Trevor Nunn is an English theatre director who helmed the original productions of Cats, both in London and Broadway. All later replica productions are credited as his work, however he has not had a hands-on role in all productions.
Read Trevor Nunn's own words on the making of Cats: "Tails of Two Cities".
London - 05/1981 - Director
Broadway - 1982 - Director
US Tour 6 - 2019 - Director
Trevor was educated at Downing College, Cambridge, where he acted in and directed many plays for the Marlowe Society. In 1962, he won an ABC television trainee Director’s scholarship to the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, where he later became resident director. While there his productions included The Caucasian Chalk Circle, A View From The Bridge and Peter Gynt.
In 1965 he became an associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and in 1968 Artistic Director. His work for the company in Stratford and London has included Henry V, The Thwarting of Baron Bolligrew, The Revenger’s Tragedy, The Taming of the Shrew, The Relapse, King Lear, The Winter’s Tale, Hamlet, Macbeth, Anthony and Cleopatra, Hedda Gabler, Romeo and Juliet, The Comedy of Errors, As You Like It and The Alchemist. He has also directed the award-winning productions Once in a Lifetime, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby and Juno and the Paycock. He has directed the film Hedda and his productions of Anthony and Cleopatra, The Comedy of Errors and Macbeth have been seen on television.
By STEVE LAWSON, New York Times OCT. 3, 1982
The set looks like a gigantic garbage dump, crammed with bicycles, cast-off Christmas ornaments, tires, toothpaste tubes, even parts of a wrecked ship, glowing in unearthly hues. The dump reaches out into the theater, circling completely around the mezzanine rail. Against this collage, strange forms skitter and crouch, clad in fur, satin and stripes, illuminated by shafts of moonlight and neon, piercing the air with snatches of songs and animal hissings.
This is the world of the musical Cats, one of the most eagerly awaited theatrical extravaganzas of recent seasons, opening Thursday evening at the radically revamped Winter Garden. The artistic contributors include Andrew Lloyd Webber, the composer, whose past musicals include Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar, and T.S. Eliot, author of such poetic classics as The Waste Land and The Hollow Men, whose 1939 volume of verse, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, furnished both inspiration and lyrics for Cats.
Presiding over the entire spectacle is Trevor Nunn, fresh from his award-winning direction of last season's triumphant Broadway production of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. Cats, which Mr. Nunn also staged in London (where it has been a sold-out hit since May 1981) marks his first excursion outside the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he has served as artistic director for nearly 15 years.
For months now, Mr. Nunn has been immersed in rehearsals, first at a large downtown studio, lately on the actual set at the Winter Garden. The production faces several large question marks: Will the overwhelming expectations Cats has aroused here be matched by its public reception? Will alterations in the design and Mr. Webber's score - changes aimed at tailoring the show to Broadway performers and audiences - pay off? Can Mr. Nunn work wonders with an all-American cast, his first such experience a a director? And, in the wake of the rapturous reception accorded Nicholas Nickleby, will his latest project measure up? Continue reading the main story
Considering the grand scale on which Cats is conceived, it is intriguing to learn that Mr. Nunn originally saw the show very differently. I listened to Andrew's tape, the director recalled, and suggested we try something in a very intimate hall. Five actors, two pianos - a chamber piece that could mirror Eliot's charming, slightly offbeat, mildly satiric view of late-1930's London. Mr. Webber, however, had a broader vision and pressed Mr. Nunn to think it through again.
Mr. Nunn went back to the drawing-board. I worked day and night wherever I could - walking, in taxis, in the bathtub, the director said, laughing. Eventually, I typed up five pages of notes, my usual response to a difficult situation. In essence, it called for a concept that was environmental. Little did we dream at the time we'd end up with a $4 million dollar epic.
Despite Mr. Nunn's acknowledged gifts as a director, he is best known as an interpreter of the classics. How, then, did he get involved with a project as contemporary as Cats? Don't forget Trevor's interest in musical theater, said Gillian Lynne, here as in London Mr. Nunn's choreographer and associate director on Cats. We did a musical version of 'Comedy of Errors' together for the RSC five years ago - a big success. When he decided to do Kaufman and Hart's 'Once in a Lifetime,' he rang me up and said, 'I can't do this one without you!' That was really a musical, too: production numbers, choreographed scene changes -the lot! And 'Cats' - it's choreography all the way, top to bottom.
