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"Cats" Eye View of Acting on the Road

Being on tour with a show can be fun, exciting and exhausting.  But for actors Angie Smith and Philip Peterson, being on the road is the Cats meow.  Smith plays Grizabella, the "Memory" singing feline, and Peterson plays Old Deuteronomy, leader of the Cats tribe.  They generously took time out of their busy schedules to talk to BroadwayWorld.com about life on the road and what it is like behind the makeup.  Cats is currently playing at the Warner Theatre in Washington, DC through March 18th.

James Howard (JH): Hi, Phil and Angie!  Welcome to Washington.  Is this your first time in this area?  Have you gotten to see any of the city?   

  • Philip Peterson (PP): This is my first time performing in Washington DC.  I did perform in a production of Camelot in Fredericksburg a few years ago.  I have been able to get around – see a few sights – the usual museums – The National Gallery, a few of the monuments.
  • Angie Smith (AS): Yes it is! I have never been to D.C., so it has been great to be able to see all the history that lies in this town.

JH: What kind of training/education have you gotten?  How much of it has helped you?  How did you transition into professional touring shows?   

  • AS: I have been singing and dancing ever since I was a little girl.  I did my first musical, Annie, in kindergarten and have been hooked ever since.  For 16 years I went to school, dance class, singing lessons and than came home to do homework, so as for training, I have been very fortunate. If it weren't for my mother putting me in lessons for singing, dancing, piano, oboe, flute…. (Everything you can imagine!!), I would not be where I am today. I was heavily involved in theatre, choir, and band in high school which made me realize that I wanted to make a career using the talents I was given.   I attended Millikin University where I continued my training and graduated with a B.F.A. in musical theatre and a minor in dance.  I must say, I grew so much in college as a performer and feel that it prepared me for where I am today. After college, I did summerstock and regional theatre for a year and then I auditioned for my first national tour, Thoroughly Modern Millie, in New York and I got it! So it was not a difficult transition to the road. I actually got hired and started rehearsing for Cats a year later before Millie was over, so needless to say I was a busy girl but have had the time of my life on the road.
  • PP: I received training in Opera/ Music Theatre from The Hartt School of Music, in Hartford, Connecticut.  Much of my training has helped me through the years.  The transition came rather easy to me.  Reporting to the theatre every day to do the job I was hired to do.  On the road, we travel to the next venue and then to the next theatre.  It's the same as if I was sitting in a city for an extended period of time. 

JH: What have you learned as an actor from being on the road with Cats

  • PP: It's safe to say the one thing that I have learned is to be very versatile.  It's not every day that I get to portray an animal.
  • AS: I have definitely learned patience because as Grizabella, I am only on stage for about 20 minutes. I have learned to appreciate the moments I have on stage because I know the song "Memory" means so much to so many people.  It is also helped me grow as an actress because it is such a heavy role and it has brought me great joy to be a part of the history of such a long running show.

JH: What have you learned as a person from being on the road with Cats?

  • PP: Patience, tolerance, and perseverance!
  • AS: I have learned not to take anything for granted because I am so fortunate to be working and using my talents to touch audiences across the world. Some days when you are on a bus at 6 a.m. in the morning traveling somewhere to do a show that night you have a tendency to forget how blessed you are to be on that bus and be a part of this show.  I have also learned how to live simply.  When you only have 2 suitcases to carry along for a year, you realize how much you don't need. A good spirit and a pair of jeans goes a long way!

JH: What is your first &/or favorite Cats memory? 

  • AS: My favorite memory is actually singing 'Memory'  in Chile. We performed in an arena  that seated 5000 people and 5000 people showed up every night. It was always so silent when I would come out to sing that you could hear a pin drop. Afterwards the applause that erupted took my breath away.  To touch such a large audience that does not speak our language but just felt the song in their hearts was amazing. It was probably one of the most memorable experiences in my life and I will never forget that feeling.
  • PP: My usual entrance as Old Deuteronomy is from the back of the theatre to the stage.  Every once in a while, I can hear parents whisper to their children – "there he is."  Very rewarding as an actor.    

JH: Phil, the part you play, Old Deuteronomy, must be pretty challenging, but unlike the challenges facing the other "cats" – he doesn't dance much and he sits a lot.  What is the hardest part of playing this role?  What is your favorite Deuteronomy moment?  

