The conflicted theater fan's guide to Cats
For as long as I’ve been alive, Cats has been a musical theater punchline. How it got there is easy: It’s a show about cats. It features performers dressed as cats. They sing songs wherein no less than five percent of the lyrics to any one song are the word “cat.” The joke isn’t hidden or difficult to find, embedded somewhere deep in the show’s DNA; it is in fact its most earnest, outward-facing layer.
Cats was ridiculous on the page long before the masses seized on it and turned it onto a phenomenon, and had they not, it very likely might have stayed an apocryphal tale of stage legend, passed on among budding theater kids like Moose Murders and the bootleg of Idina’s last Wicked. And yet it was only after Cats opened in London in 1981 and then again on Broadway in 1982 (evidently flexing those double jeopardy clauses) that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical about cats became, in no small terms, a gargantuan entertainment singularity of complete preposterousness.
Cats remains the fourth-longest-running show on Broadway, having played close to 7,500 performances before it closed in 2000, and the sixth-longest-running on the West End (where it played almost 9,000). It’s been translated into more than 20 languages (Gatos! Chattes! Katter!), toured worldwide, and grossed hundreds of millions of dollars. By 2000, it went into something of a cultural hibernation, spending the next decade and a half touring while mostly settled into a dusty nook of the zeitgeist reserved for memories of intellectual property we collectively still can’t believe happened. And then in 2014 Cats sprang back to the mainstream — first (again) in London, then on Broadway, and now, like a cerulean military jacket, it’s trickled on down into the touring crevices of America, where it will evanjelliclize the northern hemisphere through the summer of 2020 and likely beyond.
Today, you may possibly find Cats on tour coming to a city near you at some point in the distant future (and if you do, by all means, grab a ticket and see the hardest-working dance ensemble in the country). However, what you will definitely find coming your way — imminently, urgently, seemingly unstoppably — is Cats on screen, rum-tug-tugging into a movie theater near you. As of Dec. 20, director Tom Hooper’s film adaptation will have sailed into thousands of cinemas on the flamboyant inertia of a studio budget and unlimited access to glitter WordArt. Its advertising needs no blacklight to discover its deep message begging you to believe. In what? Nobody actually seems to know — but then again, Cats was never particularly clear about much of anything. Yet what’s quite evident in the arrival of the film is how it presents drastically different dilemmas for the drastically different audiences ready (or not) to receive it.
Theater people have known to see this asteroid coming for years — we’ve been tracking Andrew Lloyd’s Webbon of mass destruction since the day Universal first announced its impending adaptation from the director of Anne Hathaway’s Oscar. Even with the weekly additions of inexplicably all-star cast members like Taylor Swift, Jennifer Hudson, Judi Dench, and Ian McKellen, the drama-geek community’s reception to Cats never moved past a perennial state of dumbfounded incredulity that this movie was actually happening and was not in fact a fever dream concocted by a high school cast party at midnight in an abandoned Denny’s.
But regular non-theater folks (and if you wonder whether you’re one of them, you probably are) are just coming to terms with the existence of a Cats movie. They’re only just now taking stock of the December marketing blitz in newspapers and on buses and in the little commercials your aunt watches to earn an extra life in iPhone games. And if these innocent moviegoers are somehow impelled to make the Jellicle choice to go see Cats over, say, the Star War or the Little Women, I fear a similar turmoil that happened in the ‘80s may occur again — because Cats is, at its core, a musical that confirms for people who hate musicals why they hate musicals.
For three heteronormative decades, people eager to participate in vogue art have dragged their spouses to Cats and those spouses, adamant that they dislike musicals because they saw a middle school do a production of Brigadoon once, have begrudgingly agreed — because who among us wants to be left out of what’s popular? And so these folks put aside their already-precarious distaste for the art form and go see Cats, and in its absurdity of plot, in its fundamental lack of narrative cohesion, in its obliteration of the fourth wall and ceaseless inundation of eerie chords and incredible dancing and stomach-churning aesthetic dips into the uncanny valley, these non-theater people leave the theater convinced: They’ve opened their minds to musicals again, and everything they feared about them was right.
But Cats is not indicative of musicals — all theater people should know this, and most discerning artistic patrons should know it as well. Cats is in fact musical theater’s outlier, its bastard exception, its freak bolt of lightning that burned the Mona Lisa into a tree on Route 66 which then became a tourist destination for its sheer stupid delight but is in no way representative of all trees, all tourist destinations, or all Monas Lisa. However, it’s impossible for us to scream “It’s not like all musicals!” to everyone who has ever used an evening of Cats as an entry into and immediately out of the world of theater — and so it’s with a similar sad resolve that I accept we may see an entirely new generation of musical trusts broken and cultural tastes crucified by Cats on film, perhaps to an even more formidable degree thanks to the inherent widespread access demanded by a holiday release.
