Cats is a consistently popular but much maligned musical, and I guess it IS kind of dorky and cutesy. Then again, we live in a time when grown men openly love My Little Pony. Beth and I saw a Broadway performance of it this week, and I have to say I enjoyed it. There’s a sort of similarity to the jukebox musicals of today in that what plot there is seems to have been cobbled together to accommodate pre-existing songs. Actually, in this case they were pre-existing poems, from T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. Andrew Lloyd Webber set them to music, and included an eclectic mix of styles. I understand that the Eliot estate wouldn’t allow an actual script, which somewhat limited story possibilities. What’s there concerns one cat every year being chosen to die and live another life. Most of it consists of the cats being introduced and dancing, with some of them occasionally wandering out into the aisles. Members of the ensemble who aren’t the subjects of poems mostly have names from “The Naming of Cats” or other cat names Eliot came up with but didn’t use in his writings. These include both the everyday and more dignified names, which is why names like Victor and George appear alongside others like Bombalurina and Jellylorum.
Grizabella comes from an unfinished poem that Eliot deemed too sad for Practical Cats; and her song “Memory,” the one you might have heard without necessarily realizing it’s sung by a cat, has lyrics by the original director Trevor Nunn based on Eliot’s unrelated “Rhapsody on a Windy Night.” I know the chorus at my elementary school sang it, and I remember it being introduced at the assembly as being sung by “the mother cat”; but I don’t know of any indication in the show that Grizabella is a mother. I guess it’s likely, since spaying wasn’t the norm in Eliot’s time, but it’s not specified. Actually, “Rhapsody” is from the point of view of a prostitute. The name is presumably a combination of “grisly” or “grizzled” and “bella,” much like Sillabub being “silly” plus “Beelzebub.”
It’s perhaps worth noting that several of the cats seem to live with well-to-do families, the Rum Tug Tugger being given pheasant and grouse to eat, and Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer dwelling in a house with a cook. The play, however, is set in a junkyard, which I guess makes sense as it’s where the cats go when they leave the house at night.
I don’t think I could ever have an outdoor cat again, but I’ve had them in the past, and they do seem to have their own lives out there. Bustopher Jones kind of reminds me of my old cat Arthur, who would sometimes come back home having eaten and smelling like he had sat by a fireplace. I don’t think he went to any clubs, however, as we lived in a housing development at the time. Bustopher’s song was a favorite of mine anyway, having kind of a jaunty English sound.
Also featured are Jennyanydots, who sits around all day but tap-dances at night; Rum Tum Tugger, a rock star who makes the girl cats swoon; Skimbleshanks, who regularly rides on a train and has a song with a rhythm to match; Macavity, essentially the villain of the piece, inspired by Professor Moriarty from the Sherlock Holmes stories; and Mr. Mistoffelees, the Conjuring Cat. The latter has an incredibly catchy song and a jacket with electric lights on it. Old Deuteronomy, who chooses which cat will be reborn and is another favorite of mine, is sort of the Cat Pope, blessing the others by touching them.
Perhaps the indication in his song that he’s “lived many lives in succession” was the inspiration for the reincarnation plot. We’re told that he was alive “a long while before Queen Victoria’s accession,” which would make him over 120 at the time the book was published. The show was written to include two plays-within-a-play, “The Awefull Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles” and “Growltiger’s Last Stand,” the role of Growltiger being played by Gus the Theatre Cat. In the current production, however, Growltiger is cut out and Gus instead plays the Great Rumpus Cat in “Pekes.” The other song might have been excised due to its racist depiction of Siamese cats, but I’ve heard that other performances kept “Growltiger” and left out “Pekes.” It’s a short enough show that I don’t see why they’d bother to cut anything for time, though. The show ends with Grizabella, who is chosen to live again, ascending to the Heaviside Layer. The name comes from a layer of ionized gas in the ionosphere named for physicist Oliver Heaviside, but in the play it’s used metaphorically. There’s kind of a psychedelic feel to the show in general; Webber seems to have been rather heavily influenced by hippie culture, despite the fact that he’s a Conservative. I’ve seen references to the cats in the show as the “Jellicle tribe,” sort of like how the group of hippies in Hair are called “the tribe,” although cats really aren’t animals that form tribal groups.
At the performance we saw, I believe Grizabella was just on wires, not a UFO.