This summer, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s infamous musical Cats returns to the Great White Way. Magical Mr. Mistoffelees, Macavity, Grizabella (the glamour cat) and even the Rum Tum Tugger are returning to sing jellicle songs for jellicle cats once more when T.S. Eliot’s poems come to life again at the Neil Simon Theater. In a surprising move, Disney Theatrical is rushing The Aristocats to the stage, which will debut day-and-date with Cats across 52nd Street at the August Wilson Theater.
“When we discovered that Cats was coming back, we knew we had to do something big,” explains Thomas Schumacher, president of Disney Theatrical. “Yes, we already have a cat show running on Broadway,” referring to The Lion King, which is coming close to matching Cats’ longevity. “But interest in feline musicals is at an all time high. I think the entire theater community expects Disney to do something big.”
Director April Fahouls couldn’t be more excited to be helming the project. “There are three things theatergoers want in a musical these days: humans dressed as animals, leg kicks that touch the sky, and an Act I finale that tears the house down. The Aristocats has all three!” When asked to elaborate, all she could say was “You have to see it to believe it.”
“We’re not just doing The Aristocats, we’ve plussed it, made it even better!,” boasts Schumacher. “Yes, Duchess and her kittens are still kidnapped and lost away from home, but we reset it from the streets of Paris to the alleyways of Philadelphia in the 1980’s. We thought that would resonate more with a modern theatergoing audience.”
Both Cats and The Lion King feature actors in the tightest spandex imaginable and one might assume The Aristocats would follow suit, but costume designer Rex Pollux has a different approach. “The most appealing thing about The Aristocats is how cute and fluffy they are… and Marie’s oversized bow. So instead of spandex, I’m using fur suits. I wanted audiences to feel the heat radiating off the actors when they descend into the audience to nuzzle in their laps. And as for Marie’s bow, we’ve made it three times as large.” When perusing some preliminary designs, I noticed that Thomas O’Malley’s stage persona wears a silver disco jacket and bowtie. “Oh yes, some of the cats in this version wear clothes and are like half-cat/half-people. You know, like in Cats.”
The film features some memorable songs by the Sherman Brothers and Terry Gilkyson. “Yes, we’re using most of those songs, but we’ve rearranged them to make them sound like they belong in the 80’s. Also, to round out the music we’ve decided to go in a jukebox musical route. We’re using Culture Club’s ‘Do You Really Want to Hurt Me’ when the kittens realize Edgar is a bad guy. When Duchess suspects O’Malley of being a womanizer, she belts out ‘Heartbreaker’ by Pat Benatar. Also, we secured the rights to ‘Memory’ from Cats, which will be sung by Madame at the end of Act I. Oh, and Uncle Waldo, the drunk goose who almost gets cooked, has a charming version of Queen’s ‘Under Pressure.'”
Auditions are still taking place, with callbacks scheduled through mid-April, and call sheets reveal a few more plot changes. Toullouse, for example, is described as “An artistic loner cat who discovers the underground graffiti movement while lost on the streets. He also becomes an activist during the Philadelphia AIDS crisis.” For Berlioz, it appears that the young musician has a Flock of Seagulls quaff between his ears and his plot involves running away. The mandatory audition song is 16-bars of “I Ran.” Marie appears to be the ultimate girly girl and interested actresses must have “The vocal range of Tiffany and Madonna.” Auditions are not being held for the parts of Duchess or Madame, with casting rumors of Kristen Chenoweth and Angela Lansbury respectively. Iggy Pop is also expected to portray Edgar.
“The Aristocats is unlike anything Disney Theatrical has ever done and is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before… unless you’ve already seen Cats,” Schumacher concludes. Cats is performing eight shows a week, with matinees on Sundays and Wednesdays at 2:00 and evening shows at 8:00. The Aristocats, which is playing just steps away from Cats, has shows at 5:00 and 10:30, allowing theatergoers who can’t get enough Cats to attend both shows on the same night. “It’s the quintessential Broadway experience, triple threat felines making you feel extremely uncomfortable over and over until you think you’re enjoying the show. It’s like a Fancy Feast for your eyes!”