On a recent afternoon, the 30-member Broadway cast has assembled to work through the big production number in Cats. As the piano pounds away, the actors skip, arch, curve, and glide. Faster! demands Miss Lynne. Obediently, pianist and dancers accelerate. Simultaneously, they belt out the Eliot lyrics to Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat: There's a whisper down the line at 11:39 When the Night Mail's ready to depart Saying 'Skimble where is Skimble has he gone to hunt the thimble? We must find him or the train can't start!' A sharp handclap; the performers collapse. I want ugliness, paganism, Miss Lynne reminds the group. You are not cutesy animals. She wheels on two strapping male dancers. If Skimble leaps onto your shoulders, can you keep to the beat? Both nod confidently. Mr. Nunn suddenly materializes, murmuring in Miss Lynne's ear. They go off into a corner to discuss the number. The dancers wait, as alert as the cats they are trying to incarnate.
There's a lot to think about here, says Ken Page, who plays the benevolent feline known as Old Deuteronomy. I'm supposed to be - what? 900 years old? With Trevor around, there's plenty to work on: he gives you food for thought. Betty Buckley, cast as the plaintive Grizabella, an elegant cat fallen on hard times, agrees: Every time you meet with Trevor, you'd better have done your homework. He always has. I trust him - completely.
Mr. Nunn has a reputation for instilling confidence in his actors. He has quite a few to inspire. Three of his own productions - both parts of Shakespeare's Henry IV and an acclaimed All's Well That Ends Well (with Peggy Ashcroft) - are in repertory at the Barbican, the Royal Shakespeare Company's new London theater complex. As the RSC's co-director, he keeps an eye on two dozen shows in London and Stratford-on-Avon this season alone, works ranging from Peer Gynt with Derek Jacobi to Poppy, a new musical about the Opium Wars. The RSC's comedy hit Educating Rita is now in the West End and may come to Broadway soon, and the late C.P. Taylor's Good opens here next week, the 30th RSC show in New York in the past two decades. Finally, the first weeks of 1983 will see the broadcast of Nicholas Nickleby on American television.
With all this to occupy him, Mr. Nunn remains calm. A rather Elizabethan-looking man of 42, with dark hair, mustache and beard, he seems self-effacing, even diffident. But he grows passionate when the subject is close to his heart, and a dry sense of humor is never absent for long. Trevor thinks on his feet, and tunes into just the right wavelength, said the actor Ian McKellen, who won a Tony Award in Amadeus and has played Macbeth and Romeo for Mr. Nunn with the RSC. Miss Buckley is equally laudatory: He reads people so well; that's the key. It's almost uncanny. Trevor's really a brilliant magician.
Magic was, in a way, Mr. Nunn's starting point. When I was growing up in Ipswich, I had a slightly older friend who was a conjurer, he recalled. He'd show me the tricks, then refuse to explain them beyond whispering: 'It's magic!' After that, I became thrilled by the notion of performing as a way of life. At 16, he staged a five-hour Hamlet with background music by Wagner; at 19, he won a scholarship to Cambridge. There he studied with the critic F.R. Leavis, who taught that art should not merely entertain but help society to see itself more clearly. Mr. Nunn's peers in the student body included Mr. McKellen, Mr. Jacobi, Peter Cook, and two future Monty Python stars, John Cleese and Graham Chapman. (I directed John and Graham in 'Brand,' Mr. Nunn said, chuckling, and I can safely say that -as far as Ibsen went - they were a staggering and hilarious liability.)
Upon leaving Cambridge, Mr. Nunn went on to Coventry's Belgrade Theater, eventually moving up to resident director there. One day the RSC's founder, Peter Hall, saw Mr. Nunn's version of The Caucasian Chalk Circle and invited him to join the RSC in Stratford.
Mr. Nunn's first year and a half with the RSC was a gloomy time. Everything he directed either withered or flopped. So it was small wonder that RSC veterans turned down roles offered them in Mr. Nunn's proposed production of the little-known Revenger's Tragedy - roles which then went to young unknowns such as Alan Howard. Staged as a Jacobean black comedy dissolving into a dance of death, the play was a great personal triumph for Mr. Nunn and made his reputation within the RSC.
Other successes followed, including a Taming of the Shrew during which Mr. Nunn met his future wife, the actress Janet Suzman. When Peter Hall left the company in 1967, he named Mr. Nunn, then 27, as successor. I only worried a bit about the political and administrative pressures on Trevor, admitted Mr. Hall, who has been head of the rival National Theater since 1973. But - he's become a superb politician.
