8 Grizabellas, Including Betty Buckley and Elaine Paige, Share Their “Memory”s

Diva Talk   Diva Talk: 8 Grizabellas, Including Betty Buckley and Elaine Paige, Share Their “Memory”s The leading ladies of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats reflect on playing the pivotal role and singing the musical’s best-known tune.
Grizabellas HR

Grizabella, the faded glamour cat in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats, is the heart of the international hit musical, which recently returned to Broadway at the Neil Simon Theatre. The role requires not only a singer blessed with a soaring, rich voice of many colors, but also an actress who can bring tremendous soul and elicit great compassion as the outcast feline who journeys to the Heaviside Layer at the end of the evening. No wonder the women who originated the part—Elaine Paige in London and Betty Buckley on Broadway—went on to become among the greatest artists the musical theatre has produced. Following Buckley and Paige, a host of other stellar actresses have taken on the role, each bringing her unique voice and interpretation to the part. With Cats back on Broadway—starring Leona Lewis as Grizabella— it seemed a perfect time to catch up with these gifted women. Buckley, Paige, Gay Marshall, Lea Salonga, Linda Balgord, Liz Callaway, Loni Ackerman and Stephanie J. Block all spoke to Playbill.com about their time playing this iconic character.

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Betty Buckley
Originated the role in the 1982 Broadway production, winning a Tony Award for her performance

Betty-Buckley.jpg
Betty Buckley Martha Swope

How long did it take you to get into full Grizabella makeup each night?
BB: Nine minutes flat. The joke around the theatre was that I threw my makeup in the air and ran under it. While some of the Cats did intricate paintings on their faces each night, my makeup, designed by our designer John Napier with the assistance of a makeup artist, was like a charcoal pencil sketch. At my request, Georgette Klinger made a special grey base for me that wouldn't hurt my skin as some of the thick pancake makeup did. The stage managers didn't believe me when I told them I could do my makeup in nine minutes, so my brilliant dresser, Ms. Marcie Olivi, and I challenged them to a bet. People placed their bets, and on the appointed day I arrived at the theatre, and the stage manager with a stopwatch clocked me. I ran from the Stage Door check in, up the stairs to my dressing room out of full winter gear into makeup, body suit, mike pack, leg warmers, arm warmers, wig and shoes for the opening number. Marci and I nailed it! Nine minutes flat! We won a lot of money.

What is the pressure/challenge like of having to deliver “Memory,” the vocally demanding song everyone waits for all evening?
BB: I had never had a job assignment “Stop the Show!” It was daunting. For the weeks of previews, I was not stopping the show. My wonderful voice teacher, the brilliant Paul Gavert, showed me the way. I immersed myself in meditation and prayer from which inspiration led to my following homeless women on the streets of NYC. Two beautiful homeless women whose hair and makeup were similar to Grizabella’s crossed my path. They connected with my heart and soul in a way that provided guidance and inspiration. The gist of the message I received was simply this: “There but for the Grace of God, go I.” It took about two weeks of incorporating all I was learning into my performance. Ultimately, I was able to discover in Grizabella’s journey through the show, a wide open heart of sharing with the audience in the “Crie de Coeur” that is “Memory.” Two nights before the opening night, I sang the song from a depth of sharing that I had never experienced before. There was a moment of breathless silence, and, then, the audience went crazy! It was amazing! A complete blessing.

Was there any one performance of “Memory” that stands out in your mind as your best ever?
BB: Singing “Memory,” then, in the show, and now, in concert for all these years, is always such an exquisite experience for me. Grizabella is my teacher, my soulmate and one of my dearest friends. It is always such a joy to visit her each time I sing her song. And she continues to teach me new things every time I get to experience her, in the place in my heart and soul, where she resides. She is an extraordinary creature, and I love her with all my heart. The gift of “Memory” in my life is an enormous blessing.

