Those eyes . . . Those ears and, for that matter, those tails. “Cats,” which promised it would be with us “Now and Forever,” broke that vow when it closed in 2000 after 18 years on Broadway. But now the show, based on T.S. Eliot’s children’s book, “The Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” is getting its first revival, opening July 31, at the Neil Simon Theatre in a production inspired by the ongoing success of last year’s London revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s megahit.
Cats is a musical composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber, based on Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot, and produced by Cameron Mackintosh. The musical tells the story of a tribe of cats called the Jellicles and the night they make what is known as “the Jellicle choice” and decide which cat will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and come back to a new life. Cats introduced the song standard “Memory”. The first performance of Cats was in 1981.
After the overture, the Cats gather on stage and explain the Jellicle tribe and its purpose (“Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats”). The Cats (who break the fourth wall throughout the production) then notice that they are being watched by a man, and proceed to explain how the different Cats of the tribe are named (“The Naming of Cats”). This is followed by a dance from Victoria the White Cat that signals the beginning of the Jellicle Ball (“The Invitation to the Jellicle Ball”). Munkustrap (the wise second-in-command of the Jellicle tribe) explains that tonight, the Jellicle leader, Old Deuteronomy, will choose a cat to be reborn into a new life on the Heaviside Layer.
Finally, the Jellicle patriarch, Old Deuteronomy, appears (“Old Deuteronomy”). He is a large old Cat that “has lived many lives” and “buried nine wives (And more, I am tempted to say—ninety-nine)”. He is the Cat who will choose which Jellicle Cat will go to the Heaviside Layer. After rejoicing to their leader’s arrival, the Cats put on a play (“The Awefull Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles”) for Old Deuteronomy. It is a story about two dog tribes clashing in the street and subsequently being scared away by the Great Rumpus Cat, a cat with flashing red eyes. After a moral from Old Deuteronomy about the destiny of Jellicle Cats and Pollicle Dogs, a second loud crash, presumably from Macavity, sends the alarmed Cats scurrying. Old Deuteronomy calls the Cats back and the main celebration begins (“The Jellicle Ball”), in which the cats sing and display their “Terpsichorean powers”.
It was announced on 27 June 2014 that “Cats” will be returning to London from December 2014 for a 12-week run at the London Palladium following the UK national tour with the original creative team featuring direction from Trevor Nunn, choreography by Gillian Lynne and design by John Napier. The run was later extended through April 2015. Along with this Andrew Lloyd Webber would be rewriting a number of songs from the musical. Speaking on the revival, Lloyd Webber himself said, “we wanted to do Cats again ourselves, then the Palladium came up and Trevor fell in love with it. We’re taking the Cats show that’s touring and working on it afresh.” The musical returned to the London Palladium for a run lasting from 23 October 2015 to 2 January 2016 starring Beverley Knight as Grizabella.
The “Growltiger’s Last Stand” sequence has also been changed multiple times over the course of the show’s history. In the original London production, the “last duet” for Growltiger and Griddlebone was a setting of an unpublished T.S. Eliot poem, “The Ballad of Billy M’Caw”. For the original Broadway production, the Ballad was replaced with a pastiche of Italian opera (reminiscent of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly). This new version was subsequently incorporated into most productions of Cats worldwide. The Ballad remained in the London production until some time in the early 1990s when it was replaced with the Italian aria pastiche. “Billy M’Caw” was re-instated for the UK Tours following the show’s closure in London. Lloyd Webber has said that he is pleased with the reinstatement of “The Ballad of Billy M’Caw” as he didn’t care for the “Italian aria” version. The licensed version of Cats includes both songs, giving individual companies a choice as to which to include. The 2015 London revival and UK tour reinstates the Italian Aria, as well as rewriting the initial verses of Growltiger’s Last Stand into a more jazz/blues sounding piece. In the 1998 video version, the entire scene featuring Growltiger was cut due to John Mills’ (Gus) old age.
