When Keri Rene Fuller got the call from her agent that she should audition for the new touring production of “Cats,” her immediate response was to laugh.
What prompted this outbreak of hilarity was that Fuller’s agent said she was to audition for the role of Grizabella, the Glamour Cat, the broken-down kitty who stumbles in and out of all the hyperactive antics of the other frolicsome felines who occupy the junkyard in which the musical takes place, and is entrusted with delivering the show’s signature song, “Memory.”
“I grew up watching the recording of the original London production of the show, and in all that time, I never thought of playing Grizabella,” Fuller said, laughing. “I mean, I was only 25 at the time of the audition. If I saw myself playing any role, it would be one of the parts like Bombalurina or Demeter.
“When I was growing up doing theater around Oklahoma City, I would look through audition books, which have 16-bar cuts from all sorts of songs,” the native of Bethany said. “I remember looking at ‘Memory’ and thinking, ‘Why would any young girl think she would have the wherewithal to sing that song and really do it justice?’ ”
But when Fuller sang “Memory” at her audition, her trepidations disappeared.
“As I was singing, something in my gut just seemed to say, ‘I think you booked this,’ ” she said. “It just felt right in a way I never expected. And that really surprised me, because it was the exact opposite of what I thought going into that audition.
“Maybe I should go into all my future auditions feeling convinced I’m all wrong for the role,” Fuller said, laughing.
It will likely be some time before Fuller gets the chance to test this audition strategy. She has been a part of the new national touring production of “Cats” — Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical adaptation of T.S. Eliot’s volume of light verse, “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” — since it opened in January. The show is currently set to tour the United States and Canada through June 2020.
Fuller will be sharing her “Memory” with audiences at the Tulsa PAC as “Cats” returns to Tulsa Wednesday, Oct. 9, as a bonus production of Celebrity Attraction’s 2019-20 season.
This is the first time a touring production of “Cats” has been to Tulsa in close to a decade. The last time was in May 2011, which coincided with the 30th anniversary of the show’s premiere in London’s West End in 1981.
“Cats” first came to Tulsa in 1987 under the auspices of another producing organization, which encored the show in 1990. Celebrity Attractions presented “Cats” in Tulsa for the first time in 1991, then again in 1996, 1998, 2003, 2006 and 2011.
In other words, this upcoming production represents the ninth life “Cats” has lived in our fair city.
But then “Cats” has been a remarkably resilient creature from the moment the first Jellicle cat slinked onto a London stage. The musical has been performed in 30 countries, has been translated into 15 languages and has been seen by more than 73 million people worldwide.
The original London production ran for 21 years and nearly 9,000 performances; on Broadway, the show ran for 18 years and close to 7,500 performances and earned seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical. The original Broadway touring production was the longest continually running tour of all time.
However, there weren’t many people at the start who thought a musical about cats would have a hairball’s chance of success.
In an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Company in 2016, Lloyd Webber said, “It was a very fraught, very risky venture, with me putting a second mortgage on my house, and everybody thinking that we were absolutely stir-crazy for doing it. (People were convinced) that it was going to be the biggest disaster in the history of musical theater.
“There was many, many a time with ‘Cats’ that we thought we were going to kill the show and not go on any further,” he said in the interview. “There was a sort of blind faith that we were doing something completely new and completely original — and actually we were. We were doing something that hadn’t been achieved before, and it was very exciting as well as being, for me, very, very scary.”
In 2014, Lloyd Webber and much of the original creative team, including director Trevor Nunn and designer John Napier, produced a new revival of “Cats” that had a limited West End run. The new production featured a number of changes, including altering one number to be a rap-style song.
Most of these changes were dropped when the show transferred to Broadway in 2016, where choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, of “Hamilton” fame, was brought in to augment Gillian Lynne’s original choreography.
The current tour is based on the 2016 Broadway revival, which ran through December 2017.
MAKING A ‘MEMORY’
For those who have no idea what “Cats” is about — and we realize this may include those who have seen the show several times — the simplest way to describe it is that it recounts a night in which a passel of polysyllabic-named pussycats gather to learn which one of them will be chosen to make the journey to “the Heaviside Layer” — some kind of feline Nirvana.