Stretching through the 1970's is a line of memorable RSC productions under Mr. Nunn's aegis: the Peter Brook Midsummer Night's Dream, the 1975 cycle of Shakespeare's history plays, The Greeks, The Three Sisters, Wild Oats, the current All's Well and Nickleby. There have been low points: soggy Shakespeares and modern plays massacred by public and critics alike. (On one occasion, a leftist playwright bounded onto the Aldwych stage and urged the startled audience to rebel against the mess the RSC had made of his work.) There were shows nobody enjoyed, not even us, said Terry Hands, who has shared the position of artistic director with Mr. Nunn since 1978. Trevor's first years were a time of testing. Around 1975, we hit our stride - and Trevor hit his.
One particular advance has been Mr. Nunn's dedication to young playwrights out of the English fringe movement, shown by the list of new works produced by the RSC in its experimental houses: The Other Place, The Warehouse, The Pit. In 1976, a regional theater rejected a new play about postwar fascism in England, and Mr. Nunn brought both the playwright (David Edgar) and director (Ron Daniels) to Stratford to stage it for the RSC. Destiny was a critical success and eventually led to Mr. Edgar adapting Nickleby for the stage.
Some critics charge that under Mr. Nunn the RSC's style has softened, that its Brechtian revolution - the austere acting and design instituted by Peter Hall and designer John Bury -has succumbed to popular programming and opulent styles. Mr. Nunn bristled visibly at this. We do epic plays, social plays, he said firmly. I think we need to be more critical of society today than at any time in the last ten years. We have definitely not stopped probing.
John Caird, who shared a Tony Award with Nunn as co-director of Nickleby, feels his colleague is intensely devoted to questions of human frailty; where people fit into society. He wants to know why we act the way we do, said Mr. Caird. I think that's why 'Cats' attracted him: he loves poking around under rocks for the next challenge. Peter Hall recognizes this intellectual side of Mr. Nunn, but also calls his work very human and vigorous - he never forgets the joy of being alive.
Certainly, Mr. Nunn has every hope of making Cats a popular hit in New York. First, changes from the London production must be mastered. In England, the open stage of the New London Theater created an almost in-the-round experience, and the reviewer had the sensation of sitting in a planetarium with its own built-in revolve. The Winter Garden is, inescapably, a proscenium house resting on solid granite. These differences, plus the low, ornate ceiling here, posed problems for John Napier (the sine qua non of designers, according to Mr. Nunn, who has worked with him on innumerable shows, including Nickleby). Ultimately, Mr. Napier streamlined some angles, lengthened others, and fashioned a far more elaborate lighting plot as visual compensation.
Casting for Broadway was a mixed blessing. The London cast was wonderful, said Mr. Nunn. But there are, say, 30 or 40 English actors capable of singing, dancing, and acting superbly all at once. In New York, we were greeted with an embarrassment of riches. Miss Lynne seconds this: We saw 1,500 people in ten days, and the command of jazz and classical technique - we could have easily cast 80 of them.
Those auditions have spurred Mr. Nunn to seriously consider a trans-Atlantic exchange of talent. I would dearly love to employ several American actors in the RSC, he said. The talents they could show us - amazing! But I'd want to know that some English performers were working for, say, Joseph Papp. RSC and Broadway, your regional theaters and ours - it could be fabulous.
Changes in Cats have been forthcoming from Mr. Webber, too. Several of the 21 songs have been shortened or revised. One, Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer has been drastically reset and is, for all purposes, a new number. Growltiger's Last Stand, in which a much-feared cat is made to walk the plank, has been wholly reworked. And the penultimate number, Journey to the Heaviside Layer, was altered as well. Some London listeners were confused as to Eliot's meaning here (Up, up, up, past the Russell Hotel/Up, up, up, up to the Heaviside Layer), but Mr. Nunn has a theory. The Russell Hotel sits right behind one of our big bookstores, he said. Supposedly, the heaviest books were shelved on the very top floor. There's the Heaviside Layer the cats are talking about!
Cats has, on the whole, been a joyous experience for Mr. Nunn, but not in respect to the financial state of the company he heads. For the past year, he said ruefully, people have been accosting me left and right, asking why, if 'Cats' is such a tremendous smash hit, the RSC can still be in trouble. They don't grasp that 'Cats' is a commercial venture - nothing whatsoever to do with the Royal Shakespeare Company! Sometimes I think Gillian and John and I should all change our names.
The RSC is dependent on its annual subsidy from the Arts Council of Great Britain, and the headaches this entails plunge Mr. Nunn into despair approximately every Monday morning. Last season, the RSC mounted 34 productions and somehow broke even, thanks to such bonus projects as the filming of Nickleby and its New York run. On an overall budget of $13 million dollars, there was a deficit of just $3,000.
