I recently acquired an October 1982 issue of Playbill for Cats. Here is an article reprinted from that issue.

Here Comes "CATS"

London's musical megahit is reborn on Broadway

By Sheridan Morley

 

Smash hits don't come much more smash than Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats, the hit London musical based on the Possum Power of T.S. Eliot's celebrated book of feline eccentrics. To Broadway this fall has come the Rum Tum Tugger and the old Gumbie Cat, and the Jellicles and Mungojerrie, and Rumpleteazer and Growltiger, and the magical Mr. Mistoffelees, and Macavity the Mystery Cat and Bustopher Jones who's not skin an dbones, and Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat and perhaps above all Grizabella, the Blanche du Bois of the animal kingdom whose initial despair and ultimate transmigration of the soul gives this show not only its hit song ("Memory") but also its continuing theme of death and rebirth, despair and joy.

To understand the utter pride and delight with which London sends Cats to Broadway this month you have to understand something about the state, such as it is, of the English musical. Apart from such period pieces as The Boy Friend (1920s) and Oliver! (Dickensian), English musicals have almost always died somewhere in the midAtlantic while trying to make the crossing to New Your. Of those that have become hits, Evita always had an American director and choreographer ever in London, and the other Lloyd Webber show (Joseph and Superstar) always ended up on Broadway looking more American than English.

But here for the first time we have a vivid and marvelous gesture of transatlantic defiance; for years we have been told by Broadway, and rightly, that though we might have our Royal Shakespeare and our National, the one thing the London theatre truly lacked was the ability to do an all-dancing show. Now, and not before time, comes the answer: like Bob Fosse's Dancin' this is a choreographer's benefit night. Cats has no plot, no book, no real story line; it is simply an arrangement of twenty of Eliot's Old Possum poems for dancers and orchesstra, a revolutionary dance drama for which the honors have to be shared between Lloyd Webber and his director and choreographer, the Royal Shakespeare Company team of Trevor Nunn and Gillian Lynne (together also responsible for a stunning London semi-musical revival of Once in a Lifetime a few seasons back, as well as an almost-musical Comedy of Errors at Stratford).

The first of Lloyd Webber's big musicals not to have been sold as a hit record before becoming a show, Cats began simply enough at a summer festival in 1980 run by Lloyd Webber himself at his country house near Newbury in Berkshire. As an after-dinner entertainment he had set ten of Eliot's feline fantasies to music, and had them sung by three friends as a purely private celebration. But in the audience, presumably because at the back of his mind Lloyd Webber thought this might go further, was T. S. Eliot's widow Valerie and such was her enthusiasm for the idea the she produced a number of other and often unpublished cat verses by her late husband. Armed with those, Lloyd Webber approached Nunn and Lynne at the RSC, and they then began a journey of exploration through Eliot which ended nine months later at the New London Theatre with an explosion of musical and choreographic talent which showed for the first time that Britain could muster 30 dancers as talented, versatile and energetic as any team ever fielded by Broadway or Hollywood.

Not that Cats was in any sense a pre-sold success: despite the triple crown that Lloyd Webber already shared with Tim Rice (for Evita, Superstar and Joseph) there was considerable insider doubt about whether a musical built on poems could ever be made to work theatrically. Lloyd Webber's track record away from Rice had not been good (he had a marathon failure with a musical based on the P.G. Wodehouse Jeeves stories) and the leading lady (Judi Dench) dropped out with a torn Achilles tendon only to be replaced a couple of days before the first preview by Elaine Paige, London's original Evita. Trevor Nunn has never directed a full-scale musical, and moreover, they were going to a theatre which hadn't had a hit in almost ten years.

So the original triumph of Cats was at least in part a triumph over adversity; but its real success lay in Lloyd Webber's astute realization that somewhere buried in those apparently simple, almost childlike cat poems lay an altogether darker and more intriguing world, a world in which life and death, failure and success, mystery and evil and virtue could be conveyed through the magic and music of cat-dancers on a cold tin rubbish dump.

But one of the most remarkable things about the genesis of Cats was its fragmentary nature; at a time when most big musicals were still coming out of well-established plays or novels Lloyd Webber and Nunn and Lynne went to work in a small London rehearsal hall on what was fundamentally just a concept, though one admittedly backed by nearly a million dollars of investment money raised primarily on the success of Evita. Take Grizabella again: the glamour cat who has become the star of this show, and about the filming of whom there will doubtless next year be another battle of Evita proportions. In fact Grizabella turns up in Eliot's original poems for no more than eight lines, because he thought the story of her "haunting many a low resort, near the grimy road of Tottenham Court" was too sad to be told to the children for whom he originally intended his book of practical cats.

Yet around those eight lines has been built a character, a theme song, a mood which typifies Cats: it's a show which takes off again and again from a single line, sometimes just a word, in Eliot and creates its own world of the derelict inner-city rubbish dump which all have to go through, and some disappear from, enroute to the heviside layer which provides a climax easily as stunning as the arrival of the starship of Close Encounters. In his first real break from the Royal Shakespeare Company (of which he remains artistic director), Trevor Nunn has arrived at a concept which genuinely moves the musical theatre forward, perhaps for the fist time since Cabaret; and to have achieved that and Nicholas Nickleby within the same 12 months seems to me a production achievement unrivaled in our lifetime.

For Lloyd Webber, not yet 35, Cats also represents a break with the more conventional 'book' musical (thought it's arguable that he'd in fact already achieved that with Joseph, the show he wrote for his old school more than a decade ago). There too the plot structure was fragile to a point of non-existence, but on that occasion what mattered was the songs alone; here it is the choreography of Gillian Lynne and the setting of John Napier which create the world of Cats, a world harsher and more brutal than might be expected. An environmental rubbish dump made of rusting cars, huge tires, dustbin lids and old bicycles forms the background, not for a series of isolated feline star-turns, but instead for the creation of a complete world, one peopled by magicians and pirates and stage-door historians and rock stars all of whom just happen also to be cats. For them, Gillian Lynne has created a choreography which is in fact also a history of modern dance -- everything from tap to ballet, from Broadway-type showstoppers to quiet solos that might have come out of Covent Garden, which was in fact the original training ground for many of the original cast.

Uniquely, Cats is a show that would have made sense to Martha Graham and to Oscar Hammerstein: musically, dramatically and technologically it draws on every aspect of theatre to come up with a celebration of the musical form which does for Eliot's original what Papp's Pirates did for Gilbert and Sullivan. It's a show about perpetual motion, and about the possibilities of theatre: like Nickleby, it's the kind of show which could only have come together in a rehearsal hall. Cats cannot really exist on paper, and even on record it is something less than complete. Taking it's cure from Eliot's Song of the Jellicles,

Jellicle Cats come out tonight

Jellicle Cats come one come all:

The Jellicle Moon is shining bright-

Jellicles come to the Jellicle ball

Text copyright © 1981 Faber and Faber Ltd.

Cats lifts off into an opening eight-minute dance spectacular which involves its audience almost as deeply as its participants. As a musical, it works on Disneyland principles: you have to be there to believe it or understand it, and you have to have eyes in the back of your head if you're not to miss something new in every split-second. Lloyd Webber's score has been described by at least one critic as 'Europop' but it's actually more than that: the second-half songs have a lyric and dramatic quality which far transcend his earlier writing, but then if you are looking for a partner, lyricists don't come much finer than T.S. Eliot. Cats is, at the last, an invitation to the dance that no theatregoer should refuse: it will, I suspect, have a lot more than nine lives in a lot more than nine nations.

 

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