BEVERLY — “Cats” is a contender for the heavyweight crown among musicals. Its long-running popular embrace makes its title instantly recognizable, even among those with little interest in musical theater. When the original production closed in 2000 after 18 years, it had been the longest-running musical in Broadway history. (The record was later broken by “The Phantom of the Opera,” whose hummable music was also written by Andrew Lloyd Webber.)
Richard Stafford has been a part of that story since 1985, when he became dance captain for the first national tour of “Cats,” working with the performers to keep their moves fresh. He went on to join the cast of the Broadway run and later supervised that New York production as well as the touring company. He brings his deep firsthand experience to bear as director and choreographer of the production opening at North Shore Music Theatre Aug. 20.
Q. How familiar were you with “Cats” before you first worked on it?
A. I saw it on Broadway shortly after it opened, and I loved the show. It just felt like something totally new and different. I never thought at the time I’d get to work on it, but I thought it was a beautiful piece.
Q. Going from there to working intensely on it behind the scenes, did your appreciation deepen?
A. So much. There’s so much going on, so many details that are easy to miss on the first viewing when you’re just taking in the whole thing. It really brought a whole new dimension for me, to really know the bulk of it and how every character has a story.
Q. Can you zero in on what you think makes it special?
A. That changes for me as I do it more and more. Every time I do it, I feel like I have a greater appreciation for what it is and what it offers, and why it’s been around for so long and why audiences respond to it so much. It still feels new to me, which is amazing after 30 years. It feels like it could have been created yesterday.
At first, I had no idea there was really such a story behind it. I knew the Grizabella character was reborn at the end, but I didn’t really understand what that was all about. It’s really about how the cats grow to accept her. They’re coming to terms with their prejudice, perhaps, and their intolerance, and when they develop compassion for her and accept her, it leads to her being reborn.
Most actors coming into it have no idea that’s what really transpires. They think it’s just a lot of dancing, several skits introducing several kinds of cats, and then Grizabella goes to heaven at the end. It’s so much more than that. There’s a reason to tell the stories of the different cats who appear all evening, and that gently unfolds over the two hours of the show.
Q. Its box office success shows how popular “Cats” is with audiences, but has it gotten short shrift from critics?
A. I think so. There’s this sense that it’s very easy to produce it. But it’s a hard show for the performers, because they have to invest their entire beings for two hours to really inhabit this world of the cats. So it’s easy for it to go off the rails and lose track. And when that happens, it can become silly — and it certainly isn’t silly, not to me.
Q. Have you seen silly productions?
A. For the Broadway production, they’d completely transformed the theater into a junkyard to create that world of the cats. But when we went onto the road with a touring production, it wasn’t like that. So the performers really had to work harder to make it a part of their beings. Sometimes on the road I would find that it would become more surfacey, a little bit more shallow. Then I would have to reignite it as much as I possibly could.
Q. Do you ever hear from super-fans who’ve seen it over and over?
A. Sometimes I get letters from people who say it changed their lives. A lot of the people I teach the show to these days weren’t even born when I first learned it. So there is a little bit of that sense of passing it down. A lot of them tell me they saw it as children when the tour came through their town and it inspired them to become dancers — which I love to hear, of course.