Before that happens, the cats introduce themselves and some of the more illustrious members of their clan in songs that allowed composer Lloyd Webber to demonstrate his abilities with musical pastiches of everything from English music hall tunes to rock, and which allow the performers to demonstrate the very human qualities of their kitty cat characters.
One cat who wanders in and out of the festivities is Grizabella, known as “The Glamour Cat,” although her bedraggled appearance, and the disdain with which she is regarded, is such that the epithet is more an insult than an honorific.
“I don’t think of Grizabella as being old, or that she’s aged out of being ‘glamorous,’ ” Fuller said. “I just think she’s had a very rough several years. Emotional turmoil can age a person quite a lot in a short amount of time, and that how I envision Grizabella.
“I think of her as someone who once was part of this particular tribe, and that they felt very betrayed when she left,” she said. “That’s why the older cats dismiss her and turn the younger kittens against her. But she’s come back without any malicious intent. She just wants to return to what once was her family.”
Grizabella’s story does more than give “Cats” some sort of narrative arc — it’s also the reason why “Cats” exists in the first place. Lloyd Webber, who had been a fan of Eliot’s book since childhood, had been creating melodies for the poems for some years as a kind of songwriting exercise. Eliot’s widow attended a performance of some of Webber’s songs and presented the composer with some of Eliot’s unpublished cat poems.
One of these was “Grizabella, the Glamour Cat,” which Eliot chose not to include in the finished volume of “…Practical Cats,” because he thought the story was too sad for children. However, both Lloyd Webber and director Nunn saw within this brief poem a way to turn an unconnected series of vignettes into a full musical.
Grizabella’s moment in the spotlight also isn’t a part of Eliot’s original book. Rather, the lyrics for “Memory” were adapted from another Eliot poem, “Rhapsody on a Winter’s Night.”
Fuller said that poem gave her a lot of insight into the character she plays and the emotions she is trying to express in the song “Memory.”
“She is wandering the streets and trying to remember that time when she was young and beautiful and — most importantly — accepted,” Fuller said. “She always has this inner drive, something beyond herself, that continues to draw her back, to try to find her place within this tribe and to belong again.”
FINDING HER TRIBE
For Fuller, it took a community theater production of “Annie” for her to know that the theater was where she belonged.
“I didn’t have any sort of hobby — I’d tried to get into sports, but that didn’t work out,” she said. “I had always loved singing, but I wasn’t sure how to make a career out of it.
“Then, in middle school, my mother heard about a production of ‘Annie’ in Yukon that was holding auditions, and she thought it might be a good experience,” Fuller said. “I had no idea what to expect. My audition song was ‘What a Feeling’ from ‘Flashdance’ — hardly an appropriate song, but I didn’t know that.”
Fuller was cast as the understudy for the title role but made it a point to attend every rehearsal.
“I just wanted to learn everything about the process,” she said. “I’m still that way. I find the whole process of putting on a show to be absolutely fascinating. In that production I got to go on in place of the lead. I also went on for roles I wasn’t covering, simply because I had been to all the rehearsals and picked it up.”
During her high school years, Fuller performed with a number of theater groups in the Oklahoma City area, including the Lyric Theater and the Reduxion Theater Company, before attending college at Baldwin Wallace University in Ohio.
“I wouldn’t trade my years in Oklahoma City for anything,” she said. “They gave a rich toolbox of everything I would need for my career. But at the same time I had a hunger to do more, and I knew that to work at the level I wanted, I would have to leave. So it was off to college, and then New York.”
“Cats” is Fuller’s first time to be on tour, which she has found to be an educational experience in and of itself.
“You learn a lot of valuable lessons when you’re away from everything and everyone you know and love, and are living out of a suitcase,” she said. “You have to find out on your own who you are and what you have to offer.
“But at the same time, I’ve made friendships that I know are going to last a lifetime, because when you do something like this you can’t help but create these lasting bonds,” Fuller said. “And I’m getting to see parts of the country that otherwise I’d never get the chance to visit — to perform in these wonderful theaters I’ve always heard about or seen on TV.”