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An underground artist remembers when she tried to conquer Broadway
I haven't been to many Broadway musicals. Most of my theatregoing experience involves attending off-off-off-Broadway shows, or mounting my own bizarre indie performances like my open mic, Reverend Jen's Anti-Slam, which has been running for over 20 years. At the Anti-Slam, anything goes, including music, poetry, dance, comedy, and performance art. You'll never hear me say, "I've seen it all" because just when I think that, a guy will traipse onto the stage wearing only a Speedo and proceed to pour baking soda and vinegar into said Speedo, causing a volcanic eruption of science fair-like proportions.
So I have not seen it all, especially when it comes to mainstream theatre, which actually costs money. A friend once dragged me to Jesus Christ Superstar on Broadway because she had a crush on the actor playing Judas. As luck would have it, his understudy went on. (Judas had the flu.) That about covers my commercial theatre outings.
However, many years ago, when I was young and full of joie de vivre, I decided that even if I couldn't actually afford to see big musical blockbusters, I could have fun wreaking havoc on them. In early 2000, some friends and I staged a protest against New York City's Cabaret License rules (the "no dancing" laws) outside of the musical Footloose. We wore silly outfits and created a "liberated dance zone" via booty shaking. The cops didn't come until we tried to dance in the theatre.
Soon after it was announced that Cats -- the longest-running show in Broadway history at that time -- would be closing that June. I had just finished writing a musical called Rats that was the antithesis of Cats, and thought maybe it could be as big as Andrew Lloyd Webber's hit or, at the very least, employ a few of those chorus kitties soon to be out of work.
With that in mind, on Sunday, June 4, 2000, I headed up to the Winter Garden Theatre to present a sneak preview of my hot new musical to all the ticket holders waiting to get in to see Cats. Wearing a Minnie Mouse dress, and rat ears, nose, and tail, I hopped the train bound for the Theatre District and international stardom. My pal Ennis came along, video camera in tow.
We arrived at 3pm but to my shock, the theatregoers had already gone inside. Coming from a downtown theatre background, I hadn't realized that Broadway shows actually start on time.
Luckily, tourists were everywhere, and they wanted to take my picture. So I flashed my jazz hands and hammed it up for their lenses. Children waved to me and wanted to shake my hand. I felt like that aged cat in the famous Cats poster. (My editor had to tell me she's named Grizabella -- that's how little I know about the show!).
I began to sing my first number: "We Don't Have Thumbs." The song was a crowd-pleaser. Even the seemingly disaffected Cats ushers who were smoking cigs on their break perked up as I sang, "We don't have thumbs. Why do you run from us? We don't have thumbs. Why do you try to kill us? We just want to look at your pretty apartments, but you shove us back into the darkness. We want to be your friends, but you won't let us, because you're a bunch of snobbish jackasses. We don't take up much space. In fact you can barely see us, so why all the mistrust? We can't even open up your refrigerators. We're not like other roommates."
Then I went right into the gangsta-rap single: "Bad Ass Rat Rap." (Rats was created to have street appeal long before Hamilton). I kicked such phat phrases as, "I like to drink 40s and eat Styrofoam. Turn out the lights and I'll scurry through your home. Try to lay out a glue trap and your ass'll get smacked, cuz homey don't play that!"
Next, I performed "Someone Put an Ear on my Back," a song about scientists growing a human ear on the back of a rat. (I saw it on Oprah.) For this number, I wore a gray shirt with a fake human ear protruding from the back.
The Winter Garden's security seemed to be getting antsy. Earlier I had told them that I was doing a "photo shoot," but failed to mention the musical that went with it. So I skipped the lighthearted numbers and moved directly to the show's finale: "Put the Glue Traps Away," which summarized the plot of Rats: the endless struggle between rats and men. As I sang, I did an interpretive dance upon my giant, fake glue trap, pretending to be stuck, writhing to free myself. Unfortunately, gale-force winds were blowing the glue trap off the sidewalk and my rat ears off my head, ruining the illusion. (Just one of the many reasons why I think it should've been done inside the Winter Garden.)
Finally, I stood up and took a bow. There was no bouquet of roses, no paparazzi, no wild applause -- which all seemed appropriate for a musical about the world's lowliest creature.
It was clear that Rats was not going to enjoy the success of Cats, so I began to holler, "Rats -- now through June 4th!" With no previews and only that one truncated performance, I think it's safe to say Rats was the shortest-running show on Broadway ever.
Seventeen years later, Cats is back on Broadway and, thanks to pizza rat and pole-dancing rat, rodents are all the rage. It might seem like the perfect time to resurrect Rats...and yet, so much has changed. I can't imagine getting away with a permit-free street musical in a post-9/11/Trump world, especially in midtown Manhattan. Plus, after a series of personal setbacks (the loss of my day job, my home, and, most recently, my dog), I'm not exactly in a guerilla artist state of mind. But, like my defunct musical's title creature, I refuse to just disappear. I'm still scampering, figuring out what comes next.
Reverend Jen Miller is an Art Star, writer, painter, performer, former Troll Museum curator, Voice of the Downtrodden & Tired, and Patron Saint of the Uncool. She was recently displaced from her longtime Lower East Side home, and is hoping 2017 turns out to be a better year.
Photo courtesy of the author