For people who love musicals, Cats is often seen as the black sheep of the family, akin to the second cousin who’s super obnoxious yet inexplicably popular and won’t stop reminding everyone of it. For people who hate musicals, Cats is the exemplification of everything they loathe about the medium. How on earth could you not be at least a little bit baffled by a show like this: It’s an Andrew Lloyd Webber show adapted from a book of poems by T.S. Eliot, one with little to no plot that’s full of characters with names like Rum Tum Tugger, Old Deuteronomy, Munkustrap and Skimbleshanks. It’s primarily dance based, meaning it involves a lot of people in leotards with ratty feline tails contorting themselves on stage for your amusement. Oh, and it’s also kind of an allegory for Christianity. I’ve yet to meet someone who actually likes, or will admit to liking Cats, yet there must be plenty of people who do. After all, it ran for a combined total of 23 years on the West End, 19 on Broadway, and it’s reported to have made over $342.2 million worldwide. All that and they’re making a movie of it.
Ah, the movie. Ever since it was announced, I’ve been half convinced that either I’m suffering from a brain fever or a series of pieces from The Onion have gained sentience. Tom Hooper already made such a pig’s ear of Les Miserables, but how the hell does one even go about adapting Cats into a live-action movie? That was the question on everyone’s mind before the casting was announced, and following that, things just got way more confusing. Taylor Swift! Jennifer Hudson! Sir Ian McKellen! James Corden! Idris Elba! Dame Judi Dench! If you were to tell me the casting office had stuck random names to a board and started flinging darts at it, I would wholly believe that to be how this film’s ensemble was chosen. Everything about the project seemed utterly random and totally inexplicable. How could they do it? And why?
Historically speaking, Cats is a fascinating artefact of that era in the medium where the West end dominated Broadway and the mega musical was making its mark. Following the massive successes of Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, Lloyd Webber was looking for a new show without the assistance of his usual lyricist Tim Rice. He liked cats, he liked T.S. Eliot, and he liked the dance troupe Hot Gossip who performed regularly on The Kenny Everett Video Show, so why not combine the three?
Cats was considered a massive risk back in the day and a rather daring creative prospect. It also had a killer production team, which included now legendary producer Cameron Mackintosh, designer John Napier (the turntable in Les Miserables and the helicopter in Miss Saigon are all his), choreographer Gillian Lynne and director Sir Trevor Nunn. Yet even back then, the cast was random as all hell. Brian Blessed was in the original run! So was Sarah Brightman! And Judi Dench! But we’ll get to that.
This was a show nobody wanted to fund, most of the actors were convinced would be a laughing stock, and then Judi Dench snapped her Achille’s tendon, meaning one of the show’s biggest hooks was gone. Elaine Paige, who had just finished her run on Evita, was tapped in to play Grizabella and suddenly the show had its big belter in the form of Memory. But there was still no guarantee the show would work. It was about cats!
Yet work it did, and Cats essentially reinvented the modern British musical. Not only did it raise the game for the triple threat actor - you now had to be able to sing, dance and act, no excuses - and it helped to create a new kind of musical marketing. Everyone recognizes the show’s logo with those cat eyes to the point where you don’t even need to put the name of the musical on the poster. Slap that iconography on a few t-shirts, sell them for a tenner and suddenly every fan of the show becomes a walking advertisement for it. It didn’t take long for international productions to spring up around the world, from Austria to Broadway to Australia and Slovakia. Cats won the Olivier and Tony Awards for Best Musical and cemented the era of the big blockbuster musicals of the 1980s. Andrew Lloyd Webber would make bigger shows that left a greater impact - hi there, Phantom of the Opera - but it’s Cats that remains the strongest exemplification of why people love him and hate him in equal measure.
But what of the musical itself? Is it as bad as its haters would have you believe? Well, I personally don’t think it’s very good. Andrew Lloyd Webber is known for having what can most generously be described as an eclectic approach to his music. He loves to mix up genres and Cats is chock full of pop and rock and pseudo-jazz and hymn-like numbers and, in some productions, rap. You’ll either love that approach or you’ll think it’s the most unbearable thing to listen to. If the electric guitars in the title track for Phantom make you cringe then Cats may be a tough experience for you. The plotless nature of the show will also either delight or infuriate. For some, the appeal lies in the full experience in a way that almost overrides the need for a traditional musical structure. It’s a lavish production, one where you certainly get your money’s worth, something that a lot of casual audience members appreciate in an age of minimalist staging and tiny orchestras. Even if you don’t like to listen to it, there’s always something great to look at, and that’s a key selling point for tourists who may be seeing the show in London or New York and don’t have English as their first language.
Fundamentally, Cats is a theatrical experience and it’s designed to be A Great Night Out. Translating that to cinema is just asking for punishment. Tom Hooper hasn’t talked about how he’ll take on the show or what it’ll look like. Each option presents logistical problems as well as the difficulty in having an audience accept what they’re seeing: Do you go for full feline make-up or massive amounts of CGI, be it through motion-capture or a more animation-based technique? Does Hooper keep the inexplicable realist style he used on Les Miserables or does he embrace full surrealism? Will he insist on the nonsense live singing thing again? Will Idris Elba be in a leotard?
The big question I’ve heard asked a lot since this project’s announcement is, ‘Who is this for?’ Is that core audience who loved the musical so much really eager for a movie version starring Taylor Swift, Gandalf, not Jimmy Fallon and the world’s most objectively sexy man? Why are Universal Pictures pushing this one more than their long gestating adaptation of Wicked, which seems like a much more natural fit for the big screen than this? Yet we are in a current period of movie musical flux, where A Star is Born is a cultural phenomenon, a movie sequel to Mamma Mia! was a surprise critical hit, and The Greatest Showman continues to dominate the charts. Of course there’s a demographic of people dying to see Memory as sung by Jennifer Hudson.
Cats cannot help but raise more questions than it answers, but as with so much pop culture phenomena, its mass appeal is organic, near impossible to replicate, and rather silly to explain. Really, you just have to let it wash over you. Besides, a movie version of Cats can’t possibly be any worse than the one we got of Phantom of the Opera, right?