What was the most memorable onstage Cats mishap—either your own or by a fellow cast member?
BB: Well, I hesitate to share this, but it was pretty funny. When you have a cold and still must perform, it is hugely challenging. One night, I was suffering this awful cold, and in the middle of “Memory” before my last verse, I went down on my hands and knees. The little white cat is singing, while I was choreographed to prepare Grizabella’s resting place in a quasi kneel. Tears were streaming down my face and my nose was running, and as I came up for the “Touch me, it’s so easy to leave me” section, a line of mucous made an arc through the air still attached to my nose. I saw this silver line stretching about two feet in space and used my “paw” to fling it away. I witnessed all the cats onstage, watching me in horror and cringing in disgust. It was hilarious!

Why do you think the musical has endured?
BB: I think it is a beautiful piece of “Art in Motion.” It is beautifully designed, and all the cats are versions of people in our world of materialism and ego. T.S. Eliot’s satire is brilliant. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music is beautiful, poignant and playful. Gillian Lynne’s great choreography (and the homage paid to her by Andy Blankenbuehler) is iconic, wonderful and inspiring to behold. Trevor Nunn’s brilliant direction and his gorgeous lyric of “Memory,” and message about the beauty and dignity inherent in that which we fear most, aging and dying, are universal. I love the show and treasure the time I got to live on that set as Grizabella. I will always be eternally grateful to Andrew, Trevor, John and Gillian for the opportunity to work with and learn from them. The show deserves to live “Now and Forever.”

What version of “Memory”—other than your own—do you admire?
BB: I'm not really that familiar with other ladies’ versions. I liked Diane Frantantoni's version. She was my standby when I did the show. And, I also liked hearing Loni Ackerman’s version when she went on.

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Elaine Paige
Olivier winner Paige created the role in the original 1981 London production

Elaine Paige as Grizabella, the Glamour Cat.
Elaine Paige as Grizabella, the Glamour Cat. Photo by Photo by Polygram Visual Productions

How long did it take you to get into full Grizabella makeup each night?
EP: Grizabella is played as a kitten in the first scene and then as the old bedraggled glamour cat. Both makeups were by the costume and makeup designer John Napier. The younger makeup for the first scene took the most time, about an hour, because it was more defined and precise with stronger colors—the pouting red ruby lips were clean and distinct. And then for older Grizabella, I would basically smudge the entire makeup, pulling down one corner of the red of the lips, darkening under the eyes, fading down the color and adding lines and furrows to make her look older, bedraggled and careworn. The beauty spot was something I suggested to John as I thought it was a witty human touch to suggest a femme fatale—a small reminder of her past glamour. On with the wig and voila!

What is the pressure/challenge like of having to deliver “Memory,” the vocally demanding song everyone waits for all evening?
EP: Originally singing “Memory” was a feat of memory! Each night during previews I had to grapple with a different lyric. Tim Rice, Don Black, Richard Stilgoe all tried their hand until Trevor Nunn’s original lyric, inspired by lines from T. S. Eliot’s “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” prevailed. “Memory” is the climatic 11 o’clock number. It’s a long lonely wait to perform it. The pressure builds as you’ve only one moment to shine. I needn’t have worried; “Memory” always brought the house down. Since then I’m told more than 150 artists have recorded it, but as the original Grizabella I’m possessive, and I still see it as my signature.

Was there any one performance of “Memory” that stands out in your mind as your best ever?
EP: Fourteen years later, in 1995, I was asked to perform at the Royal Albert Hall, in London, to celebrate Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 50th birthday, and it was to be filmed. I had a gown designed especially for the occasion, and disastrously it didn’t arrive until minutes before I had to walk onstage. I was literally sewn into the dress whilst waiting in the wings. My heart was thumping in my chest, no time to compose myself. The sheer fear and panic caused me to sing out of my skin! It’s a performance I will never ever forget.

