'Cats' Musical Wiki
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Cats Credits[]

US Tour 1 - 05/1984 - 07/1985 - Cats Chorus (cover Grizabella, Jellylorum, Jennyanydots)

Interview[]

Chicago Tribune Interview - April 10, 1985, by Paul Galloway.

One of the American dreams is to become a star in a Broadway musical.

And despite all the difficulties and obstacles and the good, sound, common-sense reasons why there's only a very remote chance that such a romantic dream will come true, there still are people who believe that, for them, it can. A lot of them.

Susanna Wells is one.

She packed her bags and left Chicago for New York City in 1982 to make it on Broadway.

She had a lot going for her. She was in her early 20s and a talented singer, dancer and actress, a "triple threat" as they say in the world of musical comedy, which is the world she wanted to make it in.

She had been successful enough here, but she always knew that someday she wanted to give it a shot on Broadway, where the big musicals are made.

Three years later, she's back in Chicago. On stage. In a Broadway show. Sure, she's only an understudy, but she already has appeared in almost 100 performances. Susanna Wells is doing quite well. One recent evening, as she covered the freckles on her face with white grease paint, she talked about how her dream was coming along.

She was seated in a dressing room in the basement of the Shubert Theatre, looking straight ahead into a mirror, which was, of course, bordered by lightbulbs, as all dressing-room mirrors are. She wore a fashionably torn, hot-pink "Fool for Love" sweat shirt, watermelon-green sweat pants and wigcap made of an old stocking.

"There are a zillion talented people in New York," she said. "I feel like a little fish in a big pond, but I`m a working fish."

To be precise, she's a working cat. She is appearing with the national touring company of "Cats" that opened at the Shubert on March 23 and is expected to run here for perhaps two years.

"This is a plum," she said. "Not only because this is a good job but because there are so few jobs at all now."

She was applying bronze and gold paint in the distinctive pattern that is designed for the cat character she has been playing for the last month.

Usually she's a member of the chorus, which consists of two swing actors and two swing actresses. "Swings" are what understudies are called. Each night the four sit backstage in a small, glass-enclosed booth high above the orchestra, which is also backstage. Each has a microphone, and they belt out the show`s songs along with the actors and actresses on stage, thus enhancing the production.

Wells shares the dressing room with four other swing actresses, all of whom came to New York City from somewhere else with their own Broadway dreams. They are Anna Marie Gutierrez from Southern California, Frankie Cassady and Nancy Hess from Upstate New York, Claudia Shell from New Jersey and Cathy Carson, who just turned 18 and is from East Lansing, Mich.

For a swing, there is always a chance to perform, in "Cats" probably more than in other shows.

"There are many parts in this show that make extraordinary physical demands," Wells said. "There's so much dancing and movement. Right now, we have four people injured, mostly sprained ankles, out of a company of 35."

Wells understudies three cats - Grizabella, Jellylorum and Jennyanydots - and on the night of March 11, in Philadelphia, a date she remembers, she was whisked on stage in the first act after Cindy Benson, who normally plays the Jennyanydots role, injured her foot.

"I got ready in 15 minutes," she said. "It's amazing. Usually it takes at least a half hour just for the makeup."

So already, part of the dream has come true.

The dream began when she was 6 years old and growing up in Owings Mills, Md., a suburb of Baltimore.

One summer night, her parents took her to the Painters Mill Music Fair, which was nearby. "Oklahoma!" was playing, and from the moment she heard Curly sing "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning," Susan was hooked. (She would become Susanna later, after she discovered there was another Susan Wells on the Equity list of professional actresses.)

"It was in a tent, and it seemed like so much fun," she said. "It turns out that it really is fun. I love the music and the optimism of musicals. I'd rather be happy than sad on stage.

"I love the pressure and the demands of performing, and I love the teamwork between the cast and the crew. You have to like to work in musical theater. There's a lot of physical work involved."

