Tails Out Of School: SFCM Grad Stars in ‘CATS’ Tour

Carolyn bacon, CATS, SFCM, Voice

SFCM grad Carolyn Bacon portrays different roles including Grizabella and Jellylorum.

2014 Voice graduate Carolyn Bacon plays multiple roles in the award-winning musical coming to San Francisco. Find out more on her road from student to Broadway star.

By Mark Taylor

From the meows to the music, CATS, the record-breaking show by Andrew Lloyd Webber, has captivated audiences in more than 30 countries and 15 languages and now is returning to San Francisco with its tour across North America.

One of the stars of the show at the Golden Gate Theatre will be a familiar SFCM face. Voice student Carolyn Bacon ‘14 will be among the cast. The famous musical tells the story of one magical night when a tribe of unique cats gathers for its annual ball to rejoice and decide which cat will be reborn. The show is scheduled to run June 1-5 in San Francisco. Bacon portrays multiple roles in the show including the famous Grizabella, but during the SF stint she will portray Jellylorum.

Carolyn Bacon as main character Grizabella.

Ahead of her performance, the SFCM newsroom caught up with Bacon, to find out about life after Conservatory, and her road to joining such an iconic musical. 

Tell us about your introduction to music.

My first connection to music was as a dancer. I enjoyed arts as extracurriculars but wasn't encouraged to think of that for a career. And I loved science and math, so I majored in neuroscience at Pomona College. My junior year, I studied abroad in Germany and auditioned for a conservatory so I could keep taking voice lessons. That semester revealed how much my mind and heart wanted to do musical work, and I came back and decided that I would apply to graduate school in music, “just to see what happens.” Thank goodness I didn’t know how hard the process is, or I might not have had the courage. SFCM was an amazing fit for me because it’s a holistic program and matched the liberal arts education I had at Pomona.

Tell us about how you got this role in the iconic show that is CATS?

I got the initial audition for CATS on July 9 and by August 9, I was on a train to rehearsals in upstate New York. It was a whirlwind. I put soprano ensemble music and “Memory” on tape and got callback material over the weekend for an in-person audition. Then waiting, then figuring out what I wanted to negotiate in the contract, then just two weeks to wrap up my NYC life and get ready for this chapter. It had been a couple years since I had been dancing regularly, so I immediately got back to class!

What role do you play?

I’m a swing on CATS, which means I cover multiple tracks (characters) in the show. I cover Grizabella, who sings the iconic song “Memory”, and Jellylorum, who dances a ton and does “Gus the Theater Cat." The roles are very different. Of course, it’s amazing to go on as Griz and star in the show! There is nothing like the responsibility of delivering the big 11 o’clock number. In order to really move people, I believe you have to be willing to truly risk something. You can’t be polished and perfect because that’s not Griz. She’s baring her soul. But I work my tail off staying in shape for Jelly, who barely leaves the stage. Her interactions with the ensemble are a huge connective thread throughout the entire show. I love them both. I sing at opposite ends of my range. And every night I’m not onstage, I’m singing the show with the band as part of the vocal booth. It’s a traditional element of CATS to have singers who provide additional support to the dancers on stage. One of the unexpected joys of this contract has been my friendships with our musicians. 

What is it like being part of a traveling show?

At this point, I’d say I’m an expert traveler/packer. Two words…TSA pre-check. We fly or bus to a new city every Monday, sometimes doing 3 cities in one week (called “split weeks”). That’s our “day off.” Eight shows a week is no joke. On Tuesdays, we load into the theater and have extra time before the show to do a full sound check. During the week, we often have free time to explore the city. Over the weekend, we have double show days and basically don’t leave the theater. We all have our rituals and habits to stay grounded: I do yoga and travel with a small guitar. COVID has complicated everything, of course. It’s pretty remarkable that we’ve been able to keep touring and bringing audiences back to theaters. 

How is it returning to SF?

I haven’t been here since the pandemic began. I’ve missed it! It’s wonderful reconnecting with friends and places, but also just thinking about the person I was and who I’ve become. When I left San Francisco to move to New York, I didn’t know what would happen. I certainly couldn’t have predicted this! It’s a gift to have my alma mater in this wonderful city, so I’ll always feel like home here. I love how SFCM is thriving and expanding.

What do you remember from your time at SFCM? 

My time at SFCM was transformational. I will never forget the first couple months, learning how to “speak opera.” I had barely sung any arias when I arrived, but singers love to talk shop. So someone asks “What are you singing for the workshop today?” and the answer is “Je dis.” You have to learn that’s an abbreviation of the first line of Micaëla’saria from Carmen, so that tells you quite a bit about the singer, too. I went from science jargon to music jargon. My first role was Cinderella in Into the Woods, so I was involved in both musicals and opera at SFCM from the beginning. I also loved all my academic work here, writing a lot, doing student teaching.

Carolyn Bacon.

How did SFCM help prepare you for your career?

First and foremost, studying with Jane Randolph. She is an extraordinary teacher and mentor. I still work with her. She warmed me up for my Grizabella debut over Facetime! We’ve done everything together: high coloratura, jazz, belting. Her technical approach has made it possible for me to sing in any style I want and sustain 8 shows a week healthfully. I can’t really overstate how much my relationship with Jane has transformed my singing and my career. 

SFCM also started my acting training, which is absolutely vital for being a working performer, especially in New York. Milissa Carey, Heather Mathews, and Michael Mohammed were all important teachers who helped me become a singing actor, not just a singer. Marcie Stapp also taught me how to appreciate language and really dedicate myself to precision and subtlety.

Any funny performance stories you can share? 

It’s a fun theater tradition that someone in the cast keeps a show journal, which is a catalog of noteworthy performances—good and bad. Someone making a role debut, the time we had to stop the show because the floating tire didn’t get off the ground… After 10 months, there are a lot! Sometimes we have to “split track” a show, which means one person plays multiple cats in the same show. When that happens, we make combo names for those cats, like Sillibub and Demeter becomes “Sillimeter.” The funniest one was a hypothetical triple split "Victeazerbub" (Victoria, Rumpleteazer, Sillibub). Luckily, that one didn't have to happen!

Do you have any advice for young artists and musicians today?

So much! Don’t listen to your sound as you’re singing. Learn how to drop in and live in the moment. Take acting classes, make it a habit to be in class because we have to keep training like athletes. Stay open to how your career might unfold. The majority of successful, working singers did not go through the narrow YAP path. I felt so beholden to that path when I started, yet my unique journey got me on a Broadway tour. Learn how to stand out. No one talks about how scary it is to be different, to be yourself. It takes practice and courage.

Anything else you want to add?

It’s been tough being apart from my fiancé this year, fellow SFCM grad Brian Fitzsousa. But luckily he’s been working at the Metropolitan Opera, and all over NYC, so we’re having these transformative artistic experiences in parallel this year. And we’re getting married in July in Portland!

Learn more about studying voice at SFCM.