What was the most memorable onstage Cats mishap—either your own or by a fellow cast member?
EP: The mishap I remember, one particular night, was my ascent to the Heaviside Layer. It started as normal, standing with Deuteronomy on the enormous tire. As it rose, the trouble began. Dry ice mixed with excess smoke from a faulty machine swirled continuously around us like a thick London fog. I couldn’t see my “paw” in front of my face. Precariously and with as much dignity as I could muster, I mounted the narrow “stairway to heaven.” Each step less than the width of my tiny feet became more and more indistinguishable. Normally waiting at the top, out of sight, would be the stage manager to offer out his hand, but I couldn’t see him either. Only disaster beckoned! I missed my footing on the top step and was about to plunge more than 30 feet when suddenly from nowhere, as if by magic, his hand appeared, grabbed me and winched me from certain death onto the gantry. It’s true a cat does have nine lives—I certainly used up one that night!

Why do you think the musical has endured?
EP: It’s endured because of the original concept and design. It’s a spectacle of costumes, scenery and choreography—something the like of which had never been seen on stage before. Completely unique. It changed the face of musical theatre. It’s purr-fect!

What version of “Memory”—other than your own — do you admire?
EP: As I said earlier, with well over 150 versions of “Memory” out there, it would be a difficult choice, and having sung it over a thousand times myself, it would be a busman’s holiday. Taxi!

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Gay Marshall
Played the role in the original Paris production of Cats—in French—at the Théâtre de Paris

Gay Marshall
Gay Marshall

How long did it take you to get into full Grizabella makeup each night?
GM: At first, the makeup was a bit daunting because all I really wanted to do before the show was sing and do a serious dance warm-up for the opening number. There were three layers of greasepaint, which were two shades of gray and one white, which were pretty straightforward, but then the challenge was to get the elaborate eyebrows identical. If I had to erase one and start over, I had to redo the background as well. I finally got into it, and as I played the role for a year, got more efficient at it, but in the beginning it took about 40 minutes!

What is the pressure/challenge like of having to deliver “Memory,” the vocally demanding song everyone waits for all evening?
GM: Ho boy! The pressure was pretty intense. I mean you're backstage for what feels like and actually is hours before the song. I wish I could say I read a book—or wrote one—or did something totally unconnected with the show. But no. I basically stayed in my dressing room trying to stay focused on the role, and I worried a lot—I'm big on worry. I figure if I don't suffer horribly before a show, I'll suffer horribly during it! The challenge for me was more of an acting one rather than a vocal one because Griz's desperation and loneliness has to ring true or it's going to let everyone down.

Was there any one performance of “Memory” that stands out in your mind as your best ever?
GM: There are two performances which particularly stand out in my mind—not because of the way I sang but because of where they took place. The first was singing “Memory” in the beautiful glass pyramid in the Louvre. It was thrilling to look up and see the stars and actually feel as though I was outside wailing at the moon. The second was being invited to sing at the French Tony Awards, which they call the Molières. It was a great honor, and we won! As luck would have it, I think I sang better in the rehearsal!! Then they asked me back to sing it again the next year when Cats wasn't in the running, and I got to present the award for Best Musical as well.

What was the most memorable onstage Cats mishap—either your own or by a fellow cast member?
GM: The funniest mishap that comes to mind—which has probably occurred in every production—is when Griz climbs on that tire at the end of the show with Mathusalem to ascend to the heavens in a huge puff of smoke and nothing happens. No smoke; no ascension. The tire just sits there, and you try to look serene and not burst out laughing while looking at a bunch of cats—who have their backs to the audience—who are completely cracking up!

Why do you think the musical has endured?
GM: I really couldn’t say what makes Cats such a wild success. Maybe cause everyone loves actual cats? The costumes and decor were pretty great, and although I loved being in it, and my castmates became dear, dear friends, I have to admit I wasn’t crazy about the show when I saw it. Which brings me to the answer to your next question...

What version of “Memory”—other than your own—do you admire?
GM: The only thing I really thought was spectacular was listening to Laurie Beechman sing “Memory”—blew me right out of my chair! She was thrilling. Worth the three-hour wait!!!

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Lea Salonga
Tony winner Salonga played the role in 2010 in Manila as part of the show’s Asian tour.

