The Anthropomorphic Costume Designs of John Napier for Cats and Starlight Express.
I set out to investigate the theories and methods used by John Napier in his anthropomorphic costume designs for Cats and Starlight Express. I have discovered he relies on the use of semiotic signifiers to convey to the audience various aspects of the characters’ natures. Most of the characters in Starlight Express, and the featured characters in Cats, have a dual layering of anthropomorphic qualities, both references to their human sides, and the cat or train aspect of their personality.
There are many similarities between Cats and Starlight Express, from the initial production team, through their worldwide success, even having shared many cast members over the years. Some of the characters share the same sources to describe their broadly similar personalities. For example, Rum Tum Tugger from Cats, and Greaseball from Starlight Express, are both good-looking, confident, attractive males, constantly surrounded by adoring girls.
Rum Tum Tugger and Greaseball share basic signifiers that relate to the human character, they have hair styled into a quiff, black leather accessories, belt and gloves, metal studs. These elements are signifiers of 1950s American bikers, classic images such as James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause" (1955) or Marlon Brando in "The Wild One" (1953). Both have particularly built up shoulders emphasising the masculine outline, and they share a colour palette of black highlighted with bright yellow, an eye-catching combination that stands out from the ensemble.
However comparing the two similar characters side by side also makes the differences between the two worlds very clear. As a featured character in Cats, Tugger’s costume is accentuated with human signifiers, but he is also very clearly a cat. His skin-tight unitard gives him a sleek, athletic look, decorated with leopard spots indicating the wild cat. However Greaseball’s costume is quite bulky, and full of layers of geometric detail.
Both costumes to a degree disguise the human silhouette, and therefore make the characters appear not human on a very basic level of recognition. Tugger’s wig and mane merge together to create an exaggerated, fluffy silhouette. His head is significantly bigger than human proportions, yet the skin-tight unitard makes his body seem slimmer than would be normal for human. Crucially, wearing a tail alters the back, legs and buttocks. Greaseball’s shoulder pads disguise his actual shoulder line, and the sleeves are padded to make his arms seem more muscled. The codpiece exaggerates his masculinity, but also makes the joint between legs and body defined. This delineation of joints emphasises the mechanical nature of the trains, in order to move there must be a joint. The Cats costumes work on the exact opposite, all joints are as smooth as possible, to the degree of costumes being made with as few seams as possible to remove any interruptions of the smoothness of the body. This reflects the organic nature of the cats, with smooth fur creating no lines on the body.
Through my investigation into these costume designs, I have found some clues as to why the London costumes developed constantly throughout the production, yet other long-running productions remained static. For both Cats and Starlight Express, the London production was the first, and therefore experimental in nature. Both productions received a re-working of the designs for the Broadway runs. These updated designs took into account the flaws of the London productions, and the changing moods of the productions, both becoming bigger, brighter, more colourful and cheerful than their relatively serious London counterparts. For both shows, the Broadway costumes were made by Parsons-Meares, a major costume construction company in New York. They went on to make the Cats costumes for the 1st – 4th US tours, and Starlight Express costumes for the US Tour, Japan tour, and the initial German costumes. They also made the non-John Napier “Starlight Express On Ice” costumes, which are vastly different in style. This explains why the Starlight Express productions all initially followed the exact same design. However the questions remain that why was the London production not pulled in line with the others worldwide, and why the German production, currently in its 21st year, has not shown any alteration in the interpretation of the designs (apart from in June 2008 having re-interpreted Dinah the Dining Car). It is worth noting that the wig department in the German production of Starlight Express has shown great creativity every year, with re-interpretations and new concepts regularly used.
Cats is quite different in nature as the main alterations on a year by year basis in the London production were in the patterning of the hand painted unitards; whereas Starlight Express is far more construction based, the Cats costumes are each a work of art. The requirements are the same for each production; perhaps the differences are simply in the artistry of the individual painters being given more or less creative freedom in painting by their respective costume supervisors. The early London Cats costumes, wigs and makeup designs developed over the first 8-9 years of the production, but then settled into a fairly consistent style where the details were flexible but the overall characteristics were constant.
Another interesting question is whether the performance would work with the incorporation of masks. In my opinion, although the performers wear very heavy stylised makeup in both shows, the designs accentuate the expressions and therefore masking the faces would lose an element of connection between the performer and audience. There is a scene in Cats where Macavity the Mystery Cat uses masks to disguise himself, and if seen clearly from the audience, the lifelessness is quite disturbing. While no direct masks are used in Starlight Express, for the race scenes the engines wear helmets that cover the face. While these helmets make the connection between character and toy train clear, they also remove any sense of expression from the performer’s face. While the race sequences are pure action, in skating and fighting, the body language communicates the character’s mood sufficiently. However I think the dialogue scenes require the expression of the performer’s face.
The costumes for Cats and Starlight Express are unique and instantly recognisable, yet often the subtle methods by which the characters are conveyed are not appreciated. It is only when one stops and analyses all the details that the intelligence within John Napier's costume designs becomes apparent, and it becomes clear how the use of semiotics has overcome the difficulty of portraying the characters and personalities of the Cats onstage, and the monumental task of believably turning actors into toy trains.
Bibliography and References
(1981) Cats - The Book of the Musical, London, Faber and Faber
(1983) Cats - The Book of the Musical, New York, Harcourt
Esslin, M (1987) The Signs of Drama, London, Methuen Drama.
Ganzl, K. (1995) Musicals, London, Carlton.
Richmond, K. (1995) The Musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber, London, Virgin.
Parsons Meares 16/05/08
Ill 3.1. Rusty and Pearl, Dinah, Buffy and Ashley, German production 2006
Ill 4.1. Rum Tum Tugger – John Partridge, Cats video 1998
Source: Screen shot from DVD.