I don’t mean the 2019 uncanny valley abomination everyone loves to dump on, though it indirectly inspired me to check out the 1998 filmed stage version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s mega-musical.
The upside of a genuinely atrocious movie is the amount of YouTube hot takes that rip them apart in hilarious, entertaining and informative ways. I had an absolute ball watching the scathing reviews from some of my regulars, but my favourite post-mortem by far came from the musical reviewer Sideways, who, in his fabulously fiery video essay, analysed the movie and its missteps from the music theory point of view. While dissing the new Cats, he made frequent references to the 1998 version in order to explain how and why the original musical worked in the first place, and to my big surprise these snippets actually made me kinda interested.
I’m a very casual fan of musical theatre at best, and while I’m very fond of Jesus Christ Superstar and The Phantom of the Opera, the only thing I knew about Cats, aside from the iconic cat-eyed poster, was Barbra Streisand’s Memory, the signature tear-jerking ballad which I’ve loved for years. Turns out, Cats is an utterly bizarre musical, even after you get over the lycra, cat make-up and suggestive horny dance moves. That is not a necessarily bad thing, mind you.
Cats functions more like a variety show than a traditional musical with a plot, and whatever minimal story there is, is pretty damn weird. In a nutshell, Cats is about a tribe of felines called the Jellicles, who gather every year for an annual Jellicle Ball. On this special night, they pick a lucky cat who can ascend to the kitty heaven and be reborn into a new life (no explanation is given as to what happens to a cat that dies a normal humdrum death, but this is not the world where logic and scrutiny matter). So after the big opening song and dance, most of the show is cats singing about each other and themselves, in hope that they’ll be chosen to, well, die.
We’re introduced to cats like Jennyanydots (do-gooder cat), Rum Tum Tugger (70s glam rock star cat with the biggest share of shameless hip gyrating), Bustopher Jones (capitalist fat cat), Skimbleshanks (railway cat) and many others. Most of the characters have stuff all to do with whatever plot there is; there’s also a baffling number about a battle between dogs, re-enacted by cats in home-made dog costumes. A villain is introduced in one song, and his dastardly evil deed is instantly undone in the very next song. Like I said, there’s no point in picking this story apart or asking “why”.
The cat who sings Memory is Grizabella the Glamour Cat, a sad decrepit outcast in tattered furs who is shunned by the tribe for reasons never explained. Though not strictly a protagonist, she’s the emotional centre of the musical and by god Elaine Paige kills it, radiating pain and desperation from her very first appearance. I’d say that her performance of Memory surpasses Streisand’s; it may be ridiculous that a singing cat lady with cat ears and make-up can make you cry like a baby, but that’s the power of fiction for you.
While Cats is mostly very silly and plotless fluff, I’d be a terrible liar if I didn’t say that I enjoyed it, and not just because I’m a certified cat obsessive. It’s a very dance-driven musical, with the unique and expressive choreography clearly meant to evoke the physicality of real cats, and the sheer artistry, energy and skill on display is genuinely impressive. While none of the other tunes have the status of Memory, they’re hummable and eclectic, written to accentuate the cats’ different personalities and ranging from operatic arias to music hall to rock songs. The stage show is filmed in a pretty straightforward workman-like way, though it adds some special effects like… force lightning powers for Magical Mister Mistoffelees? Who by the way might be my favourite Jellicle.
I can imagine that watching the real live show and getting lost in this weird fantastical universe for a couple of hours would have been about a hundred times more fun, so if there’s ever a stage revival in Melbourne I’m definitely up for it.
P.S. Sideways’ video makes brilliant points on why Cats 2019 failed so spectacularly, but watching the stage show really drives home why Cats the movie was always a bad terrible idea. Not everything can make a successful leap from one medium to another and Cats belongs onstage for sure. And please Hollywood keep Tom Hooper away from making more movie musicals! Or – miaaaoow – movies, period.