NOTES: In defense of “Cats”, why you should see this iconic musical before it closes on Broadway
Ok, I’ll let the cat out of the bag right up front. It’s not easy to come out and share my truth. But it’s 2017, after all, and if not now, when? If not me, who?
I am a fan of “Cats”.
Yes, “Cats”. The much-maligned musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, once the longest running show in Broadway history (7,485 performances from 1982 to 2000, since overtaken by Webber’s “The Phantom of the Opera”). In case you missed it, “Cats” is currently enjoying its first Broadway revival in a freshly updated and energetic production at the Neil Simon Theatre that opened in July 2016 and runs until December 30th.
“Cats” might just be the Hillary Clinton of musicals. I can’t think of any other musical that is more casually derided or taken for granted, nor one that constantly has to defend its very existence. Want to cause a stir? Mention “Cats” at a dinner party and sit back for the divisive opinions to fly. And why is that? It’s consistently entertaining. It’s creative and fun. It was innovative at its inception and still boasts a production unlike any other. And, not to bury the lede, it’s been running forever (technically “now and forever”), with millions of devoted fans worldwide. So “Cats”, much like Hillary Clinton, might just have the last laugh.
But the question still remains: why is it that “Cats” is so often dismissed or, worse, even hated? In order to understand, we must first visit the unique origins of this unique musical.
British writer and critic T.S. Eliot (1888-1965), a literary giant celebrated for his poems and plays, wrote a series of lighthearted poems in the 1930s as gifts for his godchildren. The musings, sent in letters, concerned the character and doings of a handful of anthropomorphized cats, each neatly mirroring a human archetype. The poems were later collected and published as “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” in 1939, and are quite sweet. “Macavity”—the “mystery cat”—is the best known of the poems (I had to read it in 7th grade English class), but all are clever, inventive, and funny. I own a copy of the book and read one from time to time. They’re meant for children, of course, but what that really means is that they are meant to be approached with an open mind, a sense of humor, and some imagination.
Broadway columnist Michael Reidel tells the story of “Cats” the musical in his excellent book, “Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway” (2015). Following the success of “Evita” in New York in 1980, 32-year-old wunderkid composer Andrew Lloyd Webber (who already had “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” under his belt), wandered into the stalls of the Strand Bookstore off Union Square and spied a copy of Eliot’s book. A lifelong cat lover familiar with the poems from his own childhood, Webber was struck by the idea of turning them into an evening of theatre.
Eliot had written the poems while listening to the popular music of his day, so they had a natural, melodic feel to them. With the addition of some unpublished material shared by Eliot’s widow, Webber was easily able to compose a new score with the added bonus of avoiding the need for a lyricist, since his long-time collaboration with Tim Rice was dissolving. Eliot’s text later won him a posthumous 1983 Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical (one of seven earned by “Cats”, including Best Musical).
Lore has it that legendary director Harold Prince was given the right of first refusal to helm the first production of “Cats”. When he pushed Webber to explain what the show was really about, and got nothing more than “it’s about cats”, he declined. The job then went to Britain’s hottest director, Trevor Nunn, who teamed with choreographer Gillian Lynne and designer John Napier to create a show unlike any other, boldly simple, spectacularly outfitted, and shrouded in mystery.
“Cats” was the first dance musical to come out of Great Britain, and it set the British invasion of the 1980s and early 1990s firmly in motion. “Les Miserables”, “The Phantom of the Opera”, “Starlight Express”, “Song and Dance”, “Chess” “Aspects of Love”, “Miss Saigon”, and “Sunset Boulevard”, among others, would follow, with varying degrees of success.
Bernard Jacobs (1916-1996), then head of the Shubert Organization—the largest theatre owner on Broadway—was summoned to London by the buzz surrounding “Cats” in 1981. He and his wife, Betty, brought their grandson, Jared, to a preview. As Michael Reidel recounts in “Razzle Dazzle”:
Afterward, in their suite at the Berkeley Hotel, Bernie and Betty discussed the show. It certainly was theatrical, but it didn’t make much sense. There was no plot, just something to do with a bunch of cats in a junkyard getting ready for something called the Jellicle Ball. A haunted, mangy cat sang a pretty song and then went up to heaven on a tire. “We didn’t know what to make of it,” Betty Jacobs said. But their grandson liked it—so much so that he wanted to go back the next night. There weren’t any tickets available—“Cats” was catching on and the final previews were sold out—so Jared, who was six, sat on the steps of the New London and watched it again. He was enchanted. Jacobs made his decision. “If the young ones like it, there must be something to it,” he told Betty.
