Tyler Hanes, Broadway’s Rum Tum Tugger, talks Cats, theatre outside of New York & The Ensemblist

Tyler Hanes is currently starring as Rum Tum Tugger in the wildly successful revival of Cats, the ninth Broadway show on a resume which includes A Chorus Line, Hairspray, and The Boy From Oz. He’s also featured on the new season of The Ensemblist podcast and we talked about everything from the stamina required to play such a ‘curious cat’ to the joys of theatre outside the “Broadway” umbrella.

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Take me back to the opening night of Cats. How did that feel taking the stage?

Opening nights are always such a mixed bag of emotions. You’ve been working on this project for so long and putting everything you’ve got into it so it’s a great celebration of everyone’s hard work. With something like Cats, since it was such a highly anticipated revival, being a part of this legacy and opening the show was thrilling. It was so much fun and by the end of it, we were exhausted.

Of all the preconceptions you may have had about being a part of Cats, what surprised you the most when you began performing the show in front of an audience?

There are people who have been following this show forever and it means so much to them. In the show, my character enters at the top of act one and at our first preview, when I entered, I got a big applause. I’ve never experienced anything like that so at first I was confused. Rum Tum Tugger represents something to so many people who have a history with this show so it was cool to step into that legacy.

Let’s talk about that legacy. Cats is such a part of the public’s idea of Broadway. Did you feel a sense of responsibility to the legacy that came before you?

It’s interesting because I didn’t initially. It wasn’t until after we opened that I started to feel that. I’ve done a lot of revivals and in doing them, you want to honor the material and the character but put your spin on it. When I got cast as Tugger, I was so excited and then I was so scared because I knew this was an iconic role. I didn’t want to compare myself to what had come before me, but just be truthful to the character. When I began interacting with fans at the stage door and hearing their stories about their connection to this show, I saw that I have a responsibility to them.

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It’s true you’ve done a lot of high profile revivals. I loved On The Town. Sweet Charity was another big one and I still remember seeing the picture of you in Vanity Fair as a part of A Chorus Line. In your opinion, what’s the continued appeal of revivals?

With a revival, the ones I’ve been a part of, something like Cats or A Chorus Line, the message is still relevant. That’s why people want to revive shows from the past; the messages are still there. There are certain revivals that have been fresh takes and some that stick with the original that worked so well. With Cats, it was the best of both. This show honors the original production and Gillian Lynne’s work, and Trevor Nunn is directing as he did before. Obviously the sets and costumes are basically the same too, but with Andy Blankenbuehler on board, the storytelling is different now. Audiences move quicker and we have to move things along faster to keep them on their toes. Andy did such a good job with the storytelling and updating it with his vocabulary of dance.

Of course Cats is dance, dance and more dance. How do you stay healthy and keep your body healthy to do this show eight times a week?

Something like Cats is a lifestyle. I’ve never had a show like this where so much of my time outside the theater is devoted to physical therapy, acupuncture, and a lot of sleep. We are athletes and this is such an athletic show, so we have to stay on top of it and maintain in order to put the best product out there.

I want to go back to A Chorus Line but in regard to the gap between being on Broadway in A Chorus Line and the eight years before you were back in On The Town.

When I moved to New York at 19, from ages 19 to 24, I did seven Broadway shows. I bounced from show-to-show-to-show. I thought that was normal – it’s not. But, I’d established myself as a dancer, which was great but I’m also a singer and an actor and I wanted to be seen in a different light. I was having trouble being seen for principle roles. I had to think about how to establish myself as a leading man since the industry seemed to see me in a different light. When my contract was up with A Chorus Line, I decided I was ready to learn how to be seen differently. I did a lot of regional work – a lot of work in Chicago. I did a lot of great shows there.

I’ve hear theatre actors who think if they aren’t doing Broadway, that makes them somehow less successful as actors, but the truth isn’t that at all.

Right. It’s so not true. In the theatre scene in Chicago, the actors are unbelievable. Broadway is amazing, it’s the top of the musical theatre field, but there is so much amazing work all over America. I’ve been so lucky to work with the actors I’ve worked with outside of the Broadway community. I starred in a show with Jessie Mueller in Chicago before she was “Jessie Mueller” and did a production of Cabaret with Leslie Kritzer in Houston. There are great people doing great things outside of Broadway. So where people in New York might not have seen me as someone outside of a dancer, theaters around the country saw me differently and let me develop my craft. I spent eight years doing that. I worked at different theatres, I moved to LA for a couple years and I focused on acting and choreography and then New York brought me back. For some people, it takes no time at all for the industry to look at them differently. For others, it takes eight, ten, fifteen years for the industry to look at them differently. I have no regrets about that time away from Broadway. I love the process of learning about my craft and the process of learning about myself.

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So what has Cats taught you about yourself as a performer and as a man?

The freedom they’ve [the creative team] allowed me to have in this role and the trust they have in me is something I’ve never experienced before. I love doing this show because it changes from night to night. I’ve never been more in the moment in my life. It’s such a gift. I’m constantly discovering something new on stage. It’s human to have insecurities and to doubt yourself, but with this character, I couldn’t be further away from that when I’m on stage. As a man, it’s so easy to be defined by what you do. “If I’m not working on Broadway, I’m not successful,” or “If I’m not on a TV show, I’m not successful,” and I’ve felt that in the past. But now, I know it’s such a privilege to be a working actor and while it’s great I have this opportunity right now, it’s not forever. I know that. Regardless of what’s to come, I know that A) I’ll be fine because I always have been, and B) I have to enjoy and cherish what I have right now. Who knows what’s in store.

Let’s talk about The Ensemblist, the duo who brought us together today. What do you love about them?

I’ve known them for a while now and besides the fact that they are great people, I love that they are bringing everything about the Broadway community to America – the ins and outs and the secrets.

Why is that important to do?

People are so fascinated with Hollywood and all that comes with that, and Broadway is a huge industry too, but unless you’re a part of it, there isn’t an outlet for that behind-the-scenes info. It’s harder to get to know the community. With The Ensemblist and the guests they feature, it exposes the audience to the variety of performers and the shows they’re in. There isn’t an US Weekly for Broadway and what they do is interesting. I love listening to their podcast and I love hearing stories and perspectives from my peers.

You’re still in Cats eight times a week and will be through the summer. Any thoughts about what’s next?

I’m having a great time doing the show. I hope to continue performing, as cliché as it sounds, but that’s where I’m happiest and it’s what I love to do.

Interview by Ryan Brinson
For more on Tyler, head to www.tylerhanes.com and for the new season of The Ensemblist, head over to http://www.theensemblist.com
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