By Maya Haridas, from En Avant Magazine March-April 2023
Lesli Wiesner is a ballet dancer, teacher and musical theatre artist. She was interviewed by Maya Haridas in En Avant Magazine ahead of the Cats Summer Program this year. The abridged version of the interview can be found in the magazine, and below is the full interview with Lesli.
Please share a brief summary of your dance education and career.
I’ve danced ballet my whole life. I was dancing with the Los Angeles Ballet, and then I came to Europe and was with the Ballet de Monte Carlo and Zurich Ballet. After Zurich Ballet was my first musical experience – I did Phantom of the Opera in Hamburg. I was one of the ballet girls and assistant Dance Captain (click here to find out what a Dance Captain is). It was a very good job and it was a great stepping stone because The Phantom of the Opera is all ballet for the dancers. I loved musicals, but I just had never followed that line because of my classical career.
When Cats was coming to Zurich, I was already missing the city. I thought if I get the job, I’ll go back there and do Cats. I got the job as Cassandra (who’s Cassandra? Click here to find out) and as Dance Captain.
I had never seen Cats, but what I had heard was a lot of horror stories about how badly dancers could get injured. I always laugh to this day, because in the beginning I said, ‘I will never, ever, ever, ever do Cats’. Then the opportunity came and I thought, ‘well, for six months I can manage’. I fell in love with the show because I realised I would do things on stage in Cats as an animal that I would never have done in pointe shoes.
How did you get to know about the audition for Cats?
It was posted on a noticeboard – being in the theatre in Hamburg for Phantom of the Opera, you just saw different audition notices being posted regularly. I saw Cats was going to Zurich and I thought ‘I could do it for six months if I got the job’, and that’s all I was expecting. So I went and in the beginning I ended up getting the job of Dance Captain as well as cover for Cassandra, Victoria, and Tantomile(an artist who covers for first cast members if something comes up). After the first six months, when the show got extended, I took over the first cast of Cassandra. Overall, counting Zurich and the Euro Tour, I was in Cats for over four years! I thought it was going to be for just six months.
What was the the audition process like?
It was in a concert hall, so it wasn’t a real studio or stage. It was very slippery and quite small. We were doing a lot of choreographies and after that we had to sing. I got a call back and they told me that the next day they wanted me to come ‘looking very elegant’ because they were going to see me for the role of Cassandra. I had to go back and sing again, and I am not a singer. I can carry a tune though and I’m not afraid to sing now.
I don’t remember the first song I sang for the audition for Cats. They wanted us to sing the same song in different styles and because we weren’t singers, they weren’t asking us to bring different songs. They asked us to sing something simple like Happy Birthday (but not actually that song). They would said sing the song like a ballad, then sing it upbeat, sing it dramatic, that kind of thing. They wanted to see different qualities of your acting.
Once you started rehearsals, what was that process like, learning to be like a cat?
For the first six weeks we rehearsed in a town outside Zurich and every day, we would do half an hour of just improvisation of being a cat. At first we did it with our eyes closed, and the director would give different instructions, like you’re waking up, you’re going to eat or something like that. We did it with our eyes closed so that we weren’t nervous or feeling silly. Once we got used to that, then we opened our eyes, and we started moving around the space. You had to stand up and still create the same feelings.
We had dance rehearsals where we just danced and we had singing rehearsals where we just sang. At one point we put them together and I always laugh because that first time the dancers couldn’t dance and the singers couldn’t sing. There was such confusion, but very quickly it all fell into place.
What were the rest of the cast members like and where were they from?
We had the most fantastic opening cast ever. There were 22 cats in the show and 17 of those 22 cats had done the show already – some of them had done it two or three times with our director. Then there were 10 covers plus me. There were about four of us who had never done the show before.
We were all coming from all over the world – England, the United States, Sweden… we also had a few Swiss in the beginning. Many were Americans, Australians or British, because at that time the musical scene in Europe was not as strong as it is now. They had bring in more foreigners for the shows. It was great. We had such a high quality cast of lovely people.
In rehearsal, the people that had done the show never once gave you the feeling that they already knew it. Do you know what I mean? We all learned it together. It was so cool. They were just able to help make the show go faster.
I was Dance Captain so I was trying to learn the entire show. Sometimes we would be sitting there in a small scene and because most of the people knew the show, they could take the new people through that scene. So the scene would run and I would go huh? When did we do this scene? It was a great experience with people. Really, really nice, very supportive.
Could you tell me a bit about being Dance Captain?