Jacobs and the Shubert Organization joined with Webber and newcomer Cameron Mackintosh to produce “Cats” on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theatre, transforming the landmark house into a junk yard that enveloped the audience—strings of lights strewn about the auditorium and a generous apron stage built for the action to play out mere inches from theatregoers (this is nearly 3 decades before “The Great Comet”). “Cats” broke all the records: highest ticket price ($45!), highest advance, largest weekly grosses, and later, longest running show in Broadway history. Jacobs was right. The young ones liked it. The critics were more divided, though; some intrigued, others outright hostile.
Frank Rich, then chief theatre critic for the “New York Times”, was prescient in his review, predicting “Cats” would be around for a while. His reasoning was spot on, too, and explains why “Cats” has captured the imagination of at least three generations now:
[I]t's a musical that transports the audience into a complete fantasy world that could only exist in the theater and yet, these days, only rarely does. Whatever the other failings and excesses, even banalities, of “Cats,” it believes in purely theatrical magic, and on that faith it unquestionably delivers ... What “Cats” does do is take us into a theater overflowing with wondrous spectacle - and that's an enchanting place to be.
I attended a performance of the revival at the Neil Simon Theatre on Thursday night, and didn’t have to look too far to have my own Bernie Jacobs moment.
Sitting right in front of me was the most adorable family on the planet. Mom, dad, and three kids aged 11, 7, and 3 (shhhh! Don’t tell the management). Visiting New York from Richmond, Virginia, they were self-proclaimed “tourists” in town for their daughter’s synchronized skating competition. And, like thousands before them, they chose “Cats” to be their kids’ first Broadway show. You see, “Cats” was mom’s first Broadway show, and she now wanted to share that experience with her children. They listened to the music beforehand to be prepared, and from the first downbeat of the overture, these kids were hooked.
They high-fived and fist-bumped the cats who dance down the aisles. They turned to their parents, mouths dropping, whenever there was a spectacular feat of choreography or special effect, sharing honest whispers of “that was awesome” and “cool!” And they jumped to their feet, hands high above their heads, clapping with exuberance at the curtain call.
Afterward, I asked the older two what they thought of the show. The 7-year-old girl told me it was “really fun and interesting”—her favorite number was “Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer” (mine too), the jaunty “cat burglar” duo—and the 11-year-old boy said it was “amazing” and that he loved the “great effects” and “cool things”. They bought souvenirs and no doubt took a photo with one of the cats who lingered in the lobby collecting donations for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS on their way out.
Cats are known for their intuition; so are kids. These kids had a blast and so did I, watching them watch the show, seeing it anew through their un-jaded eyes.
I reckon there are a couple major reasons that explain the noise surrounding “Cats”:
One: the very concept itself: a musicalized evening of poetry about cats, featuring humans, in cat costumes, dancing and singing in a junk yard setting scaled to human size. You must be open to that experience, even if just for the pure fun or curiosity of it, otherwise, there’s no hope. Appreciating “Cats” requires a suspension of disbelief, but so does “Hamilton”, or any musical for that matter. “Cats” just requires, perhaps, a larger leap, a more generous willingness to enter another world and become complicit in the fantasy. This is why kids are the prime “Cats” audience. They jump right in.
Two: the plot critique, namely: “there’s no plot”. To me, that’s a lazy point of view. “Company” and “Follies” don’t have much of a plot either. However, like those widely revered musicals, “Cats” has a very straightforward structure, laid out, multiple times, but most clearly in “Invitation to the Jellicle Ball”, the *third* song in the show:
Jellicle Cats meet once a year
At the Jellicle Ball where we all rejoice
And the Jellicle Leader will soon appear
And make what is known as the Jellicle Choice
When Old Deuteronomy, just before dawn,
through a silence you feel you could cut with a knife,
announces the cat who can now be reborn
and come back to a different Jellicle Life
For waiting up there is the Heaviside Layer
Full of wonders one Jellicle only will see
And Jellicles ask because Jellices dare
Who will it be?
