Off Script: How Leona Lewis Plays the Isolated Grizabella in 'Cats' and Around NYC (Q&A)
The British pop star tells THR of making her Broadway debut, encountering her first stage doors and dreaming of a 'Hamilton' role: "The audience is like going to a Jay Z concert."
The buzzy name in the cast of the Cats revival is Leona Lewis, who steps into the paws of Grizabella, the glamor cat whose luster has faded, leaving her ostracized by the others. THR's review said, "Her powerful singing is not to be faulted. While her delivery of the show's signature song in the first act is restrained, her reprise in Act 2, featuring a rafters-ringing cry of 'Touch Meeee ...,' is spine-chilling."
But the British pop star, who was pitched for the role after working with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s son on her most recent album, makes her Broadway debut after just finishing a tour, and finds herself living in New York for the first time. "I’ve always wanted to be on Broadway, so I took the opportunity when I got the call, but I'm away from my friends and my family; I’ve moved to a new city where I don’t know anyone,” she tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I am actually very much like Grizabella — apart from being part of the cast, it has been a little bit isolating.”
Currently appearing in the show through October, Lewis, 31, goes Off Script to talk tackling the iconic ballad “Memory,” joining the Broadway community and experiencing the stage door for the first time: “It’s even more hype than a concert.”
What do you admire most about Grizabella?
Her strength. This character is an outcast — she’s very isolated and shunned from everyone in the tribe, and yet she still has so much resilience and she still goes on. I feel like everyone can take a bit away from her, and each night when I play her, that’s what I take away.
Were you nervous about joining the show as your Broadway debut?
Cats was one of the first musicals that I saw as a child; I saw the show in its original form in London. I was more excited about getting involved because of the nostalgia people attached to it. And then there are kids that I’ve met who are seeing it for the first time, and it reminds me of me when I was younger. Being part of that child’s memory, coming to see the show and having a magical night, is very special.
And the character, the song, the fact that she’s only onstage for little segments of time — I think it was a good first role to take on. I can really focus on getting those segments as great as I can get them.
Leona Lewis in 'Cats.' Photo credit: Getty Images
What’s something new you’ve taken on for the role?
I’m working out a lot more, which is good. You have to be so physically fit to do these shows every night. And I’m treating [this run] the same as when I’m on tour and I’m singing each night for two hours, so I’m looking after the voice and making sure I’m focused on what I’m doing.
What have you given up to play this role?
I actually just came off a tour and was supposed to have a bit of time off and just chill out and have a bit of a life again. I’ve always wanted to be on Broadway, so I took the opportunity when I got the call. But I'm away from my friends and my family; I’ve moved to a new city where I don’t know anyone. I am actually very much like Grizabella — apart from being part of the cast, it has been a little bit isolating.
Do you have any special pre-show rituals?
I meditate for five to ten minutes to focus, still my mind and get into character.
What goes through your mind as you sing “Memory” onstage?
To just embody Grizabella. It’s really her desperate, final plea to them to be accepting and open their hearts. That song really made me fall in love with those kind of big ballads with so much emotion and turmoil. I really have to be on my game every single night because it’s so well-known. The audience is always waiting for it.
What is something special in your dressing room?
I've got my little personal steamer, which I really love because it helps my voice. And all my photos of my two horses, my dogs, my rabbit. All of my animals are stuck up on my dressing room mirror, which is quite special. No cats though. But my neighbor’s cat hangs around our house and I’ll feed him from time to time.
What do you do when you’re not onstage?
I have to keep my voice warm because she only comes on in segments, so I’m doing trills and lip rolls. My dressing room is right next to the stage, and sometimes I’ll just watch the rest of the show from the wings. In rehearsals, my favorite number was “Gus: The Theatre Cat;” it used to make me cry every single time. Now, with the costumes, I love “Old Deuteronomy” and “Mr. Mistoffolees.”
What do you think of the stage door tradition?
It’s been so crazy. Everyone at stage door are real Cats fans, obsessed with every single character. It’s even more hype than a concert and I didn’t expect that at all. I remember they were saying to me, “We’re going to put some barriers around the doors,” and I was like, “That’s a bit dramatic.” But then I went out there and there was so many people, I actually couldn’t believe it. It’s amazing with the adrenaline after the show, and then you go out there and everyone is really emotional.
Favorite backstage guest so far?
Zachary Quinto came back and said hi, and that he enjoyed my performance. With him being an incredible actor, that was a big honor for me. That was the first time I’ve met him. I'm definitely a Trekkie.
What do you do on your days off?
Sleeping. And I've got my dog here, so I've been doing little things like taking her out by the Hudson River in this nice weather. I like Williamsburg — I went into some of the little shops and got some cute outfits. They’ve got nice independent stores and I love that kind of thing. I want to go to Ellis Island soon.
What are your first impressions of the Broadway community?
Very welcoming, very warm, very open. To actually be on Broadway is a huge honor, and these people are such hard workers and it inspires me to want to do my best. They’ve been so supportive — that’s not surprised me, but it’s definitely a big relief because I didn’t know how people would be, if they’d be funny because I'm coming from the pop world. I feel very lucky.
What’s your dream Broadway role?
It would be fun to be in Hamilton. I feel like the audience is like going to a Jay Z concert.