The original Broadway production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats” ran for nearly 18 years and became a bona fide cultural phenomenon. But when the first trailer for the Tom Hooper-directed film adaptation dropped in July, the Internet pounced at the alarming images of bizarre, often creepy anthropomorphic figures with human bodies, teeth, and breasts. Critics hissed when the film was released just before Christmas, and audiences have mostly stayed away.
“Hamilton” and “In the Heights” Tony winner Andy Blankenbuehler, 49, choreographed the film as well as the 2016-17 Broadway revival of “Cats,” whose national tour arrives at Citizens Bank Opera House Jan. 7-19. In advance of the musical’s Broadway in Boston run, Blankenbuehler spoke about the film’s critical drubbing, working through tension with original “Cats” choreographer Gillian Lynne, his creative approach to both the film and Broadway revival, and how, as a young man, “Cats” played in his imagination long before he ever saw it.
Q. The reviews have been pretty brutal since the movie premiered. What’s been your reaction to all the negative press?
A. You’re talking to somebody who doesn’t read many reviews, and I’m not on social media. But I imagine that I wouldn’t probably disagree with comments that are happening about the film, because there are some things that are not how I’d like them to be. With the first ["Cats"] trailer, I was not happy with anything about that. I was like: What kind of cats are they? I don’t want to throw anybody under the bus on this. But when I started working on the Broadway show, I needed to understand the choice on the costume design, which was very makeup specific. In talking to them, it was clear they wanted very intentionally to blur the line between cat and human. They wanted the human aspect to be right there. I think a criticism of the film is that it seems they aimed to make them look like real cats and sort of let go of the fact that they are, theatrically, humans playing cats. But audiences actually enjoy that.
Q. You’ve talked about how much the “Cats” cast album meant to you as a teenager. How did it inspire you to pursue a career as a dancer?
A. The vinyl [records] I grew up listening to were “A Chorus Line,” “West Side Story,” “Camelot,” and “Jesus Christ Superstar,” but “Cats” was No. 1. And if you look at me as a choreographer, I am those shows — the percussive impacts of that music, the drama and the bass and the tension in that music. That’s the great thing about music, it really pushes your imagination. I spent years listening to the “Cats” album without ever having seen it. I imagined what it could look like, and I think it did a great deal to challenge my early creativity, my early choreographic impulses.
Growing up in Cincinnati, I didn’t know any male dancers. So “Cats” also pointed to the idea of community. I told myself, “See, people are doing things like this in New York City. You can fit in there.” So it was the idea of “Cats” that drove me to New York. I literally had a photo of the “Cats” marquee [at the Winter Garden] pinned to my bed when I moved to Astoria [Queens] in 1990.
Q. How do you approach choreographing such an iconic show?
A. I was really daunted by it, to tell you the truth. When we started on “Cats,” I actually had carte blanche to do it from scratch or combine my ideas with Gillian’s work. Once I knew the team really wanted to preserve the iconic look of the set and costumes, I realized I couldn’t depart from the original staging as much because the set really directs a show in many ways. Then the more I analyzed it, I saw there were many things about Gillian’s interpretation of the music that just felt organically right. So I set the goal of tightening up the show. I choreographed it to make the eye and the brain work faster. But for the most part, let’s keep it similar to what people remember. So Grizabella singing “Memory” is the same. But once I have the audience in our palms, let me push and pull them to experience it in a different way.
Q. How did your vision depart from the original?
A. It’s such a weird, nonlinear thing. But the guts of the show is that every community has different types of people, and that every person, every cat in that community has something in them that’s worthwhile and valuable in their soul, and it’s important for the community to notice that value. That means the community has to be both unison and disparate. So I wanted to figure out ways to bring out the spirit of those individuals more.
I identified some of the cats that seemed more like teenagers, and I re-choreographed those cats. I gave them more syncopated movement, much faster ideas. There were some cats in the original where Gillian had both cats dancing the same thing, while I chose to have the cats do something in counterpoint. Stylistically, I made them more contemporary. I wanted to bring some of what I saw to meet Gillian’s original work halfway.
Q. In a 2016 interview, [Gillian] Lynne expressed her anger about being bypassed as choreographer for the Broadway revival, saying, “It makes me feel like I’d like to murder.”
A. She wrote me a really sweet letter after she saw one of the first performances of “Hamilton.” And she’d said to people, “If anybody could rework ‘Cats,’ he could.” Then when I started meeting with [composer] Andrew [Lloyd Webber] and [director] Trevor Nunn, I made the hard decision that I needed to go it alone in the [rehearsal] room. That’s what set our relationship from good to not good. Later, I think word got back to her that I was doing my absolute darndest to keep her integrity and her DNA in the show.
Ultimately, she and I became good friends before she passed [in 2018]. We would have dinners together and talk about craft and the show. But it was a strained beginning. I worked really hard to honor her and pay homage to her work, and she couldn’t really understand that because she wasn’t allowed to be in the room. It was a really challenging, emotional thing that I felt deeply. I owed more to her than any single entity in doing the film. And ultimately, that’s why I’m proud of the show, because it is her soul with a new neon coat.
Q. Wayne McGregor of the Royal Ballet was originally slated to choreograph the film, but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts. What was it like stepping in at the last minute?
A. Basically, most of the film I staged as cameras were rolling. Every single day was, “OK, the camera is going to point here. We think they should run up the steps here. Go choreograph it. We’ll shoot it in an hour.” It was far from ideal. This was a titanic endeavor, and I was playing catch-up to what they were seeing in their heads. So every day was a bit of a chase — but also exciting. The film was scripted in a way that each scene went to a different place. So Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer run down a staircase and then destroy a dining room. Because of the new scenery and sets, it allowed me to rethink the choreography and really inspired new ideas.
Presented by Broadway in Boston. At Citizens Bank Opera House, Jan. 7-19. Tickets from $44.50. 800-982-2787, www.broadwayinboston.com
Interview was edited and condensed. Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.