the most significant challenge for you working on Broadway several nights a week?
I performed when I was younger, I did a stint in the West End. I did musical theater when I was young at a performing arts school. But for my own career it definitely has been a challenge as it’s a very different schedule for me, the singing and the focus and again playing a character and not playing myself and having that balance between me and the character. It’s been challenging in a technical way, making sure I hit certain marks on the stage and people on Broadway are some of the hardest-working people I have ever met, it’s so incredible, we’re in the theater from morning to night, we are living and breathing it. I admire the cast I am working with and I’ve learned a lot from them as well.
During your rehearsal period and time in New York have you had a chance to check out any other Broadway shows and if so what was a particular “Memory” for you?
I really loved Shuffle Along which was amazing. Also I went to see The Crucible which I thought was great. Now doing it, I definitely see it in a different way, I get why it takes a certain number of hours to get that one number together.
What are you most looking forward to about living in New York during the run of the production?
I’ve been living here for about two months now and it’s been quite intense, I haven’t had a whole lot of time to experience New York but once the show is up and running I will. I went to the Highline and I absolutely loved it up there. I’m vegetarian and there are many great places to eat here, I love that you can find every single type of cuisine here on one street. I don’t think there is any other place in the world like that. You don’t get that anywhere else, so it’s so cool.
Broadway just witnessed a historic year for ticket sales with record audience attendance. What do you hope will be the takeaway from the new revival of Cats once audiences get up from their seats?
With my character Grizabella, I think it’s about acceptance and her seeing past – she has a
lot of flaws as a character, she’s made a lot of mistakes. It’s all about her being accepted in a tribe of cats, she’s quite messed up with a torn jacket and she’s old and things that society sometimes sees as bad, and for her it’s about seeing past that and seeing who she really is.
I feel like with the songs especially “Memory,” I really connect with it. I hope people are more accepting and loving towards people, hopefully the show will have a big lifespan for years and years, that would be the dream of course.