After seeing "Oklahoma!" she would play records of musicals, "My Fair Lady" and "South Pacific" and "Camelot" and all the others, at home, memorizing the lyrics and then endlessly singing them. "I drove my poor parents crazy," she said.

She played the lead in her high school musicals, but when she arrived at Northwestern University in 1974, she couldn't bring herself to study the thing she loved the most.

"I signed up for a major in environmental biology," she said.

She paused. She took a brush, dipped it in a small jar of bronze paint and, leaning forward toward the mirror, she colored the tip of her nose. "By the second quarter, I switched. I changed my major to theater," she said, turning her head one way and then the other to appraise her makeup.

She was in Northwestern's WaaMuu show, worked in summer stock one year near Baltimore and spent two summers at the Troupe Repertory Co. in Colorado Springs, where she met her husband, Tom Thompson.

"After I got out of college, I decided to stay in Chicago," she said.

"I'd discovered Chicago is a great place for young actors to get their feet wet. I knew there'd be enough work for someone like me."

Her first job after her graduation in 1978 was in "Bagtime," which ran at Wisdom Bridge and Drury Lane Water Tower theaters for several months in 1979.

Later, she would play the Nellie Forbush role in an unusual audience sing-along of ``South Pacific`` at the Auditorium Theatre, appear in a Cole Porter revue at the Body Politic theater and make television commercials for McDonald's, Sears, frozen fish and baby food.

She now was working on her little red-bow lips.

"New York was a little frightening at first, but I was very fortunate. I got a good job within three months after I started looking. It was in the summer of '83 at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Conn., which is famous for reviving old musicals. The show was 'Miss Liberty' by Irving Berlin, and I played Mary, which is a small, supporting role."

In the fall, she returned to New York, doing all the things an aspiring actress does. She auditioned for parts. She took voice lessons, tap lessons and ballet lessons, and she got work in commercials, doing spots for United Airlines, Bounce fabric softener and Beechnut Baby Food.

She also was called in for a second audition for "Cats." Six months earlier, just after she'd moved to New York, she'd gone to an open call for the show`s Broadway production.

Over 300 actresses had shown up for the single understudy role that was open. "They started with groups of 20. They'd look at us and say, 'You stay, you go ...' I was one of those who were asked to stay. They had us sing, and it came down to two girls and I was one of them. She got the part."

And then in the fall, they remembered her and called her in again, and again she auditioned. alone this time, and again she was rejected.

The third call from the "Cats" people came a year ago. Three's a charm; she made the touring company as an understudy.

"This is a wonderful show in many ways. It's an ensemble show, so there are no stars. I've worked with stars and none of them have been tyrants, but there's a difference in the way you`re treated. When you're in the chorus, you're in the chorus.

"In 'Cats,' there aren't those distinctions. The swings aren't treated as second-class citizens. The responsibility is spread throughout the cast." She asked for a minute of privacy while she got into the brown-and-tan fringy unitard with the long brown tail that is her cat costume. After she had changed, she was asked if her dream was still the same.

"My goal has always been to work in a Broadway musical, maybe not as a star, but at least as a principal. That hasn't changed. I've decided I won't take any more chorus jobs. I'll limit my options this way, but I want to go for better roles. I want to keep going up."

She got up from her chair to go to the wig room to get her bright orange wig. "I know that's not the way theater works. There's no rhyme or reason sometimes for what happens. Because of great productions like 'Cats,' people's expectations have grown. It takes so much money to stage a musical because the demands from audiences are so great. That means there are fewer musicals and fewer jobs.

"But there's always a possibility I'll get called up to Broadway. Seven or eight have already been called up."

She walked down the hall. "You have to keep working on your craft. You have to be able to sing an aria or tap dance. You have to make yourself a jack-of-all-trades."

She turned to climb the stairs to the wig room. "I know what I can do. I'm a pretty capable actress as well as a competent singer and dancer. You just have to keep yourself in good shape and wait for the opportunity."

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