How the cast of CATS found their inner feline

Oscar®-winning director TOM HOOPER (The King’s Speech, Les Misérables) transforms ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER’s record-shattering stage musical into a breakthrough cinematic event—a spectacular, fun, funny, moving, family-friendly film for all generations.

Cats stars JAMES CORDEN as Bustopher Jones, JUDI DENCH as Old Deuteronomy, JASON DERULO as Rum Tum Tugger, IDRIS ELBA as Macavity, JENNIFER HUDSON as Grizabella, IAN McKELLEN as Gus The Theatre Cat, TAYLOR SWIFT as Bombalurina, REBEL WILSON as Jennyanydots, and introduces Royal Ballet principal dancer FRANCESCA HAYWARD, in her feature film debut, as Victoria.

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“People are very fond of the music of Cats,”  Judi Dench says. “This film has taken that music and enhanced it with a very well-thought-out story about the relationship between Victoria and Grizabella and the journey that each of their characters goes through. The dancers were simply beautiful to watch. Their discipline and detailed observation about how cats move was sublime.”

The film also stars ROBBIE FAIRCHILD (Broadway’s An American in Paris) as Munkustrap, LAURIE DAVIDSON (TNT’s Will) as Mr. Mistoffelees, RAY WINSTONE (The Departed, Sexy Beast) as Growltiger, hip-hop dance sensation LES TWINS (LARRY AND LAURENT BOURGEOIS) as Plato and Socrates, acclaimed dancer METTE TOWLEY (Hustlers) as Cassandra, Royal Ballet principal dancer STEVEN McRAE as Skimbleshanks The Railway Cat, ZIZI STRALLEN (star of West End productions of Strictly Ballroom and the upcoming Mary Poppins) as Tantomile, DANNY COLLINS (star of West End productions of Barnum and Showboat) as Mungojerrie and rising-star singer BLUEY ROBINSON as Alonzo.

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“I was the first performer that Andrew Lloyd Webber came in to see filming on set because my number was shot first,” Rebel Wilson says. “He was very particular about the tempo and the need for ‘The Old Gumbie Cat’ to have a certain groove to it. In the stage show, it’s sung by three girls as a three-part harmony, so I did a bit of an amalgamation of those three parts in this film’s version. Tom and I wanted to add humor to my character while staying true to Andrew’s amazing music and T.S. Eliot’s poems. Because the singing was all live, I tried a lot of different singing techniques to figure out what would make Jennyanydots the funniest.”

One of the longest-running shows in West End and Broadway history, the stage musical “Cats” received its world premiere at the New London Theatre in 1981, where it played for 21 years and earned the Olivier and Evening Standard Awards for Best Musical. In 1983, the Broadway production became the recipient of seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and ran for an extraordinary 18 years. Since opening in London in 1981, “Cats” has continuously appeared on stage around the globe, to date having played to 81 million people in more than 50 countries and in 19 languages. It is one of the most successful musicals of all time.

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So, how does one go about performing a song that has been recorded by more than 150 artists worldwide?  “‘Memory’ is the heart of the story of Cats and of Grizabella’s character,”  Jennifer Hudson says. “It’s such a classic and iconic song. I wanted to reinvent it while also honoring the original. Andrew Lloyd Webber was very trusting and encouraged me to bring what I felt through my character to the song. I got emotional every time I practiced the song. It was as if the music spoke to me.”

Featuring Lloyd Webber’s iconic music and a world-class cast of dancers under the guidance of Tony-winning choreographer ANDY BLANKENBUEHLER (Hamilton, In the Heights), the film reimagines the musical for a new generation with spectacular production design, state-of-the-art technology, and dance styles ranging from classical ballet to contemporary, hip-hop to jazz, street dance to tap.

The Choreography & Movement

 Directing Cats is like directing a group of world class athletes,” Tom Hooper says. “The film is a celebration of what these dancers can do in terms of their physique and physical vocabulary.”

Dance is as intrinsic to Cats as the music itself, conveying character and story through emotional layers, rhythmic beats and style, and guiding the cast through the intricacies was three-time Tony Award winner Andy Blankenbuehler.

With Hamilton, Andy re-invented musical through the prism of hip-hop,” Hooper says. “So, the fundamental insight was that you could see a period of history through a modern vernacular. Andy brings that modern sensibility of hip-hop and street dance into the language of Cats.”

What Blankenbuehler loved about the original musical was the way in which the show’s choreographer Gillian Lynne had used contemporary and modern dance moves to convey story. “The original Cats musical is in a category of its own,” Blankenbuehler says. “It’s a wonder and a novelty. I love that the dancing was both literal storytelling and at times totally abstract.”

Adapting it for the screen would be an extraordinary opportunity, and an extraordinary challenge. “I knew that this film would be a titanic feat,” Blankenbuehler says. “I prepared by getting to know the score and the characters inside and out.”

With so many dance numbers and more than 50 performers to choreograph, Blankenbuehler kept his movement pallet broad, embracing that sense of heightened reality that Cats demanded. Hooper and he wanted to embrace an expanse of dance styles, from tap to hip hop, street dance to ballet.