A Broadway revival opened on July 31, 2016. Nicole Scherzinger, who played Grizabella in the 2014 West End revival, had originally agreed to reprise the role on Broadway, but her desire to return as a judge on The X Factor led her to withdraw. Leona Lewis was cast to replace her, but she was succeeded by Mamie Parris in October 2016.
As of 2016, Cats is the fourth-longest-running show in Broadway history, and was the longest running Broadway show in history from 1997 to 2006 when it was surpassed by The Phantom of the Opera. Cats is the sixth-longest-running West End musical. It has been performed around the world many times and has been translated into more than 20 languages. In 1998, Cats was turned into a made-for-television film.
Composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber, the production of Cats is based on T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats , which the composer recalled as having been a childhood favorite. The songs of the musical comprise Eliot’s verse set to music by the composer, the principal exception being the most famous song from the musical, “Memory”, for which the lyrics were written by Trevor Nunn after an Eliot poem entitled “Rhapsody on a Windy Night”. Also, a brief song entitled “The Moments of Happiness” was taken from a passage in Eliot’s Four Quartets. Andrew Lloyd Webber began composing the songs in late 1977 and premiered the compositions at the Sydmonton Festival in 1980. The concert was attended by T.S. Eliot’s wife, Valerie Eliot and she loved the songs that Webber had composed. She gave her blessing for the songs to be adapted into a musical stage play. Rehearsals for the musical began in early 1981 at the New London Theatre. Due to the Eliot estate asserting that they write no script and only use the original poems as the text, the musical had no identified plot during the rehearsal process, causing many actors to be confused about what they were actually doing. An unusual musical in terms of its construction, the overture incorporates a fugue and there are occasions when the music accompanies spoken verse. The show is completely told through music with virtually no spoken dialogue in between the songs. Dance is also a key element in the musical especially during the 10-minute Jellicle Ball dance sequence. The set, consisting of an oversized junk yard, remains the same throughout the show without any scene changes. Lloyd Webber’s eclecticism is very strong here; musical genres range from classical to pop, music hall, jazz, rock and electro-acoustic music as well as hymn-like songs such as “The Addressing of Cats”.
Although the new production will have a few changes, Trevor Nunn, the original director, will again be in charge. The big difference for this dance-driven show is that British choreographer Gillian Lynne has been replaced by Andy Blankenbuehler (who just won a Tony for “Hamilton”). Representatives of the show are politely evasive about the change. One said, “This is very much Gillian’s ‘Cats,’ with Andy overseeing — and putting his impression on — this production.” Another said that Lloyd Webber and Nunn “wanted to give themselves the luxury of looking at the piece with fresh eyes, if necessary, which they did.” In other words, presumably, the felines will not do hip-hop. Lynne, who choreographed the London revival, has chosen a different tone. In an interview with London’s The Stage, she described herself as “very angry. . . . It makes me feel like I’d like to murder. I have had a rotten time because of it. I did create the show. I really did.” Here, Kim Faure, left, as Demeter, and Christine Cornish Smith as Bombalurina in the new company.
It’s hard to know who this Cats revival is for, outside of a particular strain of undiscerning tourist from the Midwest or maybe Belgium. The producers certainly didn’t seem concerned with attracting New Yorkers, seeing as how the show opened on the last Sunday in July, a time when many city dwellers have fled for the Hamptons or Fire Island.
After the fight, Rum Tum Tugger suggests that the Cats should find a local magician named Mr. Mistoffelees “the original conjuring cat” for help. (“Magical Mr. Mistoffelees”). Mr. Mistoffelees is small and black and can perform feats of magic that no other Cat can do. Mr. Mistoffelees soon arrives just in time as he performs his dance, which is often one of the most intricate and challenging dance solos in the show. The magical Cat restores the lights and brings back Old Deuteronomy, earning praise from all the Cats. The Jellicle Choice can now be made.