Lea Salonga_.jpg
Lea Salonga

How long did it take you to get into full Grizabella makeup each night?
LS: I didn’t have a lot of time to actually get into Griz makeup from my ensemble makeup. In this production, Griz had to dance the “Jellicle Ball“ as part of the ensemble, which means a super-short prep time to get into the iconic Griz getup.

What is the pressure/challenge like of having to deliver “Memory,” the vocally demanding song everyone waits for all evening?
LS: It’s worse than anything!!! It’s much easier being onstage for a longer period of time. Waiting for the entire second act for that one song meant staying warm while the rest of the show was happening. Tough. So tough.

Was there any one performance of “Memory” that stands out in your mind as your best ever?
LS: Maybe the first time I got the song right?! It took my voice about two weeks to really fit into that score. And once I got it, I was able to be consistent with it.

What was the most memorable onstage Cats mishap—either your own or by a fellow cast member?
LS: I don’t really remember anything that stands out. But one thing I do recall is at the end of the first act, after all the cats have finished dancing this really demanding number, everyone laid out on the floor, breathing heavily, exhausted. One thing is for sure: Those swings will be on all the bleeping time!

Why do you think the musical has endured?
LS: Who doesn’t like seeing a bunch of incredible dancers (who can also act and sing) pretend to be cats?!? It’s fun!!! It’s a testament to the music, design, direction and choreography.

What version of “Memory”—other than your own—do you admire?
LS: Betty Buckley’s for sure. Hers was the first one I saw on TV and, man, I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. Wow.

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Linda Balgord
Balgord played the role for the final two years of the original Broadway run

Linda Balgord sings
Linda Balgord sings "Memory" as Grizabella. Photo by Photo by Carol Rosegg

How long did it take you to get into full Grizabella makeup each night?
LB: It took me 30 minutes to get into makeup and hair.

What is the pressure/challenge like of having to deliver “Memory,” the vocally demanding song everyone waits for all evening?
LB: I always tried to approach singing “Memory” through the story. Grizabella is desperate to be taken back into her tribe. There is great pressure to deliver the song, but I tried to manage it by staying with Grizabella’s communication of her story and her need.

Was there any one performance of “Memory” that stands out in your mind as your best ever?
LB: I’m not sure it was my best performance, but the most memorable was certainly the closing performance! Everyone was there.

What was the most memorable onstage Cats mishap—either your own or by a fellow cast member?
LB: One evening the mechanical arm that took me up to the “Heavyside Layer” did not go up into the cat-walk. I had to get back on the tire with Old Deuteronomy.

Why do you think the musical has endured?
LB: I think Cats endures because it is a unique theatrical experience with universal appeal.

What version of “Memory”—other than your own—do you admire?
LB: I love Barbra Streisand’s recording of “Memory,” but I must say that I admire all the women of the theatre who performed it lovingly, eight times a week!

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Liz Callaway
First played the role for three months in 1992 when Laurie Beechman was married and then played the part on and off from 1993-1998 in the original Broadway production

Liz-Callaway 1.jpg
Liz Callaway Martha Swope

How long did it take you to get into full Grizabella makeup each night?
LC: At the beginning it took about an hour. Then one Sunday afternoon I got stuck in traffic and arrived at the theatre 20 minutes before curtain. I discovered I could do my makeup in ten minutes! It actually looked better when I wasn’t being so painstakingly precise!

What is the pressure/challenge like of having to deliver “Memory,” the vocally demanding song everyone waits for all evening?
LC: I don’t think I felt pressure, per se, but felt it was a privilege that I got to sing this incredible song each night. That said, if I had a cold or was sick, I did stress out a bit about nailing “Touch Me…” to the end of the song. Fortunately, I never had any big vocal mishaps!

Was there any one performance of “Memory” that stands out in your mind as your best ever?
LC: I try not to judge my performances, so I couldn’t say… But I can tell you one of my favorite experiences singing “Memory” was when I did an outdoor symphony concert of the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber in Estonia for 40,000 people. Was a real thrill.