Although he and the cast were working across a variety of dance genres, he made sure to stay connected to the feline. “There were instances when I would get caught up with figuring out what the perfect physical interpretations were for the story, but then I would take a step back and think, ‘Oh, wait. These are cats. What would a cat do in this situation?’” Blankenbuehler says. “It was helpful for me to keep going back to that question. Some of the most beautiful moments were when we would commit to cat-like physicality and take away the traditional dance step completely.”

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Bombalurina is Macavity’s powerful and beautiful partner in crime played by Taylor Swift. She is full of personality and attitude. She loves to be the center of attention and makes a grand entrance into any room she steps. She’s the leader of Macavity’s gang and puts all the other cats in a trance using her catnip.

The cast goes to Cat School

Before filming got underway, every member of cast had to learn the physical language of the feline, attending the appropriately named Cat School under the tutelage of cat movement specialist SARAH DOWLING.  Each week the actors/dancers would study the physical behaviour and movements of real cats and, in group sessions, work together to find their inner cat, channeling the emotional and psychological behaviour of their character into feline movement. “The whole fun of the film is that it is humans playing cats,” Hooper says. “By doing it this way, we were going to see some of the best dancers in the world interpret how to be a cat.”

For Dowling, the process was about each performer finding the movements that best suited their feline character. “There’s a great mix of dance styles in this film,” Dowling says. “Rather than trying to make a generic version of the cats, I aimed to bring out the individual rhythm and physicality of each character in the way I trained them to move.  We spent weeks in the studio investigating each person’s individual dance style.  The rules of being a cat were constantly shifting and needed to be malleable to the requirements of the specific performers.”

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For Rum Rum Tugger’s solo number, Jason Derulo reflected on the differences between performing on set versus at concerts. “‘Rum Tum Tugger’ is a stand-alone track and is a little bit different from the other songs in the film,” Derulo says. “It’s funky and fun, but also explains how Rum Tum Tugger struggles in life. Performing for film is different from performing live because when you perform your heart out, you usually expect applause, but in this case, we’d just cut when we finished. But what’s similar is the fact that I dove into the music wholeheartedly and left it all on the floor.”

All songs in the film are performed LIVE:

Prior to filming, the cast worked with Executive music producer Marius de Vries (La La Land, Moulin Rouge) and  associate music producer, David Wilson to help prepare for their performances.  “The fundamental chemistry of filmed performance is the relationship between the director and performer,” de Vries says. “My goal was to manage the music without having to insert myself unduly during the filming process, so it was important for me to spend time with each of the cast members beforehand and thoroughly figure out where they needed any particular guidance or explanations or where we needed to adapt the music to fit each actor’s individual talents. In some cases, the process took many weeks of intense vocal training and rehearsal, and in others, there was very little vocal training or rehearsal at all, more just discussion and an examination of intentions. In every case, I tried to set the machine up as well as I could and then let it roll.” 

The cast spent many months in vocal training preparing for their roles, which would involve singing while performing intensive dance moves, often for 11 shooting hours a day, over a period of three months. Vocal coach Fiona Grace McDougal had worked on many of Lloyd Webber’s stage shows and helped prepare the cast for the vocal equivalent of a marathon.

The difference between stage and film is going from performing the song once or twice in a day to suddenly performing it over and over again and that can be really demanding on the voice,” McDougal says. She focused on helping the actors build up vocal strength and stamina, and helped them master their own voices. Just as important, she gave them the confidence to take on some of the most iconic songs in musical theatre.

To capture the live performances, both the percussionist and pianist were performing in separate booths close to the stage. Their sound fed to production sound mixer, Simon Hayes, who fed it to the actors through bespoke in-ear monitors (IEMs), custom made to fit each actor’s ear canal so the devices didn’t fall out while the actor was dancing. The microphones were incorporated into the headpiece of the actor’s motion-capture suit, sitting discreetly on their forehead, to capture their vocals. A transmitter on each of the actors then transmitted the sound from their mic to Hayes. Done this way, Hayes and his team could record the vocals clean. Only Hayes and the actors could hear the music. Everyone else on set could only hear the actor’s vocals.

Recording the music live in this way gives the actors complete freedom and control over the performance of the song. It also allowed spontaneity, which is vital to achieving great performances. The emotion of the song matched the emotion of their actions. “They don’t have a point when they have to sing,” Hayes explains. “They can choose their timing based on the decisions they are making as an actor rather than predetermined decisions that have been made by a recording track that they are hearing in their ear. When they decide to sing a line, the piano will accompany them, not the other way around.”

As for how to deal with the background sound of dancers moving across the stage while someone is singing, Hooper and team decided to embrace it. “Tom wanted to celebrate elements of the noise that we encounter along the way,” Hayes says. “He feels that there’s always an emotion within the on-set noise as long as that noise is real to the performance we are filming.  When we hear an actor out of breath from a dance routine there is a reality that the audience will be able to connect with because they will know what they are watching is real.”

Photography:  © 2019 Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.


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