Dance Captain, for me, is a dream job because Dance Captain is like a ballet mistress or ballet master. You are teaching the show to new people. You are teaching people if they have to cover a role. You’re watching the show, you’re taking notes, you have rehearsals to clean the show. You’re taking care of the show. Dance Captain in Cats is quite challenging because you’ve got everything to take care of. In Phantom, the Dance Captain is part of the show. You have a separate resident director who takes care of a lot of the details. The Dance Captain takes care of just the dance part. In Cats, on the other hand, you’re doing everything. I loved it. In the beginning I was just Dance Captain and covering, but then after six months, I was Dance Captain and Cassandra. I would always dance 5 shows a week and watch 3. There were 8 shows every week. This was the absolute dream job because I got to do everything I love. I love to teach, I love to know the show inside out and I love to perform.
A bit about finding your character: how did you get into Cassandra?
This was so cool. One: you would just think about being a cat. Two: you would watch cats. I had two cats at the time. I had brought them with me from California, they were sisters and they were part Siamese. One of the cats, she was like a Rumple Teaser – she was a tough little cookie and her name was Glitter. Her sister Sparkle was my example for both Cassandra and Victoria. She had sides where she could be terribly elegant and then also very playful – like Victoria.
Normally Victoria is played by a small girl because Victoria is supposed to be a kitten. As I’m tall, I couldn’t be a kitten, so my director made my character more of a young woman. So I was able to take both my characters off my cat Sparkle.
We’d find we all had stories of funny cat things happening outside the show. I’d be sitting on the tram and all of a sudden I would do a cat movement, scratch my ear or sniff! And then I’d look around and go, ‘oh my goodness, I’m in public’. It was so funny. You just kept searching for different things that you saw cats do, and try to do them. That was what made the show so fun – you would constantly do these things on stage too. Once you had your part in place, you never stopped. You were always searching for more, trying new things out every day.
What was it like to learn to dance like a cat and where did your ballet and other training support or constrict you?
Ballet did not constrict at all. You use every ounce of your ballet or jazz or contemporary technique – you just are doing it as an animal. You still have to do the steps properly. It was all of the in-between things that you could improvise and change. Your intention was not that you were in a jazz piece or a ballet. You didn’t dance anything strictly classical. Victoria has a very classical solo in the beginning, but it has a lot of cat things as well, so you just used every ounce of technique to make it work. There was no dancing en pointe though.
Had you learned singing before you got into musical theatre?
No, I was not a singer. I don’t think I had any singing lessons, even as a kid. I could carry a tune. In the musicals, when you’re in a dancing role, they are not usually looking for a strong singer. All you need to be able to do generally is fit in with the rest of the ensemble.
In Cats we had a vocal warmup every day, and we had a ballet warmup every day. For example, the first day I would give half an hour ballet, and then another colleague gave a 45 minute mini jazz class, and then another colleague would give a 15 minute vocal warmup. The next day I would do a 45 minute mini class, and my colleague would do a half hour jazz warmup, and the we did the 15 minute vocal warm up. In the vocal warmup, he was always giving us a mini class, so he was giving us useful information along the way.
Doing the show every night started to strengthen my voice. Being Dance Captain, I had to sing all the time. By not being afraid to sing, my voice has gotten stronger and stronger. After my performing career I also took private singing lessons, just for my own enjoyment, when I was teaching and not dancing anymore.
Tell me about the first time you went on stage? How did that happen?
The first time I got called on stage as a cover, I never actually got to the stage. I was in the audience watching and they came and got me and they said, ‘Lesli, you might have to go on’. Laura, the girl who was Cassandra at the time, had hurt her foot. So I go back and I start to put my makeup on. My hand is shaking like crazy. They come back and they say to me, ‘how long do you think it’ll take you to be ready?’ And I said, ‘your guess is this good mine!’ The last time I had done my makeup, it had taken me an hour and a half, but I was ready and dressed in 20 minutes. I could have gone on, but I didn’t have to that day because she was okay. The next time I was called, I was pulled out of rehearsal and I had to go. By now I had practised all my makeup – I still wasn’t really quick, but quick enough to run on at the very last minute. So the first time that I performed Cats was unexpected. As I was out there, not one word came out except my first line, because it had to – I was so nervous. I was shocked because I had done all the preparation! There was a part in the Jellicle Ball that’s called the jitters, where you’ve got four different groups doing little bits of choreography. The group in the middle would roll up and shake, shake, shake, shake, roll up and shake, shake, shake, shake – there were four sets of that. I was so nervous that I went out and started doing it double time! There are only four and I’m getting to five and I thought ‘Shoot. I’m going too fast.’ I must have looked like a crazy woman out there. I think I was center stage, so maybe it worked…
I was nervous that first time, but it was also really fun. It was exciting. The first few times were nerve wracking though, I must say.
What’s your favourite song?
Oh, I don’t have a favourite. I love them all. I really love them all because they each bring a different memory. Every time you sing one of them, it brings back such memories of the show. If I had to pick a favourite it might be Macavity the Mystery Cat.
