Funny, absurd and exciting. That is what former New Hyde Park resident Casey O’Neil calls his newest Off-Broadway hit The Great Cat Massacre, which is playing at the St. Luke’s Off Broadway Theatre in New York City.
“I lived in New Hyde Park my whole life, apart from college, until moving into the city in 2015 after grad school,” said O’Neil. “One of my fondest memories of living in New Hyde Park was being a part of the music program at New Hyde Park Memorial, especially the musicals. I’m still back to New Hyde Park most weekends of the year.”
The Great Cat Massacre tells the story of how two printing press apprentices convince the bourgeoisie of pre-revolution Paris that their cats have been possessed by demons. It’s based on a historic event by the same name and inspired by the historical analysis by Robert Darnton in his text The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History.
“The event was borne of the drastic economic disparity between the classes,” explained O’Neil. “Aside from other factors that contributed to the massacre, cats were a symbol of wealth and extravagance, which didn’t exactly inspire enthusiasm from the lowly apprentices. Our retelling is wacky and takes a few liberties, but is in the spirit of the actual retellings of the story that the French did in vaudeville-like performances.”
O’Neil said the show is crafty, since the entire show is based around a steamer trunk that is pulled onstage at the top of the show, surprising many people about what comes out of there.
O’Neil, who wrote the play, is trained originally in classical trombone and in musical theatre writing.
“My favorite part about writing is that it can be whatever you like,” he said. “You can say something profound or just be escapist. I was a performer for a long time, but I can’t say I miss the sense of having to get something right the first time. With writing, the only thing I have to worry about with a first pass is whether or not it’s finished. The piece can start as utter nonsense and then l can spend as much time as I need doing rewrites.”
O’Neil also said he always had the desire to be a writer, but didn’t learn how to write music until college and practiced by scoring films for RIT students while he studied trombone at The Eastman School of Music. By the time of his undergrad, he felt confident enough to shift gears and become a full-time writer.
“I applied for film scoring programs initially,” said O’Neil. “I also applied to a few composition programs. Then I stumbled across NYU’s Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program. I hadn’t planned on going to school for writing musicals, but I was very quickly wooed by the idea and I’ve been working in musical theatre ever since. I can’t say I miss film scoring at all. Theatre is much more collaborative and exciting.”
The Great Cat Massacre opened last week to standing ovations and runs until March 31.
“I’m most proud of how much people seem to enjoy it,” said O’Neil. “Most artists, in that self-deprecating way, often underestimate their work. While I love the piece, I’m certainly guilty of this myself. I’m always very surprised at applause after ‘Christian Way,’ which is a song right in the middle of the show. I just don’t expect the work to be appreciated or received as well as it has been. To learn otherwise is a great feeling.”
Interested theatergoers can catch the show Sunday nights at 7:30 p.m. at St. Luke’s Off Broadway Theatre. Tickets are available on Telecharge.
“We’ll be playing in a double feature with our sister show The Scarlet Savior in what is being called ‘The Pop-sical Festival,’” said O’Neil. “The production is sponsored by the newly popular game Kittens in a Blender. They were very excited to hear that another piece of entertainment like ours existed. We were both thrilled to make this sponsorship happen.”
For more information on The Great Cat Massacre, visit www.catmassacremusical.com.