In Its Second Life, ‘Cats’ Bedevils High-School Actors

Costume, Staging Costs Hit
$50,000 at Some Schools;
Forcing Boys Into Lycra

March 25, 2006; Page A1

LEESPORT, Pa. — Dressed in a black unitard, leg warmers and a spiky light-and-dark gray wig, 15-year-old Deb Keller crawled on all fours. She arched her back, rolled her shoulders, pawed at her classmates — and tried not to get caught up in her tail.

For months, the redheaded sophomore has nursed a sore neck and aching shoulders. Every night before bed, she runs through a series of stretching exercises. She struggles to sing and dance at the same time without losing her breath.

Cats may seem to lead lives of leisure, but try being one. “It’s really physically tiring,” says Miss Keller, who is one of 68 cast members who are performing in “Cats,” the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, this weekend at Schuylkill Valley High School.

[Cats Photo]
A lot of scratch: Maine East High School in Park Ridge, Ill., spent about $50,000 on its production of ‘Cats.’

The high-school musical is an annual spring rite, and the hot new musical this year is “Cats,” which became available to high schools for the first time in January. Loaded with logistical challenges — from sophisticated electronic music to elaborate wigs that cause static when they get too close to wireless microphones — the show is creating headaches and busting budgets at high schools across the country. The show’s ornate costumes and a set that calls for truckloads of construction materials are producing a price tag that can be twice as high as a typical high-school play. And then there is the delicate matter of a show that requires teenage boys to wear skin-tight unitards.

“I would recommend it to other schools, but I wouldn’t recommend it lightly,” says Jeff Schaetzke, theater director at Dominican High School in Whitefish Bay, Wis. The parochial school spent $30,000 to stage “Cats” this month, about twice the amount that it spent on other recent productions such as “The Music Man” and “Footloose.”

“Cats” was one of Broadway’s most successful musicals. It ran for 18 years before closing in 2000. Based on the poetry of T.S. Eliot, “Cats” is about a group of felines that meet each year at the Jellicle Ball to select a cat that will ascend to the Heavyside Layer and be reborn. The cats make a pitch for the honor by telling the stories of their lives.

When it opened on Broadway in 1982, “Cats” drew as much attention for its production as for its plot. The music was heavily electronic and used synthesizers to make cat-like sounds. All cast members portrayed cats. The set of the play, which takes place in a junkyard, was built to the scale of a cat and featured enormous items, like a discarded oven and tire. A hole was punched in the roof of Manhattan’s Winter Garden Theater to accommodate the final scene in which the chosen cat, Grizabella, ascends to the heavens.

[Deb Keller]Popular with family audiences and featuring one of Broadway’s most-hummed songs, “Memory,” the show seems like natural high-school fare.

Still, it took R&H Theatricals, a Manhattan-based agency that licenses rights to productions on behalf of authors, a year to overhaul the show’s music so it would be manageable for a high-school production. The schools must follow the musical score provided by R&H but may arrange their own choreography.

“We wanted to make it more user-friendly to customers who didn’t have the financial or technological resources that the professionals did,” says Bruce Pomahac, director of music for R&H.

Even that wasn’t enough to ease the burden on musicians at Maine East High School in Park Ridge, Ill., which spent $20,000 more than usual to produce the show for a total cost of about $50,000. When the school staged the show earlier this month, sophomore John Pesce sat on a swivel chair so he could stretch out his arms to play two keyboards simultaneously. “I’m gonna die,” Mr. Pesce recalls one of his band mates saying during an early rehearsal.

Schuylkill Valley, a rural school about 60 miles east of Harrisburg, prides itself on tackling challenging productions for its spring musical. Last year’s show was “Seussical,” another show most high schools wouldn’t tackle. The school paid $3,400 to acquire the rights to “Cats.”

Kate Heffner, an English teach who directs the school’s musicals, first ran into trouble early in the year, when she tried to order costumes from the school’s regular supplier. There were none. And Robert Schramm, owner of Chicago’s Broadway Costumes Inc., was reluctant to begin such a labor-intensive project. The unitards needed to be painted by hand and then set with a special heating process so the colors wouldn’t bleed. The constant crawling would result in a lot of wear and tear, resulting in expensive and frequent replacements. And each wig would need to be shaped and sprayed as they were being made.

Because the school was a regular customer, Mr. Schramm finally relented. The company made 68 costumes and wigs for the regular price of about $10,000.

[Kate Heffner]The costumes are a sensitive issue for the students. The unitards are skin-tight and although made of a heavy material, they show virtually every lump and bump on the body. Miss Heffner says some of the girls were dismayed when they tried on their costumes for the first time, but they were quickly comforted when she reminded them that their bathing suits were likely far more revealing.

Dressed in a black unitard and studded belt, Aaron Trasatt thrusts his hips forward and twirls his tail as Rum Tum Tugger, the cat clan’s equivalent of Don Juan. Of his skin-tight costume, “it just fits — to say the least,” the 17-year-old junior says with a chuckle.

The set provided another series of headaches. Unlike typical shows in which students and teachers scavenge props from their homes, the entire junkyard set at Schuylkill Valley had to be built from scratch, mostly with plywood and 2-by-4s. Everything in the junkyard setting had to be made to a scale of about four times the normal size — from crumpled soda cans to trash bags to an old tire.

And then there was Grizabella’s ascension at the end of the show. Unlike the Broadway theater, cutting a hole in the school’s roof wasn’t an option. The school improvised with a hand-operated hydraulic lift that raises senior Katie Scheidt 4 feet above a 4-foot-high platform.

Despite the hassles, schools that have performed “Cats” so far are pleased with the outcome. In addition to the physical conditioning, students say they have become more creative and observant of physical movement.

At Dominican High School in Wisconsin, the students also are learning a lesson in business: The school, which made its own costumes, hopes to recoup some of the expense by renting them out to other schools.

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