Which cat did you feel the audience connected with the most?
I think they connected with everybody, to be honest, but I think they loved Rum Tum Tugger. He was the coolest and the Tugger that we had during the beginning of our show was just amazing. He was so handsome. In the makeup you could see he was so friendly, he was just perfect. It’s such a phenomenon to watch people become animals on stage, so I think it depended, but Tugger was probably the biggest favourite, and maybe Mr. Mistofellees.
Choreography wise, was there any character that you found really fun to dance?
Victoria had her solo, which I loved. She also had a few lifts and things in the ball, which was really fun. I had a great partner for that when I did the role of Victoria. It was lovely to dance that role, but Cassandra was more my kind of my personality as a ballet dancer. Victoria was more me as in person. Tantomille was also fun. She was part of a duo of twins, Tantomile and Coricopat. That was fun to do because they were mysterious.
What was it like dancing in the costume, wig and everything?
It was great. It was really fun having the tail and being in the costume and the makeup. You could hide behind being a cat. You went out into the audience and you could get right up close to people. The idea was that we were supposed to make them uncomfortable. You could do anything as a cat because you were covered by this mask of the makeup, even though it was still you inside. It was fantastic.
How were the quick changes?
Everything was set up on the side. They had people backstage to help you and as long as you knew where everything was you were fine .You had your catsuit underneath still, so it was just putting stuff on over. The Pekes and Pollicles were not too complicated, except for a couple of dancers who had to go and get big shoes to wear on their heads.
And what was the opening night like?
Exciting. I didn’t dance on the opening night because I didn’t do the first cast for the first six months, but I was there watching of course, as Dance Captain. It was great.
In Zurich, we did the show in English and in German. So we rehearsed for six weeks in German and we opened the show in German. Then when we had started the show, we rehearsed every day in English. After about six weeks, we started to do the show in different languages every other day. So the odd days were German, the first, the third, the fifth, and the even days were English.
The hardest part was when you came up to the 31st and 1st of the month and had to sing twice in German. Then it was so nerve-wracking. In fact, there were songs that started with the same word, no matter the language, like Gus! the Theatre Cat, or Gus! der Theater-Katze. We had to make sure we were in the right language, so every day we would sing the opening number together in the dressing room in the language we were performing in. In the beginning it was quite stressful for us to change languages and we had a couple of instances of confusion. Once I was on stage as Cassandra and Munkustrap came in and he started singing and everyone around me started getting kind of giggly and I was getting so annoyed as Dance Captain, I was like, ‘what is going on!?’. Switching languages was so normal to me at this point, I didn’t even hear that he had started in the wrong language and he was singing the first verse in German! Tugger came in and took it back into English. It was so funny.
We were in Zurich for two and a half years, and then we went on a Euro tour. When we were in Strasbourg in France, the show was sold in English, but Strasbourg is right on the border between France and Germany. We started the show in English and all of a sudden the French house people came running back and said the show’s been sold in German. You have to sing in German. As I was Dance Captain, I went around to everybody – ‘next entrance is German, we sing German!’ The next entrance, everyone changed language, it was like turning the record over. Our director was in the audience and didn’t know anything about it, and he said, ‘oh dear, something’s happened!’ But it was the coolest feeling and nobody was stressed. We just simply changed languages.
Where did you perform on the tour? And did audience reactions vary from place to place?
We were in Zurich in our own theatre for two and a half years, and after that we went to Basel for three months, and then we went on a Euro tour and on that, we were in a city for four to six weeks, sometimes longer. We went to Geneva, Graz, Lausanne, Bregenz, Bern, Milan, Strasbourg, Klagenfurt. When I had left the show for Phantom of the Opera in Basel, they also went to Vienna.
The audience reactions didn’t really vary much. They loved it everywhere and what was really cool was that the show was sung in German and in English. That gave opportunities for even more people to come and for some to come multiple times, too.
What was the funniest thing that happened during the run of the show?
Oh my God. There were thousands of funny things. I can’t think now what the very funniest thing was… Oh, oh, oh, oh! I do have the funniest thing.
So we had a few people that were called ‘super swings’, and they covered about six roles. We had one guy, Nick Boland, and he was the best. Sometimes he could only remember what part he was playing by looking at his costume! Well, in the pirate scene, we were the Siamese cats. In the choreography, we all went shuffling fast to stage right, but he went to the left. Then he realised, he looked over and came running back to us, but we were already moving to the next position! It went on and on. It was like a Pacman show! I think this was one of the funniest big things that happened. There were always small little things that could happen that maybe nobody really saw. But this was a big one!
Are you actually a cat or a dog person?
