The first trailer for ‘Cats’ — you know which one I’m talking about — is far from the first time the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical has attracted a wide range of extreme responses: horror, confusion, deranged confusion and, perhaps, bright-eyed excitement.
This kind of reception has followed the show since its premiere in 1981, when it immediately became both a punch line and a watershed for musical theatre. People roll their eyes at the largely plotless spectacular — one of scaled-up sets, countless arm and leg warmers and cruelly infectious earworms — but it was an entire generation’s entry into the world of musicals.
‘Cats’ reached a pop culture status that was virtually peerless until ‘Hamilton.’ It scampered past Broadway records, grossed billions of dollars worldwide and ushered in the age of big-money musicals of the 1980s, like ‘Les Miserables’ and ‘The Phantom of the Opera.’
So it’s surprising that a big-screen adaptation has taken 40 years to happen. One attempt to create an animation movie fell through; in 1998, there was a direct-to-video version that amounted to nothing more than a recording of the stage production. More than 20 years later, we’ve arrived at a proper movie musical, directed by Tom Hooper (‘Les Miserables’).
So it’s time to brush up on your ‘Cats’ arcana. Here are 10 facts to get started.
It’s exactly what it sounds like
Despite ridiculous names like Rumpleteazer and Rum Tum Tugger, the cats of ‘Cats’ are surprisingly human. A rigorously sincere reading of the musical might be as a satirical panorama of personality types.
But the creator cautions against overthinking the show. Legendary Broadway producer and director Hal Prince, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, once recalled hearing Lloyd Webber playing through the score for him: “I looked at him curiously and said, ‘Andrew, I don’t understand. Is this about English politics? [Are] those cats Queen Victoria, Gladstone and Disraeli?’ He looked at me like I’d lost my mind, and after the longest pause said, ‘Hal, this is just about cats.’”
‘Cats’ goes way back
TS Eliot won a Tony Award in 1983, nearly two decades after his death. That’s because his playful poetry collection ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’ serves as the book for Lloyd Webber’s musical. In his memoir, ‘Unmasked,’ Lloyd Webber recalls his mother reading the poems to him as a child. If ‘Cats’ is dedicated to anyone, it’s her — and their family cat, Perseus.
Hal Prince could have directed
Prince — by the 1980s long the patron saint of Broadway — was courted for the ‘Cats’ premiere in London but politely declined, ostensibly because he was too busy. Other big-name collaborators declined as well. Lloyd Webber played through the ‘Cats’ score for choreographer Twyla Tharp, who was, he wrote in his memoir, “less than enthralled.”
Grizabella was a discovery
Grizabella the Glamour Cat, the downtrodden outcast who sings ‘Memory’ and whose ascent to the ‘Heaviside Layer’ (where cats go to be reborn) is more or less the entire plot of ‘Cats,’ doesn’t exist in ‘Old Possum.’ But once Valerie Eliot, TS Eliot’s widow, gave her blessing for Lloyd Webber to adapt her husband’s poems, she began to dig up some of his unpublished material.
There was a poem about Grizabella, which according to Valerie Eliot her husband had found too depressing for children. There was also a letter TS Eliot had written to his publisher that mentioned a gathering of ‘Jellicle Cats’ that ended with a trip to the Heaviside Layer in a big air balloon. Lloyd Webber saw the makings of a stage musical in this.
‘Memory’ sounds like Puccini for a reason
Lloyd Webber, in wanting to write a musical about Puccini, once composed an imitative tune that he hoped could be a hit for the show. (It wouldn’t be Lloyd Webber’s last homage to Puccini; ‘The Music of the Night’ bears a suspicious resemblance to ‘La Fanciulla del West.’) But nothing came of the Puccini project, so Lloyd Webber banked the song.
When the ‘Cats’ team later found that the show lacked an emotional core, he dug it out and played them the song. Trevor Nunn, the musical’s director and future lyricist of ‘Memory,’ is said to have told the room: “I want you all to remember the date, time and place when you first heard this melody.”
Judi Dench should have been the star — of the original
This dame was one of the first stars found for the London premiere. Her Sally Bowles in ‘Cabaret’ was a triumph around town, and she could lend the amorphous ‘Cats’ some cachet as Grizabella. But she fell and injured herself while rehearsing ‘The Old Gumbie Cat.’
A rumour began to circulate that her accident was an excuse to escape a show that was showing signs of a pending catastrophe. She did eventually return to rehearsals, though on crutches and clearly not able to carry on. Now, though, she is in the new movie as a scene-stealing Old Deuteronomy.
Previews were disastrous
During the first preview in London, not even ‘Memory’ landed. On the second night, Elaine Stritch is said to have walked out shouting “Cat-astrophe!” Lloyd Webber, who had taken out a second mortgage on his home and financed a substantial portion of the show personally, wrote in his memoir about wanting to just call the whole thing off.
And there were other troubles on opening night. The theatre had to be evacuated because of a bomb threat that turned out to be a hoax. But that didn’t stop The Daily Telegraph from declaring the show “purr-fect”: It was, somehow, a hit. Later, the Telegraph crunched the numbers and estimated that those who invested in the original production of ‘Cats’ — including, of course, Lloyd Webber — received a return of more than 3,500 per cent.
Reception on Broadway wasn’t positive
Critics were less enthusiastic in New York, where it opened in 1982. Yet it was phenomenally successful, earning Tony Awards including for best musical and best actress (Betty Buckley, who brought down the house at the ceremony singing ‘Memory’). ‘Cats’ played for nearly 7,500 performances, making it at the time the longest-running show on Broadway (a record now held by the still-open ‘Phantom of the Opera’).
Steven Spielberg tried to adapt it
Long before ‘West Side Story,’ Spielberg had his sights set on ‘Cats.’ In 1994, the Los Angeles Times reported that his animation studio, Amblimation, would begin production on an adaptation — with a screenplay by none other than Tom Stoppard. It was scheduled for release in 1997, which, as it happens, was also the year the studio shut down. The project died with it, but with some creative Googling, you can find the concept art.
Those royalties were put to good use
The musical’s team wasn’t the only group to benefit from ‘Cats.’ At the TS Eliot Foundation, Valerie Eliot — showing a sense of humour — created the philanthropic Old Possum’s Practical Trust with the millions her husband’s estate had been gathering in royalties from “Cats.” The foundation also purchased the poet’s New England house in 2015; it’s now a retreat for writers and artists.
Not bad for a show that, as Lloyd Webber said, is just about cats.
Cats releases in the UAE on January 2