Let The Memory Live Again! The History of 'CATS'

There's one musical in my favourites of all time that surprises people every time I tell them of how much I love it: Andrew Lloyd Webber's 1981 hit musical CATS. Oh yes, I really do have a massive passion for the show that divides opinion, a sung-through dance-based musical where all of the actors are dressed as feline animals, but I really do find it incredibly enjoyable and have done for as long as I can remember - and that's not even just because cats are my favourite animal!

Following the past two London revivals that played over Christmas 2014 and 2015 (both of which I saw at least once), the wonderful news came last week that Cats is returning to Broadway after 16 years! So, to celebrate this fantastic news, I thought I'd kick off the start of this new "The History of..." series by going through the legacy of one of my favourite musicals...

For those who have never had a chance to be enchanted by the wonder of Cats, I'll try and fill you in with the story. The musical is based on the famous T.S. Elliot poetry book Old Possums Book for Practical Cats and has been produced by Cameron Mackintosh since its original London production. Little do people know that the two acts of the show itself are named. Act One, called 'When Cats Are Maddened by the Midnight Dance', starts with the tribe of cats joining together one night to celebrate life as "Jellicle Cats". We're then, one by one, told the backstories behind Jennyanydots, The Rum Tum Tugger, Bustopher Jones and more as well as having our first introduction to the elusive Grizabella the Glamour Cat; the first act concludes with Grizabella alone on the stage, singing the show's first rendition of the 11 o'clock number, 'Memory'. In the second act, this time called 'Why Will The Summer Day Delay - When Will Time Flow Away?', we meet Old Deuteronomy who tells us about "what happiness is" in reference to Grizabella, who he has just watched singing her heart out at the end of the first act. The rest of the second act follows more of the cats' stories (namely Gus the Theatre Cat's), the spooky Macavity the Mystery Cat, the magic of Mister Mistofolees and the end of the road for Grizabella. The second act comes to a close with the cats realising that Grizabella is a good egg after all, before she is taken away to the "Heavyside Layer" - a metaphor for heaven.

The vast majority of the lyrics used in Cats are taken directly from poems in the T.S. Elliot book, apart from Memory (lyrics by the show's director Trevor Nunn, but based on the T.S. Elliot poem 'Rhapsody on a Windy Night') and the very brief song 'The Moments of Happiness', for which the lyrics come from another one of Elliot's poems from the book 'Four Quartets'. Lloyd Webber started composing the music in 1977 and he presented it in concert in 1980. Elliot's wife Valerie attended the concert and fell in love with the songs before giving her blessing to a stage musical, however it was disclosed that no script was to be written to accompany the songs in a way of avoiding Lloyd Webber warping what the words of the poems were intended to mean. Rehearsals began for the show at the New London Theatre itself in 1981 and due to the clear lack of overarching storyline, the actors became confused with what on Earth was going on. It should also be noted that Cats is one of Lloyd Webber's most adventurous scores yet: the genres range from pop to classical to jazz to rock and, with the addition of the newly revised Rum Tum Tugger song in the revival: rap!

Cats made its world premiere on May the 11th 1981 at the New London Theatre. Judi Dench was originally set to play Grizabella but after injuring herself during rehearsals, Elaine Paige was brought in to take on the role instead - a role which she later made iconic. Cats closed in London on its 21st birthday (May 11th, 2002) after 8949 performances; the final performance was live streamed onto screens in Covent Garden for those who couldn't get a ticket to watch as well. It held the record for London's longest-running musical until October 2006 when it was surpassed by Les Miz. The show was nominated for only two Olivier Awards in its premiere year (Best New Musical and Oustanding Achievement in a Musical for choreographer Gillian Lynne) and won both. On October 7th 1982, Cats made its Broadway debut at the impressive Winter Garden Theatre with the exact same production team. On June 19th 1997, Cats became the longest running Broadway musical of all time with 6138 performances under its belt - it wasn't beaten until The Phantom of the Opera took over in January 2006, another show by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh. The show closed on September 10th 2000 after almost 7500 performances and remains the fourth longest running show in Broadway history. The show was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and took home 7, including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Score, Best Direction and Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical for Betty Buckley, who played Grizabella on Broadway. Lloyd Webber also said that whilst the original London production cost only £900,000 to stage, it cost $5M on Broadway.

Since the original two productions, the show has become wildly popular across the world as well as in the English speaking world - it's even popular on Royal Carribean cruise ships! A filmed stage performance of the show was released in 1998 which was filmed at the Adelphi Theatre with Elaine Paige reprising her starring role; this was the version of the show that I was lucky enough to grow up with as well as the beautiful cast recording. A UK tour was also launched in 2012 and at the end of its run, settled itself into the London Palladium in December 2014 as the first London revival of the show. Nicole Sherzinger took on the role of Grizabella (who I saw perform the role twice) before being taken over by Wicked alum Kerry Ellis. The show returned again this Christmas just passed with Beverley Knight as Griz, who I also had the pleasure of seeing perform. The first London revival was nominated for two Olivier's in 2015 (one for Best Musical Revival and one for Sherzinger's performance), but failed to win either. This is the revival that is heading to Broadway's Neil Simon Theatre in June - how exciting!

I could seriously sit here forever getting into all the musical changes and staging changes that have happened to the show over the years, but I'll leave it as that as far as a solid history of the show goes. It's wonderful to re-learn the history of one of my favourite musicals and when the show returns to London, make sure to catch it again. Now if you don't mind me, I'm going to put the VHS tape of the movie on and get into bed: "Meeeeemory, all alone in the mooooonlight..."

No comments