Only the most indefatigable lover of the musical theater would even try to argue that the opening night of Cats on Broadway was Shakespearean in its epicness. But why not? Everyone with pulse knew it was going to be the biggest smash the Great White Way had seen since Sarah Bernhardt was a mere French sex kitten — surely the pressure, the sheer momentousness of the occasion, felt overwhelming and vast and frightening and inspiring and scary, no?
Well, if you want to know, read A Cat’s Diary: How the Broadway Production of Cats Was Born, Stephen Mo Hanan’s 2002 memoir of that very night and of the show for which he was Tony-nominated. This story, however, is not about Cats but about King Lear, and the title role of which Hanan (who, we have to say, is one of those actors who never seems hard to cast and is never, apparently, not working) is essaying through Nov. 4, in an American Bard Theater Company revival at Saint Mary’s in Midtown (145 W. 46th St.; 212-352-3101).
Hanan’s resume reads like any actor’s dream — not just his feline frolics but other productions on and off Broadway, from The Pirates of Penzance and Peter Pan to shows with the York Theatre Company (including his superb and co-authored Jolson & Company), plus tours, regional appearances and even a solo show at La Mama appropriately titled Holy Crap. But Lear — that’s a whole other kingdom to discuss…
And now, 5 questions Stephen Mo Hanan has never been asked — and a bonus question.
1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“What’s my guiding word for you tonight?” (spoken by Trevor Nunn as I was about to go on stage for the opening night of Cats. “Lemme at ’em?” I suggested. “Simplify,” he replied.)
2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“How is a play different from a musical?”
3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“If your part calls for an accent do you learn the lines without one?”
4) Along with Hamlet, King Lear is always considered the actor’s ultimate challenge. For you, as Lear, what is the play’s most challenging scene and is it different from the scene that speaks to you the most personally?
The most challenging scene is the one I’m about to do next. It’s amazing how just as you think you’ve cleared one hurdle, the one ahead seems higher. The cumulative emotional demands of the role are stupendous. The stakes just keep getting higher until you collapse into madness, and out of that emerges this beautiful childlike innocence, which is even more devastating because of what happens. “Poor naked wretches” (from the storm sequence) tears me up because some of them are lying on the pavement near the theater (okay, not actually naked…), and my response to Cordelia’s corpse always triggers images of the beloved friends who died way too young.
5) Why doesn’t Lear smack Goneril and Regan in the teeth and say, “Ha! Just kidding! I’m not dividing my kingdom and you’re both ungrateful bitches!”?
We actually talked in rehearsal about why all of Lear’s violence is verbal. I think the physical restraint enables him to maintain the illusion that he’s a wonderful father.
6) A Cat’s Diary: How the Broadway Production of Cats Was Born is your memoir of rehearsing the original Broadway production of Cats. If the Stephen Mo Hanan of 2012 could talk to the Stephen Mo Hanan of 1982, what would he say?
Avoid being confined to musicals!