The return of “Cats” to Broadway
The feline force to be reckoned with—better known as “Cats”—has made a resurgence along the Great White Way. Taking the stage in his ninth Broadway role is Tyler Hanes as Rum Tum Tugger, the rambunctious Romeo who steals the show with his tail-twirling antics and hip-shaking hijinks. Hanes plays the infamous cat so convincingly that one almost expects a canary feather to come fluttering from his mischievous mouth. The actor took time out from his eight-show-per-week schedule to chat with DiningOut.
DiningOut: How is playing a cat different from other roles you’ve done?
Hanes: It’s different in that in every other show I’ve done, with the exception of [Stephen Sondheim’s] “The Frogs,” I’ve played a human, and that’s much easier. For this, the physicality can be challenging but in a good way. I’ve never played a character like this, because he is just off the wall. There’s so much freedom with playing Tugger. The creative team has just encouraged me to go with my instincts and have a lot of fun, and that’s why every show for me is different, because they left a lot of things for me to decide in the moment. For an actor, that’s an awesome gift, because they trust you and your choices, and you get to be creative. It makes it fresh and different for me every night.
Are you having as much fun onstage as it appears? It looks like you’re having a blast.
Oh yeah. I’ve never had this much freedom in a role before, but it’s also such a great group of people. Everyone is so game to play and is so in the moment, and because this character is so big and he’ll do anything, it makes it more fun to try everything and be fearless. I was talking to Jeremy Davis who plays Skimbleshanks, and he mentioned that term that you just “throw spaghetti at a wall to see what sticks.” When you’re putting a show up, you’re making choices to see what works and what doesn’t, and then you find the things that work and you stick with it. For my character, I’m just throwing spaghetti; I’m not even seeing what sticks. It’s so much fun, and it’s very in the moment, and I love coming to work because of that.
I saw your Instagram account with audience photos. Is that something you particularly enjoy—interacting with audiences and breaking down the fourth wall?
Yeah. It’s so much fun. It has definitely been a lesson in itself, because you have to feel the temperature of the audience. Some people love it, and some people just want to watch the show, which I understand. Being in a show, I like breaking that fourth wall and playing with the audience, but as an audience member, I like to just sit back and watch, because I don’t want to have to perform.
What is the dynamic like among the cast?
From day one, we met and immediately they had us rolling around on each other as cats. So we had to get comfortable with each other very quickly, and then we spent the first couple of weeks learning how to be an ensemble. That really created a bond between us all. That stuck the whole time, which has been great, because this is an ensemble show—there isn’t a star. It’s about everyone, and everybody is a team. Thankfully, we all get along and enjoy each other, and are super supportive.
You’ve been dancing since you were seven. How did that start?
I’m one of seven children, and my sisters all were in dance and would put on little dance recitals in our garage, or little dance competitions in our living room. I wanted to be a part of that. One time, my grandparents were down from Buffalo, and my sisters put on one of their productions, and I did a dance. I choreographed it myself and I didn’t know what I was doing, but after that my my mom was like, “Alright, we’ve got to get him in dance.”
I started in a ballet/tap combination class, and then I did dance competitions. My little sister Whitney was doing a production of “Annie” at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. That was the first time I had ever seen a big Broadway musical. I was like, “Wow, I want to be a part of that.” So the auditions that my little sister went on, I started going on them with her. There was a tour of “The Will Rogers Follies.” I auditioned for that with my sister, and that was the first time I got to perform in a musical. From that point on it was a domino effect, and I became really invested in theater.
How long does it take to get prepared before a show?
If it’s an 8pm show, I’ll get there at 5:30. We all do our own makeup, which has been a process. I’ve never had to do makeup before, so when I first started, I was a mess. It used to take me an hour-and-a-half. Now I’ve got it down to 35 minutes, and then I’ll go warm up, and we have a lift call at 7:15, then I get into costume, and Victoria Tinsman, the hair supervisor, will come and put my wig on, and then I do some push-ups and sit-ups, and then I’m on stage. I like to give myself a lot of time. I don’t want to be rushed. I enjoy the process of getting in the makeup, because it helps me get into the character and into the world.
When you auditioned for Rum Tum Tugger, you did an Elvis Presley song. Do you channel him or anyone else for the character?
It’s a combination of a lot of people. There’s a little bit of Elvis, a little bit of Prince, a little bit of Bruno Mars. My walk is part Freddie Mercury, part a character created by one of my good friends, Alisan Porter. She won “The Voice” two seasons ago, and watching her on it, she was a big inspiration. That was what I wanted to go with—and also her attitude, because she’s just a rock star. It’s a combination of those people and then on the complete other side, a little bit Herman Munster and then Robin Williams as the genie from Aladdin, just the off-the-wall stuff. It’s a lot of things, and he’s still evolving.
I can’t imagine playing that role on an off day.
Sometimes performances are going to be amazing and sometimes you’re going to have a day when you’re not feeling well or you’re tired or whatever. Because this character’s energy level is at 1,000, I have no choice. Once I go on, it’s just a roller-coaster ride. Playing this character, even if I’m having an off-day, that kind of goes away once I’m in my Tugger getup. It will get me out of that funk and help me escape for those two-and-a-half hours.
Is the soon-to-launch web series, “Ms. Guidance,” your first foray into producing?
Yes. It has been awesome. My partner, Van Hansis, had an idea—based on a teacher at his high school—for a short film. He’s on a very successful web series called “Eastsiders,” and I said I thought it would work better as a web series. He met with his writing partner, James Ryan Caldwell, and they came up with “Ms. Guidance.”
It’s a dark comedy about this girl named Jenny Bump who went to this performing arts school called Loch Hill and was the star student. She moved to New York and had a huge sense of entitlement. She ended up graduating from Juilliard but not really working. She ends up having a breakdown and going back to Loch Hill, becomes the interim guidance counselor, and ends up bringing the school down within 72 hours.
We’re in the final stages of post-production, and hope to have it out at the beginning of the summer. The cast is unbelievable—Kristen Chenoweth, Michael Urie, Adriane Lenox, and Amber Gray, who is one of the stars of “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.”
Who is your biggest inspiration?
I look at the careers of Terrence Mann and Tom Hewitt, and those two are idols of mine because they’re not only incredible performers, but their resumes are so diverse. Terrence Mann was Rum Tum Tugger and then Javert [in “Les Misérables”] and Beast in “Beauty and the Beast”—it’s all over the map, which is something I want. I want to have that versatility, because I feel like that will give you longevity. And that, to me, is a big part of being successful in this career. But not only are they incredible performers; they’re really nice people. I think that matters most of all. Growing up, I was the biggest Gene Kelly fan, and I still am. I think his legacy is so powerful, and the song and dance man that he was is something I aspire to be.
On a human level—this is going to sound cliché—my mom is a big inspiration. She is a single mother that raised seven children on her own. She is one of the strongest and kindest people I know, and is so supportive of her children. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be doing this.
Tyler Hanes Website: www.tylerhanes.com
BY Jessica D’Amico