As Cats prepares to bow on Broadway July 14, Playbill talks with its star about how she reacted to hearing from Andrew Lloyd Webber and her Main Stem debut.
Look, a new day has begun! A decade after winning U.K. TV competition The X Factor, Leona Lewis, 31, makes her Broadway debut at the Neil Simon Theatre in a revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Tony-winning musical classic Cats, based on T.S. Eliot’s poems in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. The Grammy-nominated British pop star sinks her manicured claws into the coveted role of Grizabella the Glamour Cat, who sings the show’s most memorable tune, “Memory.” Her own memories are fuzzy, but Lewis may’ve also been a feline in a former life.
Shortly before rehearsals began, Nicole Scherzinger, who recently played Grizabella in London, opted not to reprise her performance on Broadway. What was your reaction when asked to take over the role?
When I first got the call that Andrew Lloyd Webber wanted to know if I’d be interested, I was like, “Wow, I got a part!” Then they said, “Well, you have to audition.” [ Laughs.] Weirdly enough, I’d just been telling my boyfriend how much I wanted to be onstage and have the whole Broadway experience. I knew it would be a big challenge and a lot of hard work, and I’d wanted to chill after my last tour, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
How familiar were you with Cats?
I remember my mum took me to see it in the West End when I was a little girl, and I just loved it. It was such a spectacle—so artistic, emotional, and magical. Afterwards, I asked my theatre teacher if I could sing “Memory.” I didn’t really understand what it meant, of course; I just loved the melody.
“Memory” is such an iconic ballad, famously sung by Elaine Paige, who originated the role of Grizabella in London, and then byBetty Buckley on Broadway. No pressure, right?
It’s obviously a huge, important moment in the show, and I take it very seriously. I’m putting my all into this. When I auditioned, Andrew told me that he really wanted me to tell Grizabella’s story. And with Trevor Nunn, our director, we’ve gone really deep into the lyrics, which are phenomenal. I think everyone can relate to what Griz is feeling. She comes in and out of her own world, realizing that she’s aging and has lost what she once had. You know, T.S. Eliot left the poem about Grizabella out of his book because he felt it was too sad for children. It is sad!
What are the challenges of playing a cat?
Our very first day of rehearsal, we were rolling around on the floor, pawing at each other. That was an interesting introduction! And the physicality stays with you. I was walking home the other day and literally caught myself holding my hand in a paw shape. I was like, “What am I doing?”
The role probably also requires a bit more makeup than you’re used to.
Well, I put on quite a lot normally—I’m not going to lie! [ Laughs.] We’ve had tutorials because our director wants us to do our makeup ourselves. It’s a big part of the transformation and getting into character, as is the costume. I’ve never worn a unitard before! Luckily, I have a lot of layers, with thigh-high boots and a huge coat, which, just in case, I did make sure was faux fur. In fact, there’s no fur in any of the costumes.
Has being a passionate animal lover informed your approach to the character?
It’s funny, but I think Grizabella and this production are so perfect for me because I am such a huge animal rights activist. I definitely have a sensitivity towards animals, and that probably will come across onstage.
Speaking of big cats, didn’t you almost play Nala in a Disneyland Paris staging of The Lion King?
I didn’t make that connection! Yeah, I injured my back ice-skating so I had to pull out. I was so sad, but then I did X Factor. If I’d done Lion King, who knows what might’ve happened? When I was a kid I did Carousel in the West End, and since X Factor I’ve been approached to do other shows, like The Bodyguard in the West End, but it’s just never worked out. I’ve always loved musical theatre, but I chose to concentrate more on my recording career.
Are you a cat person?
I had cats when I was younger, but I haven’t had any since because now I have dogs, and I’d be worried about how they’d react to each other.
You once said in an interview that you might’ve been a mistreated animal in a past life. Maybe you were a cat.
I really could’ve been! I do feel like that’s where I get my protective sense of activism. I can also be quite skittish, which is definitely a feline quality.
If you were a cat, what kind of cat would you be?
Ooh, maybe a Persian. They look like they’d be really well looked after.