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Can You Find Yourself While You're Playing a Cat?

Date: Aug 01, 2016

In the Broadway revival of Cats, Tyler Hanes has a surprising revelation


Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at actors and how they create their roles

It takes a special kind of performer to star in Cats, the musical about a group of junkyard felines angling for a chance to be reincarnated in the so-called "Heaviside Layer."

For one thing, cast members have to embrace the fact that they are dressing up like strays. Based on poems by T.S. Eliot and featuring a now-classic score by Andrew Lloyd Webber, the show requires body suits, tails, and full faces of greasepaint.

More importantly, though, Cats demands complete investment in a situation that, for some, may simply seem bizarre. Not every actor, in fact, is willing to commit to the show's fantastical world, where cats tap dance, crawl through the audience, and use over-sized pieces of garbage as props. But for those who are ready to embrace the whimsy – for those who are ready to play – it can be incredibly rewarding.

Just ask Tyler Hanes, who stars in the current Broadway revival. A true triple threat, he brings smoldering swagger to Rum Tum Tugger, a glam-rock cat with a bad-boy attitude. He seems so natural in the role (and the show itself) that it's surprising he's never been a cat before. Yet despite a long list of Broadway credits – including A Chorus Line, Sweet Charity and Hairspray -- he somehow never danced Gillian Lynne's iconic choreography for the original production, which ran at the Winter Garden from 1982-2000.

But now, under director Trevor Nunn, Hanes tackles an updated version, which blends Lynne's classic moves with Tony Award-winner Andy Blankenbuehler's swirl of funk, contemporary dance, and classic jazz. Within that world, Hanes slinks and pouts, a sunken-hipped Fosse gentleman crossed with a James Dean bad boy.

"When I booked this, someone asked if I was nervous about what people would say as I play a cat, but that never crossed my mind," he says. "As performers, our jobs change all the time, and I've never judged any of it. I welcome the artistic fulfillment of transforming into a different creature."

Hanes's trip to the junkyard started when Blankenbuehler, a friend and mentor, called him to audition for the production. He pounced (ahem) on the opportunity. "When Andy was performing and teaching way back, he took me under his wing, but as our careers evolved, we kept missing each other in terms of working together," he says. "I was dying to dance in a show of his."

Soon after he got the role, Hanes realized that Cats offered much more than a chance to work with an old pal. "People think it's a show about cats, so it's polarizing in that oddness," he says. "But it's so much more than what you think initially. For me, it's about forgiveness, acceptance, and unity."

His understanding of his character has gotten deeper, too. "I first thought Tugger had to be so cool," he says. "He does, but I've found he also has that flipside. Trevor [Nunn] said, 'I want you to be yourself: One minute you're totally professional, and the next you're seven. Use that sense of cheekiness.' That's resulted in a lot of my strange ideas for Tugger, because I am indeed a smartass and silly. It was surprisingly challenging to channel myself. But once I started trusting my instincts, Tug started to make sense."

He continues, "Tugger's key words are 'independent, preening and perverse,' so that was one place to start. But then the team supported me in creating my own stuff, partly because Tugger emerges as a loner. For research, I used my own two cats, and much of my time on top of the car is mimicking my cat Annabelle. She will lick one area forever, with her leg in the air, then drop on the ground and roll around for attention. My other cat is often aloof. Tugger alternates like that. I'm still finding his vocabulary, from being laser sharp to scared, and that's what I love."


Meanwhile, Blankenbuehler highlights all of Hanes's assets for his eponymous number: Prowling like an arena-rock god, he struts into a flawless triple pirouette as he cackles and croons, teasing his feline groupies. "If someone could take all my best traits and put them in one number, that's what this is," he says. "It's a highlight of my career because it was tailor made for me."

That said, he's happy the new production pays homage to the original (despite certain grumblings from the old guard). "Andy found a way to marry the two vocabularies," Hanes says. "He kept the iconic choreography that you expect to see from Cats, like the section of Jellicle Ball where we slice up to the sky in a crescent moon shape. And watching him in the room, he knows how to keep everyone's attention and never wastes anyone's time."

Now that the show has officially opened and his choreography is set, Hanes says he'll keep looking to his character to keep things fresh both personally and professionally: "Tugger is so free and playful. So before every show, I think, 'Let's play.' As performers, we often forget how to do that and stand in our own way. But through Tugger, I'm remembering how to trust myself fully."


Lauren Kay writes frequently about dance and dancers for TDF Stages

Photos by Matthew Murphy. Top photo: Tyler Hanes as Rum Tum Tugger

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