What was the most memorable onstage Cats mishap—either your own or by a fellow cast member?
LC: Hmmmm. Here’s one that comes to mind. I had a lot of offstage time in Cats, and I love to cook, so I decided I would use some of that time to prep some vegetables for a dinner party I was having. I brought a chopping board, knife and ingredients to the theatre, and during Act II, I diced a mirepoix of onions, carrots and celery. When it came time to sing “Memory,” I washed my hands, put on my Griz gloves and made my entrance. What I didn’t realize at the time was how you can’t get the smell of onions off your hands with soap and water, so I totally reeked of onions. I was mortified. My fellow felines didn’t miss a beat, and sniffed me with great disdain. For that one performance I was Grizabella the Salad Cat. I learned my lesson, and from then on I only prepped mushrooms and other non-odorous vegetables!

Why do you think the musical has endured?
LC: Cats is timeless theatre. Let’s start with the music: It’s a great score. The show has incredible dancing and great storytelling. It appeals to all ages, and is even language proof. And, finally, everyone likes to root for the underdog, even when she’s a cat.

What version of “Memory”—other than your own—do you admire?
LC: That’s hard because I admire so many: Betty, Laurie, Barbra Streisand…. If I had to pick one, it might be Elaine Paige’s, because the first time I heard the song, it was her rendition on the cast album. You always remember your first...

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Loni Ackerman
Played the role on Broadway from 1988-1991

Loni-Ackerman.jpg
Loni Ackerman Martha Swope Associates/Carol Rosegg

How long did it take you to get into full Grizabella makeup each night?
LA: I got it down to ten minutes!!

What is the pressure/challenge like of having to deliver “Memory,” the vocally demanding song everyone waits for all evening?
LA: Waiting all evening, praying that the Goddess of Phlegm will not make a guest appearance!

Was there any one performance of “Memory” that stands out in your mind as your best ever?
LA: No..I’m still working on it!

What was the most memorable onstage Cats mishap—either your own or by a fellow cast member?
LA: Well…at the end of the show, the cast danced “happily” around the stage. The Macavity cat and I took to doing the jitterbug (much to the stage manager’s horror!). One matinee we jitterbugged so hard, we fell off the stage into a nice elderly lady’s lap. She thought it was great fun…we got into deep litterbox s***!!!!!!

Why do you think the musical has endured?
LA: I’'s Cats!

What version of “Memory”—other than your own—do you admire?
LA: Laurie Beechman. The cry in her voice was haunting…I miss her.

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Stephanie J. Block
The Tony nominee played the role at the St. Louis MUNY in the summer of 2010.

Stephanie J. Block
Stephanie J. Block Photo by Larry Pry/The Muny

How long did it take you to get into full Grizabella makeup each night?
SJB: I was included in the opening number, so my makeup application started early (waaaay before half hour) as I started out as “general dancer kitty” before becoming Griz. With rehearsals being less than a two-week process, the design and tutorial for Cats makeup was a bit fast and furious. I did the best I could, but I was very grateful the MUNY is an 11,000-seat venue so no one could see my kitty marks too closely.

What is the pressure/challenge like of having to deliver “Memory,” the vocally demanding song everyone waits for all evening?
SJB: Oddly, I didn’t feel pressure, per say, to deliver the song. “Memory” is one of the crown jeweled songs in the belter song book, and I relished all eight chances to perform it... Live it, really.

Was there any one performance of “Memory” that stands out in your mind as your best ever?
SJB: Now, performing this particular show under an open sky allowed for nature to serve up the perfect Jellicle moon. To sing “Memory” under a moody sky... It felt magical.

What was the most memorable onstage Cats mishap—either your own or by a fellow cast member?
SJB: Mishaps??? Hmmmm... Well, this isn’t a mishap, but we were the sweatiest cast to perform Cats ever. It was outdoors, in July, in Missouri. You can only imagine how wet this litter was.

What version of “Memory”—other than your own—do you admire?
SJB: When I think of “Memory,” I always hear the glorious Betty Buckley in my head.

Well, that’s all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

Senior editor Andrew Gans also pens the weekly Their Favorite Things.