Andrew Lloyd Webber is known worldwide for his massively successful musicals. Shows like Jesus Christ Superstar, Phantom of the Opera, Joseph & The Amazing Technicolor Coat, and Sunset Boulevard, to name a few, made him a household name everywhere. One particular show though has enchanted audiences with its peculiar theme and aesthetic… CATS. This musical (yes, about cats), based on the popular collection of poetry Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot, whimsically presents the story of a tribe of cats, named the Jellicles, and their celebration to crown the most deserving feline to ascend to Heaviside Layer, which is their version of Heaven, and gain a new reborn life. This show opened in 1981 in London, followed by New York in 1982, and went on to become a huge hit. To this date, it is Broadway’s 4th longest running show in history, and the West End’s 7th.
One of the aspects that was most impactful and iconic about the popular musical were the majestic hair and makeup these characters depicted. I mean, who hasn’t thought about being Grizabella for Halloween while blasting “Memory” on repeat through a boombox? It has certainly crossed my Theatre Queen mind once or twice.
We chatted with Gabe Nunez, a San Diego native artist, who is responsible for making sure each performer’s makeup and hair is up to the high standard required by the touring show’s creative team. “This year we have 36 cast members, including our swings”, he mentions.
The record-breaking musical has reached audiences in over 30 countries and has been translated to 15 languages, being enjoyed by over 75 million people around the globe. This specific tour features new sound design (Mick Potter), direction (Trevor Nunn), and choreography (Andy Blankenbuehler), breathing new life and energy to the production.
“I started on CATS when it was in San Diego last. I was a local on the show and they were looking for a new assistant. My friend, who was a supervisor there, asked if I’d be interested in interviewing for this. I said “sure!”, and I was offered the job opening night of the show in San Diego. So I packed everything, and a week after that joined the tour.” explained Nunez, who was originally planning to study Production Management in College, but stumbled upon make-up and fell in love with the art form.
“I’m with the actors from the moment they start rehearsals, until they finish the tour.” Gabe also mentions that his favorite part of the process is getting the cast comfortable in this vulnerable situation where a show requires them to be artistic with their hand, as far as doing intricate make-up, something uncommon for most productions. Every single cast member gets to be in the makeup and hair chairs everyday. This undoubtedly builds a bond between the cast and makeup artists. “When a cast member runs into my room in a robe and screams “Look at my make-up!”. When they’re proud to show me their hard work, which happens at very different times in the process for each actor, I feel like I’ve done my job.” Gabe describes this as the most rewarding element of his job.
Having worked in multiple productions all over Southern California, Gabe recalls his proudest moment to date, when he was part of the Sweeney Todd production team at The Moonlight in Vista, CA, where he still assists the team when he’s not on tour.
“I got to do the Beggar Woman’s makeup, and I remember standing out in the back of the theater during lighting tech. I saw it, and got goosebumps. Steve Glaudini (Artistic Director and Producer for Moonlight Stage) walked by me and patted me on the back in approval. It was that weird moment of knowing that this is what I’m meant to be doing”, says Nunez.
The artist hopes to break the stigma in Theatre that the wardrobe and wig & make-up departments have less work than other members of the production team. The multiple wigs and costumes need extensive upkeep and laundering before and after every single performance. On top of that, the team needs to constantly guide the cast through achieving the very specific aesthetic of each character in the show, from head to toe. No easy task!
As a member of the LGBTQ community, Gabe recommends to up and coming make-up artists in the community to reach out to professionals in the industry for help and guidance, without fear of being turned away. Fostering the new generation of artists is a cause dear to his heart, as a natural born teacher. When asked to give a message to the local community, Gabe comments, “Go see more Theatre, it changed my life, as well as so many others’. We’re doing great work here in San Diego, so go enjoy it!”.
Whether you are on #TeamCatsFur-ever or not a fan of the feline fest, there’s no denying that CATS the musical brings impressively talented artists (on and off the stage) to create a whimsical Jellicle Ball of meow-nificent proportions for audiences of all ages. In the words of another diva of stage and screen… PAWS UP!
CATS The Musical is presented by Broadway San Diego with performances September 27 through October 2 at the Civic Center in Downtown San Diego. Tickets and info: https://www.broadwaysd.com/upcoming-events/cats-2022/
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