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What the end of ''Cats'' means for Broadway

What the end of ”Cats” means for Broadway–The mega-musical leaves behind an industry in need of direction

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”A lot of people thought it wouldn’t be successful in America,” says David Geffen, one of the original Broadway producers of Cats. And no wonder. Although the show had been a London hit, the question remained: Would Stateside audiences buy Andrew Lloyd Webber’s quirky concept — a plot-free tuner with unknown actors and otherworldly lyrics by poet T.S. Eliot? Yet, 18 years later, Cats ranks as the longest-running show in Broadway history, and Geffen has bragging rights: ”It turned out to be the single best investment in the history of Broadway theater.”

But the show would not live up to its promise to run ”now and forever.” Because of lagging ticket sales, Cats will close on June 25. It bows out bearing a great — and notorious — legacy. Having altered the way Broadway does business, Cats leaves behind an industry in need of direction.

Cats paved the way for British producer Cameron Mackintosh’s mega-musicals: Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera, and Miss Saigon. ”There was a huge audience for spectacle that could be merchandised [like] Hollywood movies,” says The New York Times‘ former chief theater critic Frank Rich. While these shows have been vilified for dumbing down Broadway, they revitalized the not-so-Great White Way during the 1980s and early 1990s. ”These shows play a long-running role in the community,” notes Jed Bernstein, president of the League of American Theatres and Producers, ”the way Disney World does in Orlando.”

Funny he should mention Disney. In November 1997 Mickey & Co. stole the spotlight from the Brits with the smash hit The Lion King. Meanwhile, Cats has been stumbling; Lloyd Webber hasn’t had a hit since Phantom; Mackintosh has had trouble getting his productions of Oklahoma! and Martin Guerre to New York, and reveals that we’ll probably see the fall of Miss Saigon ”within the next year.”

A victory for the Yanks? Hardly. Compared with the reported $4 million it cost to create Cats, or even the $10 million to mount Saigon, the price tag on The Lion King is mighty impressive — an estimated $15 million — as are its weekly operating costs, which make sellout crowds a must rather than a plus. Mega-musicals, says Shubert Organization chairman Gerald Schoenfeld, may have become ”prohibitively expensive,” and veteran producer Emanuel Azenberg (Side Show) admits that ”the pressure is on producers” to find fresh talent.

But don’t mourn the musical just yet. Broadway can bank on revivals like Annie Get Your Gun, Chicago, and Cabaret. Young composers like Michael John LaChiusa and Andrew Lippa (who wrote this season’s dueling adaptations of The Wild Party) show great promise. And it seems everyone from Donna Summer to Kevin Costner has a musical in development. Producer David Stone (The Vagina Monologues) says the closing of Cats signifies ”the end of an era” — but not the end of Broadway. Still, wondering where it goes from here is enough to give us paws…er, pause.