What’s a “Jellicle Cat”? It’s just the name Eliot came up with to describe his imagined community of cats. It’s a corruption of “good little cat”. Say that phrase fast and with a British accent, and you’ve got “Jellicle Cat” (vs. “poor little dogs” or “Pollicle Dogs”).
The plot of the show is a series of musical numbers (some jazz, a little opera, rock, funk, and disco) introducing you to all these different Jellicle Cats. Then one is chosen by their leader, Old Deuteronomy, to ascend to heaven on a giant tire. What’s so confusing about that? Sure, I’ll grant, it’s strange. But so is “The Phantom of the Opera” (think about it, fondly).
Three: some people just don’t like cats, and so, thematically, they just can’t get behind a full-length musical about them. Again, though, I find that lazy. Because the show isn’t literally about cats the animals. These cats speak English, and despite their feline movements, are allegories for people. As one friend put it, “I love “Cats”, and I’m allergic!”
Anecdotally, I find that most people who are fans of the musical first saw it as a child—like that mom from Richmond. And that makes sense. Being introduced to something as a child that requires such a heavy dose of untainted imagination and open mindedness allows one to revisit the work years later but from that reference point, and with some rose-colored nostalgia in hand. Love for the excessive oddities of the 1980s is also emblematic of our cultural zeitgeist (see: “Stranger Things” and nearly every re-launched 1980s franchise).
I grew up on Long Island, New York in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The “Cats” commercial was a ubiquitous staple during breaks between cartoons. I learned the melody to “Mr. Mistoffelees” by osmosis. My older siblings got to see the show in 1991. I was too young, but they told me about it: the cats running down the aisles, singing and dancing, and climbing around the elaborately decorated auditorium. I was jealous.
I begged my parents to see “Cats”, and in the summer of 1999, my dad, a real champ, got us tickets to see a Wednesday matinee at the famed Winter Garden. And there it was, just as my brother and sister had described. Like Jared Jacobs and the kids from Richmond, I was transfixed. I don’t remember much, but I do remember that I was fascinated by how the cats sang while doing flips and cartwheels. I got the poster. I still have it. The next year, I stood outside the Winter Garden on the closing night of that original Broadway production, spying Mr. Webber and Ms. Lynne as they entered the theatre, and snagging one of those collector’s edition final performance Playbills.
The current revival of “Cats” is quite excellent, living up to the magic of its first incarnation and capturing the essence of what has made “Cats” an audience favorite for decades. Andy Blankenbuehler (“Hamilton”, “Bandstand”) has added some modern inflections to Gillian Lynne’s acrobatic choreography, and the energetic ensemble—this is an ensemble piece—is phenomenal.
In a bit of unnecessary stunt casting, the show opened in New York with British pop star Leona Lewis in the role of Grizabella, the glamour cat (who sings “Memory”), the role famously created by Elaine Paige in London and Betty Buckley on Broadway (who picked up a Tony for Best Actress in a Musical). Nicole Scherzinger, of the Pussycat Dolls, played the part in London’s 2014 revival to great acclaim, but dropped out of the Broadway production over a billing dispute, mere weeks before it was set to begin performances. Ms. Lewis, the last-minute switch-in, lent her powerhouse vocals to the role, but was otherwise miscast (or too quickly cast), clearly uncomfortable onstage in her cat costume, lacking emotional depth, and too obviously blocked in her movement. Mamie Parris (“School of Rock”), who replaced Ms. Lewis in October 2016, is superb as Grizabella, fully embodying the decrepit outcast cat who was once a great beauty (think Norma Desmond), but has now reached the end of her nine lives.
Why should you see “Cats”? Because its unlike anything else you’ll ever see on a stage, and it’s a product of conditions that no longer exist. Let’s face it, “Cats” would not happen today. It’s too weird, too expensive, too British. That saddens me, because, as Frank Rich noted in 1982, “[“Cats”] transports the audience into a complete fantasy world that could only exist in the theater”. No other musical makes that transformation so totally. I admire that bold stroke and creative confidence.
My advice: if you’ve never done it, see “Cats” on Broadway before it becomes a “Memory”.
Neil Simon Theatre
250 West 52nd Street
New York, NY 10019
Opening Night: July 31, 2016
Final Performance: December 30, 2017
Discount Tickets (through November 19th)