So where does that leave the theater people? As we pack into cinemas to see what horror Bombalurina hath wrought, do we add to the noise of Cats detractors and become complicit in the further derision of our favorite genre and/or the possible unfair extrapolation from studio strategists about the commercial potential of movie musicals? Is it our responsibility to then defend this awful musical, even though it presents our beloved art form as a nonsensical variety show of hypersexualized solos with the desperate-cringe energy of an understudy Star-to-Be? Or is it enough to sit silently somewhere in between, sharing opinions with those who ask but remaining otherwise disengaged from the biggest movie musical event of the year?
As someone who thought The Greatest Showman was so ridiculous that I saw it three times in theaters and own two copies on Blu-ray, I’ve been thinking a lot about the theater kid’s place in all this. It’s certainly not our obligation to blindly support every entry in the musical genre or convince non-theater people to give Cats a chance — in fact, I’m reticent to even link myself to it, lest anyone dispute all my future movie recommendations with “Yeah, but remember that time you told me to go see Cats?” Yet outwardly rejecting the film would also betray a message I have long believed since I fell in love with theater: Any musical is better than no musical at all.
It’s something I realized while watching Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia! and Gerard Butler in The Phantom of the Opera and Christopher Walken in Peter Pan Live and Russell Crowe in Les Miserables — this is excruciating, but thank goodness, any musical is better than no musical. I recognized it during the plot twists of Smash and the theatrics of Glee and the pilot of Rise (in which high schoolers impulsively burned down the set of Grease halfway through rehearsals because the new director suddenly decided they were going to do Spring Awakening instead) — absurd, but thank goodness, any musical is better than no musical. Even during commercial hits like The Greatest Showman and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, big-budget features duly recognized for their guilty-pleasure delights, did I feel that same pang of gratitude that people in Hollywood are still taking the time to bring musicals to the masses, frivolous or flawed as the offerings may be. Yes, it would be wonderful to feel pride in the genre instead of just constant apologetic acceptance, but brava to the good offerings we do have: The sincere efforts of the live musicals and the Smash-es, the tenacious contributions of Meron and Marshall and Greenblatt and Platt, the earnest exploits of Fosse/Verdon and Encore! and High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, all striving to serve the community with respect. At the end of the day, I’m grateful for any spotlight to be shone on musical theater as a cornerstone of pop culture.
Which is why Cats presents such a curious case of conflict to the drama geek in me. Any musical is better than no musical, but dear God is the Cats movie awful. As was the show itself! Regardless of its popularity in the ’80s, Cats does not deserve some kind of free pass of artistic merit because of antiquity; it’s a museum relic lucky to have survived a raid, a ghost of culture past foisted on the digital generation like a pre-downloaded U2 album, a fluke of the zeitgeist that somehow slipped into infamy by the carelessness of the same people who allowed Trump and Brexit to happen. But though we did not ask for it, though we are not responsible for it, though we need not answer for it — I believe theater fans must not abandon Cats. Because much as we may hate it, we can’t deny that we care about it. You care about it.
You care because you have secretly already added three songs from the soundtrack to your Broadway workout playlist and are kind of pissed they changed the melody of “Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer” but also loved what Jason Derulo did with Rum Tum Tugger. You care because you planned your drunk Cats moviegoing experience weeks in advance contemplating just what kind of mind-addling substance might best help you enjoy the sight of Cat Judi Dench wearing a coat made of other cats’ skin. You care about Cats because you would be furious if everyone in your life did not ask you your opinion about Cats — what you thought about Cats, whether they themselves should see Cats, whether you are the sole person in their lives who can explain what a jellicle cat is in a way that the most intense Google search can not.
Theater people — we care. About the good, about the bad, we care. And in the distant future when we look back on the horrors of 2019 from Sutton Foster’s 75th Birthday Farewell Jubilee Tour, we will look our grandchildren in the eye and tell them we knew exactly where we were the week Trump and Grizabella both got impeached. You don’t have to believe that it’s a masterpiece, or that it’s even remotely decent, but you must trust your connection to this magical, miserable title and believe that if Cats does in fact leave you speechless, then it’s a lucky thing that theater people love nothing better than a good showstopper.