Hi, my name is Chris, and I’m a Cats fan.
Ever since Cats premiered almost 40 years ago, it’s been the musical that people have loved to hate. But for me, it was my gateway drug to the theater, and I have been bowing my head in reverent thanks for, well, let’s just say a couple of decades. For as long as I can remember, Cats is a musical that I have loved to love.
It probably has something to do with the fact that, as a child of the ’80s growing up in New York, the commercial for Cats seemed to run on television a hundred times a day. Before I even knew what theater was, I knew what Cats was. Before I knew a single showtune, I could hum the creepy theme. Would I have fallen in love with theater if it hadn’t been for Cats? It’s possible that I wouldn’t have. And I’m not the only one.
Say what you will about Cats, but there’s nothing else like it, and it didn’t become a worldwide musical phenomenon because it’s bad. Inspired by T.S. Eliot’s 1939 poetry collection Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s singular creation opened in London’s West End in 1981—where it ran for 21 years—and on Broadway in 1982, where it ran for 18 years and scooped up seven Tony Awards. It was the Hamilton of its time, and has since been translated into 15 languages, performed in 30 countries to millions of people, and has grossed billions of dollars. Pretty impressive for a musical that stinks, huh?
Cats has long been a love-it-or-hate-it proposition, and its present reputation is not helped by the critically disastrous film. But Cats was never going to work on screen. It is a creature totally of the theater and is proof that there are some kinds of magic that just won’t work anywhere else.
To be sure, Cats is weird. And contrary to popular belief, there is a plot. I mean, kind of. A tribe of cats called Jellicle Cats gather once a year for the Jellicle Ball, where at dawn the Jellicle leader, Old Deuteronomy, will choose one cat to ascend to the Heaviside Layer to be reborn into a new Jellicle life.
Plot or no plot—and that’s really beside the point—Cats is a thrilling and one-of-a-kind experience. Bizarre, mystical, magical, and—yes, a little creepy—Cats pushed the limits of what theater could be and redefined the modern musical as we know it. We take a lot of Cats’s innovations for granted, but what Lloyd Webber did—along with producer Cameron Mackintosh, director Trevor Nunn, choreographer Gillian Lynne, designer John Napier, and lighting designer David Hersey—is that they broke new ground.
Cats was revolutionary for its use of synthesizers in Lloyd Webber’s electronic-tinged score, as well as for its pioneering use of automated lighting and the use of individual microphones on each actor so that the musical’s audio and visual landscape could be controlled as precisely as possible, both of which are now industry standards. Cats also ushered in the era of the “megamusical,” critic-proof, musical blockbusters that drew families and tourists to Broadway long before Disney came along. And believe it or not, Cats was the first musical to hawk a full line of merchandise in the lobby. In the 1980s, the iconic Cats T-shirt was the second best-selling T-shirt in the world after Hard Rock Cafe shirts. (How’s this for staying power: Forever 21 is currently selling a Cats tee online).
Whether or not the innovations of Cats are all positive is a debate in and of itself. But the fact remains, Cats is as influential, important, and revolutionary as Show Boat, Oklahoma!, West Side Story, and Hair were before it, and Rent and Hamilton were after it.
The first national tour of Cats launched at Boston’s Shubert Theatre in 1983, and Cats toured the country incessantly for the next 16 years, ending its fourth and final national tour—the longest-running tour in American theater history—the year before the musical finally shuttered on Broadway, after 7,485 performances. Since then, the touring circuit has been completely Cats-less. If I wanted to be dramatic here, I’d point out how many people were robbed of the chance to experience Cats over the course of those 20 Cats-less years, but considering how degraded the quality was by that time—I caught a late ’90s performance at West Point, and they were using inflatable sets by that point—perhaps the bleeding needed to be stopped.
