Much like its animal namesake, this Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical has separated the world into two distinct groups:
- Those who aren’t all that into it; and
- Those who absolutely love it, can’t get enough of it and whole-heartedly embrace it at every opportunity they can possibly sink their claws into.
Rachel Ahern falls squarely into group two.
The first-time Director at the helm of NQOMT’s upcoming production has been dreaming of tackling this show since she had her first taste of musical theatre in 2007. Her debut show some 12 years ago, as you have may have guessed, was Cats.
“It was the first musical I’d ever done and I absolutely fell in love with it,” said Rachel.
“I’ve wanted NQOMT to let me do it for years and years and the amateur rights were finally made available again because of the upcoming movie. I knew that meant it was now or never because once the movie comes out, they’ll do it professionally again and they’ll close the rights off to amateur theatre companies.”
While NQOMT was fortunate to secure the amateur rights for Cats while the window was open, they come with some strings attached. Big Broadway musicals typically come with very strict stipulations on how their amateur counterparts must be presented – Little Orphan Annie’s hair and dress must be red, or Wicked’s Elphaba must have green skin, for example – the Cats rights work in reverse, prohibiting Rachel and her creative team from doing it the way it’s done on Broadway.
“That meant I couldn’t set it in an alley-way as most people would know it, and that I had to come up with a fresh idea,” said Rachel.
“Emily Molloy is set designing and I went to her with three ideas. I said ‘I either want to go with London, the whole Avatar-style with the woodland or I wanted to go with Alice in Wonderland with giant teacups and things’. In the end, we kind of mooshed everything together.
“Our Cats is set London with the big red phone boxes, the skyline will have London Bridge but it’s a post-apocalyptic world. It’s been abandoned and the greenery is taking over – we have trees coming out of the ground and through buildings, the buildings are half torn and there’s this big magical tree in the middle, which is being built by Chris Ahern and Damien Jackson.
“Even the costumes, designed by Zia Macey, are very waste-lander. They’re made of things the Cats have collected through their life, as though they’re wearing their memories.”
The show is a demanding one – for the creative team working behind the scenes as well as the 18-piece orchestra and 32-strong cast, most of whom remain on stage for the duration of the show.
“From the moment the cast first hits the stage, until interval – they’re all on stage, all the time,” Rachel said.
“There’s 16 leads, and even members of the chorus get solo lines, which means it’s all a big team effort.
“The cast has had to build up their stamina because it’s sung-through and danced-through the whole way. There’s no leaving the stage for a drink – we’ll have to hide some water bottles in the set.”
Among those cast are some new faces as well as some seasoned-veterans, including Rachel’s own mentor, Bill Munro who’s flying in from Thailand to appear as Asparagus.
“Bill’s the one who gave me my first chance to choreograph a show back in 2008, and I just can’t imagine Directing a show without him,” Rachel said.
“When I called to tell him we’d got the rights for Cats and I was taking it on, he said ‘Yes, I’m going to be there,’.
With such an ambitious undertaking of such a well-known musical, you might expect Rachel to be feeling a little nervous about her Directorial debut but she’s quick to brush off any suggestion of the sort.
“I’ve been working on it for so many years in my head,” she said. “It’s such a passion project for me – it’s one of those shows that I just have to choreograph and direct; and I had every scene in my head already worked out before we got started.
“I want to think outside the box and bring a new take to it. People have seen Cats – they saw it in the big Top, they saw it in 2008. I’m determined to retain its natural form and respect the show, but add a modern take to make it a bit different.”
NQOMT will present Cats at the Townsville Civic Theatre on 16-19 October. Click here for times and tickets.