But the outlook is bleak: of the four companies seen as national by the Arts Council, the RSC gets just 11 percent of allocated funds - a level of support many (including Mr. Nunn) cannot understand. And the anxieties of filling and maintaining the RSC's jewel set in a concrete sea, the Barbican, are unremitting, despite its comfort and good acoustics. People see this vast new edifice and assume we're out of the woods, financially speaking, said Mr. Nunn with a sigh. In an odd way, we'd almost rather live like Spartans!
Still, the work goes on, and Mr. Nunn seems to have mastered the tightrope act of directing classics and modern works with equal felicity. Peggy Ashcroft likens him to a hound on a scent, who won't quit till he's run it to earth. What a nose for the text! Enormously exact! Yet he stays open to your ideas, your contributions. Right now, he's at the top of his powers.
Soon, Mr. Nunn will co-direct with John Caird (and Mr. Napier will design) an RSC version of J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan. A possible book on Shakespeare is lurking in the back of his mind. In addition, he's poring over the anecdotal recollections of a man who lived in rural, poor, turn-of-the-century Stratford. No swans, no Bard of Avon here, points out Mr. Nunn. But a great sense of a man just telling you his life. Truly theater. So, we'll see ...
Mr. Nunn, a literary soul delighted by the new technologies, might be termed an electronic classicist. He'd like to try more film work with the RSC - but only on the company's terms. (His one film, Hedda starring Glenda Jackson, was a disappointment.) And more work in musical theater is pending. Next May, he will stage Mozart's opera Idomeneo at Glyndebourne, and he and Andrew Lloyd Webber are busy plotting a new show on railway trains. Ten times more impossible than 'Cats!' said Mr. Nunn, clearly relishing that prospect.
He'd also like to live a bit, having overseen the RSC since 1968. He has directed 36 shows with the company, and his original pledge to usher the RSC into the Barbican has been fulfilled. That day last year when 'Nickleby' won all the London awards might have been the moment, he mused. It almost seemed the time to say: 'Dear friends, it's been a great decade, I love you all -but I have this huge movie contract waiting in Hollywood.' He paused and then his eyebrows arched wickedly. But, as it happened, there wasn't one, so ...
It is late. Final Cats rehearsals are urgently beckoning, and the phone has sliced into our conversation at regular intervals. Mr. Nunn opens the door of his hotel suite and a large ginger cat promptly strolls in, apparently knowing just where the director is sequestered. Mr. Nunn bursts out laughing, obviously enjoying the symbolism of the moment.
Does he feel the last-minute pressure? Theater is always pressure, he replied. Pressure to get the play on, pressure for actors to like one another. Pressure to top your last project. He looked wistful. And, in the end, you part under the pressure of great emotion. Time for the next job? Off you go! In the theater, you need a lot of heart -and an unusual amount of heartlessness.
Can theater change anyone? I think it must, said Mr. Nunn softly. Ideas change, so rehearsals shift, so actors change. With luck, they can alter their audience. Don't you think that when people enter a theater, they're asking to be changed in some way?
"Nunn so thrilled as 'Cats' director" by Zhang Qian, Shine.cn AUG. 3, 2018
British theatre director Trevor Nunn, 78, recently had his “very, very first” visit to Shanghai, and indeed China, with the musical “Cats” making a return appearance at Shanghai Grand Theater.
“I was told that ‘Cats’ made a record of 53 continuous performances during its visit here in 2003. I would love to have been here at the time, but I was busy with my work at the National Theatre then,” says Nunn, who directed its first production. “But, I am more than thrilled to be here with ‘Cats’ this time.”
As the longest serving artistic director of Royal Shakespeare Company from 1968 to 1986 and then the National Theatre from 1997 to 2003, Nunn has been responsible for a series of serious productions including Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” and “Timon of Athens.” Yet, he has also been successful with “not so serious” productions such as the musicals “Cats,” “Les Miserables,” “Starlight Express” and “Sunset Boulevard.”
With Nunn as director, Andrew Lloyd Webber the composer and choreography by Gillian Lynne, “Cats” has been one of the world’s most successful productions since its premiere in London’s West End in 1981. Named best musical at both the Olivier and Tony awards, “Cats” has been staged in more than 300 cities in 15 languages and has been seen by more than 81 million people, including Shanghai audiences.
