Shawn Stengel, a musician-actor with lifelong Brainerd connections, has occupied a catbird seat in entertainment history for the past couple of years.
Not as spectator, mind you, but as musical director of "Cats National IV," the longest-touring U.S. theatrical show ever, now in its 13th season (more than 20 seasons when the three previous national tours are included).
Stengel joined the company in August 1997 as assistant conductor and third-book keyboard player. A quick study, he directed the 14-piece "Cats" orchestra for the first time nine days later.
Hired sight-unseen on the word of then-musical director Craig Barna, Stengel moved into the leadership role when Barna left the "Cats" tour for a similar position on the Broadway production of "Peter Pan."
1977 BHS graduate
Since then, Stengel, a 1977 graduate of Brainerd High School, has guided the popular Andrew Lloyd Webber show through nearly a hundred opening nights in cities across the land, including Minneapolis just a few weeks ago.
He is the son of Doris and Arnold Stengel, longtime educators in the Brainerd school system.
The Dispatch caught up with the "Cats" musical director by telephone recently as he dined on bagels and coffee at a Starbucks in Erie, Pa, his cell phone always within reach.
He was enjoying a brief respite from the frenetic pace of a major traveling Broadway production before heading to the local theater for a mid-afternoon sound check and a run-through of a couple of the shows 22 numbers with the singing cats.
Shawn Stengel dresses in full costume to experiment with the makeup and look of the cast of the production Cats.
"Then we go out for an early dinner before returning to the theater to slap on some makeup," Stengel said, "and its opening night."
The 70-person cast and crew had arrived in Erie by bus, two for the crew and two for the cast and orchestra. The sets and sound system, costumes and wigs, even the company's laundry units, were transported into town aboard five semi-trailer trucks which require eight hours to load and unload.
In his role Stengel is "in charge of everything musical" for the day-to-day production of the show, although he answers to David Caddick, a close Webber associate who manages the tour from New York.
Directed theatrically by David Taylor, the touring version of "Cats" is a close sister to the Trevor Nunn-directed Broadway production, which opened at Winter Garden Theater in October 1982. "Cats" became the longest-running Broadway show in history on June 19, 1997, surpassing "Chorus Line" with its 6,138th performance.
Stengel shakes hands with President Clinton during a reception following the lighting of the national Christmas tree in Washington, D.C. last year. Stengel and cast members of "Cats" performed at the ceremony.
With each performance, "Cats" turns a page on theatrical history, including record-setting worldwide box office proceeds and the number of cities played.
For Stengel, "Cats" has been the highlight of a theatrical career that stutter-stepped to life after college graduation and a brief but successful stint in room service at luxury hotels in Minnesota and California. He earned a degree in music education from the University of Minnesota in 1982.
Stengel soon followed childhood chums Joe Brutsman and Lori Fish to Hollywood, taking a job in an "exclusive little hotel where the people who are richer than the movie stars stay" to tide him over. Over the years, Brutsman has carved out a successful career as a movie director and scriptwriter while Fish has become a well-known fabric designer.
In late 1986 Stengel attended the opening of "Pump Boys and Dinettes" in Los Angeles, a decision that would change his life. Introduced to the show's producer by a musician friend, Stengel was later called to audition for an opening in the cast.
"I wasn't even in the actor's union," he said, "and was probably the only person in LA without a resume and a set of pictures on me.
"I went to the audition kicking and screaming," he said. "I thought of it as a country music show and I didn't like country music. But I went and they loved me and I got hired as an understudy.
"Three weeks later, while Im still learning the songs at home, the producer calls wondering if I'd be interested in going to Chicago to do the show where it had been playing for a couple of years," Stengel chuckled. "So I said I'm interested and asked when and he says tomorrow."
Stengel accepted the role thinking he'd stay in Chicago for a 12-week run. But he's still there and told the Dispatch, "I own the role. I've done it a thousand times. It was a huge hit, a dream job" that lasted off and on for the next several years.
Many other opportunities arose from "Pump Boys" over the years, he said, including long-running tours with "And the World Goes Round," "Crazy for You," "Peter Pan," and "Oil City Symphony" as both performer and musical director.
"Its all about who you know, meeting people and being prepared so when you have an opportunity you come through," he said. "Getting a chance is all about networking. And getting lucky."
Stengel plans to leave the "Cats" tour after its Mother's Day performance at the Rosemont Theater in suburban Chicago. He will revive his role in "Pump Boys" later this summer at a theater on the East Coast.