I’m both. I grew up as a dog person. I had dogs as a kid. When I moved out and had an apartment, I got a rabbit. I thought I would like to get a cat because I had read or heard that a kitten can be a very good friend for a rabbit. So I started looking for a kitten to adopt. A colleague said, ‘Oh, there are some kittens available if you want to take a look’ and I went with my boyfriend at the time and there were two little kittens left. They were sisters. There was no deciding between them, so my boyfriend said, ‘Well, two cats aren’t any harder to take care of than one.’ So I came home with two kittens that day. They were so small, they sat in my hand. I became a cat person after that. When I came to Zurich, I couldn’t bring my rabbit with me, so I gave the rabbit to my sister, and I took the cats with me.
I am basically an animal person. The reason I was not a cat person in the beginning was because I was always afraid at the prospect of a cat being outside. I never thought I could open the door and let my animal out. That made no sense. I always wanted them as indoor animals. In the apartment that I had when I had my kittens, it wasn’t possible to have outdoor cats because I lived on a very busy street.
Then I did Cats the musical. I loved it. I became a complete cat person. Both my cats passed away at 17 – they lived a long, long life.
Here in Switzerland, in our current apartment, a little cat has adopted our apartment house. We don’t know where she came from. We have eight apartments in the house and she would visit all of us. Eventually the cat lived with the original neighbour, a mutual friend living underneath, and us. When the neighbours moved out she became our cat. She was my third cat and already an outdoor cat, so I had no fear about her because she was so savvy. After she passed away, it was not possible to have another cat, because my guy believes cats should be outdoor cats. I do too. But I would never trust myself to do that the right way. I don’t have an animal now, but I love cats and animals in general.
Could you tell me a bit about the special effects in the show?
They had little fireworks set up for Mr. Mistofellees, and he had a rope that he came down on. In the beginning when we were in our own theatre in Zurich we had a thing with the Rumpus Cat, where he would spring from the bottom of the stage. We kept that all through Zurich. The Rumpus Cats didn’t like it very much.
Nothing was like it was in Phantom of the Opera though. Phantom was a high tech special effect thing – Cats was not. There were a few things – the tire goes up, a walkway comes down for Grizabella. In Phantom the special effects were crazy. We had to really learn backstage choreography because you’d get killed backstage if you were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
And did you go on to do more musical theatre?
Well, I did another production of Phantom of the Opera after Cats. That show closed rather abruptly, and at that point there was nothing in Switzerland that was of the quality that I was interested in. I was in my relationship and everything was set, and the only choice I would’ve had would be to go off somewhere and look for a job. I didn’t want to do that at that point. I would’ve definitely continued, but I wanted to stay in the area. I’d almost retired, but I did do one more tour after that, A European tour of Jesus Christ Superstar where I also assisted the choreographer. It was just a six month tour, but it was a lot of fun.
Do you still go to see musical theatre?
I try to as much as I can, but I’m quite busy teaching and I have a lot of evening classes, which makes it hard to get to the theatre. I still do musical workshops when I’m asked or when I can, and I base them on the original choreography.
I’m also working with Stephan Lambiel, our Swiss Ice Skating Champion. You can Google him. He’s a beautiful skater. I also teach ballet and Pilates for the ice skating school in Champagne. In the summer we do a two week camp, and I do an off-ice components class, which is musical. I always put together a musical piece for the skaters. So I am staying active in the field. I did an amateur production of The Sound of Music a few years back with a few professional people. Whenever I’m asked to do something, I will still do it, but I don’t actively search because I’m quite busy. But I love it. I love musicals to this day, and ballet. I mean dance is dance. I love it.
Having actually been in Cats, what do you think makes it such a phenomenal and well loved show?
You’re seeing people on stage trying to be an animals! And when the cast is very good, as in very good at remaining cats not just when they were in the spotlight, but on the side as well.
Also because Andrew Lloyd Webber had the band backstage because he didn’t want the public to be able to see people next to the cats. In fact, the band never even came on stage for a bow in the original versions. It was fantasy and fun and everybody always brought their own personality to the choreography, and that’s what made the show really come alive.
Please could you give us a few tips for our students who are taking part in the CATS summer school for how they can get the most out of the experience.
It is a great opportunity for kids to have fun and explore. If you’re going to try to be a cat, the most important thing to get the best experience is to be willing, willing, willing, willing to explore and to really try. Watch a lot of cats to prepare, and don’t just do typical cat things. You can’t just go Meow! It’s more than that. There was only one place in the show where we were allowed to make a cat noise. A Meow or a Rawr! The rest, it had to be done with energy in movement.
A little vocal preparation can help, too. Even just la la la la la la la la la or humming. Humming is very good. Warm up dance wise a lot, because you’re putting yourself into very, very strange positions as a cat.
Just have fun and be magical. Be magical.