Imagine my glee, then, when rumors of a Broadway transfer began circling the 2014 West End revival, which starred Nicole Scherzinger as Grizabella. A revival did indeed open in New York two years later—this time with Leona Lewis as Grizabella—which also featured some new choreography from Andy Blankenbuehler, a Tony winner for Hamilton. It is that slightly retooled but still very much classic revival of Cats that is now making its way across North America, playing at Boston’s Citizens Bank Opera House through Jan 19.
I’m happy to report that Cats is in fine shape, with a cast of impressive singers and dancers dancing under the Jellicle moon as intoxicatingly as I remember. John Napier’s iconic set and costumes are all faithful adaptations of his originals, and Blankenbuehler has mostly left Gillian Lynne’s choreography alone, which shouldn’t have been touched in the first place. Most retooled are “The Old Gumbie Cat,” “The Rum Tum Tugger,” and “Bustopher Jones,” though they’re hardly improved upon. The most successful bit of Blankenbuehler’s restaging is in the new, extended dance break in the second act showstopper, “Magical Mister Mistoffelees,” beautifully danced by PJ DiGaetano. After all these years, I still maintain that “The Jellicle Ball” is one of the most exquisitely choreographed and dazzlingly written dance numbers in all of musical theater, well worth at least half of the price of admission.
There is also a new lighting design by the incomparable Natasha Katz, who—like Blankenbuehler—has built off of David Hersey’s original lighting design to create visuals that are both modern and electrifying.
But a big problem that has always plagued Cats on the road is the way that traditional proscenium theaters do not allow for the immersive intimacy that made the original production of Cats an experience like no other. I saw Cats twice at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York, its home for 18 years, and it felt less like I was sitting in a theater looking up at a stage and more like I had been plopped down in a garbage heap. The proscenium arch had been ripped out, the stage was lowered, the first seven rows of seats removed, a hole cut in the ceiling, and various catwalks connected the stage to different parts of the house, allowing the cats to prowl into the audience. It looked nothing like a theater, which aided greatly in the audience’s suspension of disbelief. Of course, that isn’t possible on the road—and the cast still spends some time in the aisles, causing all kinds of shrieks—but Cats is a better experience when we feel like we are in their world, rather than the other way around.
There is also the unfortunate cutting of “Growltiger’s Last Stand,” a second-act fantasy sequence involving Gus the theater cat, which places additional operatic vocal demands on the actor playing Gus and would be difficult to stage on the road (the original Broadway production had the entire back wall open up to reveal a pirate ship). Instead, this production moved a song that typically comes in the first act, “The Awefull Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles,” and utilizes that as Gus’s fantasy number to relive his glory days as one of London’s best cat actors. It would have been better to forget a fantasy sequence altogether, as “The Pekes and the Pollicles” is so forgettable that it was left off the original recording altogether.
Another problem is the casting of Grizabella, the glamour cat who has seen better days and gets to belt out “Memory,” the score’s biggest hit, before riding a tire up to the Heaviside Layer during the show’s climax. Played by Keri René Fuller, she has the vocal chops for the role, but she attempts no subtlety or characterization. Hunched over, she slinks on and off the stage like an aimless Norma Desmond and seems to have been directed to never stand up straight. And look, Grizabella has been around. She’s seen some things. She has no hope left. She should not be played by a young woman who barely looks old enough to drink. When she sings about dreaming of “the old days” and being “beautiful then,” what could she be referring to? Kittenhood? This is a ripe role for older actresses, and there’s no good reason for not casting one.
But by and large, this production of Cats has kept alive the magic and madness of one of the most improbably successful musicals of all time. It is obviously with a great deal of affection and nostalgia when I say that everyone should attend the Jellicle Ball at least once in their lives. And taking into consideration the fact that it’s been a decade since Cats was last seen in Boston, it could be your last chance for some time.
And bring a young person with you, if you can. It just might change their life.
CATS. THROUGH 1.19 AT CITIZENS BANK OPERA HOUSE, 539 WASHINGTON ST., BOSTON. BOSTON.BROADWAY.COM
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.