  • PP: I consider myself a physical actor.  Examples of that are past roles I've played – Che, Don Quixote, Jekyll & Hyde to name a few.  All physical roles.  The hardest part of playing this role for me is that it is not a physical role.  After doing the role over 500 performances, it's certainly becoming easier.  Well, let's hope it is anyway.  My favorite Deuteronomy moment is my first entrance as Old Deuteronomy.  The warmth of being greeted by the other cats. 

JH: Being the "head cat" must have its share of responsibility onstage and off.  Do you see yourself as a cast leader or is there more of a company feel?  Explain that if you can.        

  • PP: Well, there are times when I'm viewed as such.  It's quite evident that I'm considerably older than most of my cast members, so they view me as a 'leader'.  I try to keep more of the company feel to this experience.  Not only for my benefit, but for the rest of the cast.  Some of them, this is their first experience in this business.  For their sake, they should be able to know that this is a group effort, and not just for one person.  Decisions should be made for the sake of the company.

JH: Angie, the part you play, Grizabella, is probably the most famous in the show.  You are part of a huge theatre legacy.  What is it like having the responsibility of having to sing "Memory" each night?

  • AS: I am very fortunate because I get to experience singing "Memory" every night.  Even if I have had the worst day in the world I can come to work and leave happy because it is such a touching moment. .  I get chills every night just hearing the silence that enters the theatre during the song.  It is the song everyone knows, everyone waits for and to be a part of that is pretty much the best thing in the world!

JH: Betty Buckley, who originated your role on Broadway, has joked that even though she has sung that song hundreds of times, she occasionally forgets the words.  Has that ever happened to you?

  • AS: Ha ha! Oh, everyone has their moments, but thankfully (knock on wood) I have not experienced that yet.  After 200 performances I think that is pretty good! It is funny because somedays Ill be sitting backstage waiting to go on kinda humming through my song and sometimes Ill be like wait a minute what comes next?? But I have done it so many times by now it comes naturally once I get out there.

JH: Why do you think Cats is still such a hit over a quarter of a century after its premiere in London?  

  • PP: It's complete entertainment.  Right down to the tails that we tie around our waists.  People remember what it was like when they first saw Cats – however many years ago.  For some, it was their first experience seeing a Broadway show.  Now, some of those people are now bringing their children to see the same show that they first saw. 
  • AS: Cats is such a unique show and entertaining for people of all ages. It is amazing to see the fans that are out there from 3 year olds to 90 year olds.  It's not everyday you get to see people dressed as cats and it's very intriguing to see a person take on the movements and actions of a cat. I think Cats has lasted so long because there is nothing like it out there.  Andrew Lloyd Webber created a world of cats through the poems written by T.S. Elliot and people love to come escape reality for a few hours and see what it might be like in the life of a cat. It is a glorious spectacle that is so entertaining you won't want to blink while you are watching because you might miss something. When I go home and see my cats nowadays, I find myself wondering if they are gonna sneak off to a Jellicle ball in the middle of the night!

JH: If you could be any other cat in the show which would you like to be and why? 

  • PP: Wow, that is a question I haven't given much thought to… If I had the talent and ability – I would have to say Mr. Mistopheles.  Come in towards the end of the show – dance an extraordinary, show stopping solo and save the day by bringing Old Deuteronomy back. 
  • AS: Well I don't get to dance as Grizabella so I have always told the dance captain I would love to understudy Demeter just for fun!! I love the role and she has a sassy quality that makes me like her a lot.

JH: After Cats, what do you hope to be doing?  Dream roles?  Or a non-theatre career? 

  • AS: The day I am done with Cats I am moving to New York to see what the big city has in store.  I have been on the road for 2 years now and I am ready to make the move and see what happens! I have always wanted to play Eponine in Les Miserables, and Elphaba in Wicked is a big dream of mine right now.   So who knows, we will see where life takes me next!
  • PP: Oh, I will be going back out and hitting the auditions for my next job.  I haven't given that too much thought, although I think I should.  Hopefully, I'll head back out on the road – if not with Cats again, then maybe with another tour.  Of course my dreams and aspirations would be to land the big job on Broadway.  But then, that's all of us.  And, it would be nice to work at home for a change.

Thanks, Philip and Angie!

For tickets and information go to www.warnertheatre.com.

PHOTO: Grizabella and Old Deuteronomy on tour in Cats. (Note:  The photos represent the characters, not the actors interviewed.)


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