“Breaking the rules” is the secret to letting wonderful things happen, Nunn says. The magic of “Cats” started from 10 poems from T. S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.” The choreography was created largely based on the performers exploration of cats’ movements and habits. “Cats” was the first musical to blur the barriers between performers and audience, encouraging interaction.
During his visit, Nunn talked about how “Cats” came to be.
Q: How did “Cats” start from only 10 poems by Eliot?
A: Andrew Lloyd Webber told me about his plan to create a musical based on children’s poems. I was lucky to have studied Eliot’s poetry at university. In my view, Eliot was one of the best poets of the 20th century. And the brilliant children’s poems which he wrote for fun were intended for both children and adults. But I told Andrew that if we were going to make a show, there had to be a story.
The first poem that caught my attention was a poem about Jellicle cats who meet once a year for a celebration. The saying goes that cats have nine lives. Then, a series of ideas hit me one by one. The cats belong to a tribe called “Jellicle.” They meet once a year to decide who will have a new life. In a tribe there must be a leader as well as a threat. So, I searched Eliot’s poems and found Old Deuteronomy as the leader and Macavity as the threat. At their annual meeting, all the other cats would be like the dancers in “A Chorus Line,” displaying their talents and saying “Pick me! Pick me!” The initial idea for the musical was much like “A Chorus Line” for cats.
Then, something amazing happened. Just before we started rehearsing, Eliot’s widow found an extra poem about a cat which was not included in the book. It is an eight-line poem titled “Grizabella, the Glamor Cat.” We found a remark by Eliot on it, saying that it was too sad for children. The poem tells of an old and sad cat in desperation. She used to be beautiful, yet had lost all her sparkle. I was thrilled after reading it, as I had found the leading characters and story for the musical.
Q: It is said that Eliot’s estate insisted that all the words in the musical had to be Eliot’s. How did you manage with that strict request?
A: Yes, we were not allowed to write anything new. But Grizabella needed a big song of her own. Webber wrote a wonderful piece of music, and I searched all Eliot’s poems, picking out phrases and writing the song called “Memory.” After listening to it, the estate finally agreed to it since it does sound like Eliot.
The other characters were mainly created from the performers’ improvisation and Eliot’s poems. In improvising, the performers gradually discovered how a cat thinks and moves, which then became dance steps. Based on that, I searched Eliot’s poems again and started to develop characters. I gave each of the performers three words — three secret words defining their characteristics. Then, they were required to improvise about cats with characteristics such as nervousness, fear or being overexcited.
With ready characters, relationships also gradually formed in my mind, such as friends, enemies and couples. For example, Macavity broke into the Jellicle ball because he was crazy about Demeter and wanted to catch her. Munkustrap had a fight with Macavity, and drove him away. Probably, he and Demeter are lovers.
Q: Was Judi Dench the initial candidate for Grizabella?
A: Yes. I had worked with Judi Dench many times before we started on “Cats.” When I told her about “Cats,” she was excited about being part of it. She first became Jennyanydots who sits all day but tap dances at midnight. Then, after we discovered the wonderful character of Grizabella, we had Dench rehearse for both parts, since she was such a great actress.
However, at a coffee break after rehearsal, we heard a strange sound and saw her screaming on the floor. She had torn her Achilles tendon. Our most famous cast member suddenly could not do it. Fortunately, Elaine Paige came to the rescue. She recorded “Memory,” which went to No.1 in the charts. Soon after that, Barbra Streisand recorded it again, and it became popular across the world. Hence, the show secured a long life. So, what can I say?
Q: What would be your advice to young musical talent?
A: Back in the 1970s, people tended to identify themselves as singers, dancers or actors and actresses for film and TV. But more and more projects are asking more from candidates. They more often need people who are good at singing, dancing and acting rather than any single skill. If possible, keep training yourself in all those three aspects.
When I was auditioning for “Sunset Boulevard” many years ago, I met a young actor who was a great singer and dancer. I asked whether he had any acting pieces to present. He said he would like to do a piece from Shakespeare’s “Henry V.” I was very worried about his strong Australian accent, but when he started reciting his accent was gone. I was amazed by his wonderful presentation. I asked his name. He said it was Hugh Jackman.
Source: SHINE Editor: Liu Qi
- Trevor previously directed both Judi Dench and Ian McKellen in Macbeth in 1976. Both co-star in the 2019 film adaptation of Cats as Old Deuteronomy and Gus, respectively.
- In addition, he directed both original products of Cats and Les Misérables. Tom Hooper, the director of the 2019 film, also helmed the previous film adaptation of Les Misérables in 2012.