My four children consider my brief theatrical career as something of a family joke. But I take it very, very seriously. I cannot understand their attitude. What can possibly be wrong with having witnessed your middle-aged mother on stage, dressed head to toe in spandex, with white face paint and a spiked wig, prancing for two hours (very lithely, mind you) and answering to the name Jellylorum? Is this something to blush at? To blot from the family album? On which to base a claim, as one son did, that you are “scarred for life?”
Have YOU ever had a starring role in “Cats”?
I remind Scarred Son that the whole thing was not my idea. His Broad-Minded Brother (names withheld to protect the guilty) actually launched me. He and Gung-Ho Little Sister were trying out for a local production. He invited me to come along. Something stirred within me. I was swept up in a vision: I would make a triumphant-albeit-modest return to the stage. (I had played a suffragette in a school melodrama 35 years earlier). The swan would arise.
I prepared a peppy audition number, expecting at most to be placed behind a trash can (the set was a city alley). But lo and behold, the director (he was sober, I promise you) said, “You have a really good voice.” The call came the next day (he was still sober, I promise you): he wanted me as Jellylorum.
Broad-Minded Son exclaimed, “That’s a lead, Mom!” Not only would I be one of the first cats to pounce onto the stage, I would have a solo.
I see by your expression, dear Reader, that you don’t quite know what to make of this. “Cats” is one of the longest-running musicals of all time. Some would say Too Long, because all the characters are—you guessed it—cats. So if you have an aversion to cats, were once scratched by a cat, prefer any pet BUT a cat, or are simply allergic to adults dressed as cats, you will find it, at best, weird. It is based on T.S. Eliot’s poems for children. Eliot put aside his obscurantism and had plain old fun with rhymes about anthropomorphized cats. All their names are wacky: Skimbleshanks, Rumpleteezer, Mungojerry…and our friend Jellylorum. Their various escapades have been put to song, and now community theaters everywhere perform “Cats”-- with moms like me putting the force in tour de.
The first thing I had to learn was How to Move Like a Cat. It turns out that they do not say “Ouch” when they jump. They don’t stick out their fingernails (unless threatened); their paws hang loose. They don’t walk; they swish. And when the music starts, they dance like there’s no tomorrow (which was Scarred Son’s prayer, after opening night)
Rehearsals were rougher than I expected. From moment one, I was under tremendous pressure. At the sound of a lone oboe, I had to leap from a ten-foot platform onto an eight-foot platform. The first time, I landed on my face. The second time, my paws froze to the boards. The third time, Broad-Minded Son (who played an escape-artist cat) taught me a way to “just sort of roll yourself into it.” As I said earlier, he is the one who launched me.
Besides her solo, Jellylorum was featured in three numbers: one about a cat teaching mice to knit, one about a pub-crawling cat, and one rather sultry number called “Macavity the Mystery Cat.” I am no dancer, but I must say I mastered the moves quite admirably (one was called “headlights,” but it’s best not to ask).
I did not perform with an entirely clear conscience. My husband was a pastor at the time, a very principled Scottish Presbyterian, and there was a Sunday afternoon performance. But he was gracious about it, perhaps persuaded by the apostle’s “all things to all men” (although I don’t think that includes becoming feline).
I even made the papers. Because three Telfers were cast (Gung-Ho Little Sister made an adorable kitten), a reporter interviewed me about the experience. Here is how she began the article:
“Some families bond by taking vacations. Some play board games. The Telfer family enjoys dressing up like cats and crawling around on a stage.”
I was very glad I hadn’t told her the Scottish Presbyterian part.
Ah, my solo, you ask? It was nothing, really. The stage was empty. The lights were dim. Silently, I slunk onto the stage. Then, emerging from the shadows, I arched my back and slowly rose to my feet. I drifted (or so it felt) into the spotlight. Then, cued by a soft F-major arpeggio, I began a mournful ballad called Gus, the Theater Cat.
Gus hobbled onto the stage (someone’s dad, whose spandex was mercifully hidden by a tattered cloak) while I sang about his bygone career:
He isn’t the cat that he was in his prime
Though his name was quite famous, he says, in his time
And he likes to relate his success on the halls
When the gallery once gave him seven cat calls.
With heart-wrenching nostalgia, I ended the song:
These modern productions are all very well
But there’s nothing to equal, from what I can tell
That moment of mystery, when he made history
As Frirefrorefiddle, the fiend of the fell.
It matters not, dear Reader, what “Frirefrorefiddle” means. The point is, when I finished the song, I was sure I heard weeping.
Scarred Son will say it was him, but do not believe it.
I could regale you on and on; this only scratches the surface (ho ho). I will tell of just one more role. The same company put on “Sweeney Todd.” I could reach a high C, which was handy for a number called “City on Fire.” I was part of a group of escapees from a 19th century London asylum. We burst onto the stage and ran all around it, shrieking, “It’s the end of the world!”
After that show, the child whom I’ve not yet mentioned—our oldest, aka She Who Understands True Artistry--threw her arms around me and summed up my entire family-history-making career with the highest compliment of all:
“Mom! You were the best lunatic!”