What Were Audiences Expecting When Cats Opened 34 Years Ago?

Special Features   What Were Audiences Expecting When Cats Opened 34 Years Ago? On the anniversary of the opening of the original production, we paged through our old Playbills and found this piece about the show that changed the canon.
A Scene from <i>Cats</i>
A Scene from Cats

On October 7, 1982 the original production of Cats opened on Broadway. After a successful London run, the subsequent smash transfer to New York marked a milestone for English-born musicals. Here, we take a look at the original article published in the October 1982 Playbill about the show that would end up a smash 18-year hit that changed musical theatre.

Smash hits don’t come much more smash than Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, the hit London musical based on the Possum Power of T.S. Eliot’s celebrated book of feline eccentrics.

To Broadway this fall has come the Rum Tum Tugger and the old Gumbie Cat, and the Jellicles and Mungojerrie, and Rumpleteazer and Growltiger, and the magical Mr. Mistoffelees, and Macavity and the Mystery Cat and Bustopher Jones—who’s not skin and bones, and Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat and perhaps above all Grizabella, the Blanche du Bois of the animal kingdom whose initial despair and ultimate transmigration of the soul gives the show not only its hit song (“Memory”) but also its continuing theme of death and rebirth, despair and joy.

To understand the utter pride and delight with which London sends Cats to Broadway this month you have to understand something about the state, such as it is of the English musical. Apart from such period pieces as The Boy Friend (1920s) and Oliver! (Dickensian), English musicals have almost always died somewhere in the mid-Atlantic while trying to make the crossing to New York. Of those that have become hits, Evita always had an American director and choreographer even in London, and the other Lloyd Webber shows (Joseph and Superstar) always ended up on Broadway looking more American than English.

But here for the first time we have a vivid and marvelous gesture of transatlantic defiance; for years we have been told by Broadway, and rightly, that though we might have our Royal Shakespeare and our National, the one thing the London theatre truly lacked was the ability to do an all-dancing show. Now, and not before time, comes the answer: like Bob Fosse’s Dancin’ this is a choreographer’s benefit night. Cats has no plot, no book, no real story line; it is simply an arrangement of twenty of Eliot’s Old Possum poems for dancers and orchestra, a revolutionary dance drama for which the honors have to be shared between Lloyd Webber and his director and choreographer, the Royal Shakespeare Company team of Trevor Nunn and Gillian Lynne (together also responsible for a stunning London semi-musical revival of Once in a Lifetime a few years back, as well as an almost-musical Comedy of Errors at Stratford).

The first of Lloyd Webber’s big musicals not to have been sold as a hit record before becoming a show, Cats began simply enough at a summer festival in 1980 run by Lloyd Webber himself at this country house near Newbury in Berkshire. As after-dinner entertainment, he had set ten of Eliot’s feline fantasies to music, and had them sung by three friends as a purely private celebration. But in the audience, presumably because at the back of his mind Lloyd Webber thought this might go further, was T.S. Eliot’s widow, Valerie. With such washer enthusiasm for the idea, she produced a number of other and often unpublished cat verses by her late husband. Armed with those, Lloyd Webber approached Nunn and Lynne at the RSC, and they then began a journey of exploration through Eliot, which ended nine months later at the New London Theatre in an explosion of musical and choreographic talent. It showed for the first time that Britain could muster 30 dancers as talented, versatile and energetic as any team ever fielded by Broadway or Hollywood.

Terrence Mann (center) in the original Broadway production of Cats.
Terrence Mann (center) in the original Broadway production of Cats. Martha Swope / The New York Public Library

Not that London’s Cats was in any sense a presold success: despite the triple crown that Lloyd Webber already shared with Tim Rice (for Evita, Superstar, and Joseph) there was considerable insider doubt about whether a musical built on poems could ever be made to work theatrically. Lloyd Webber’s track record away from Rice had not been good (he had a marathon failure with a musical based on P.G. Woodhouse Jeeves stories) and the leading lady (Judi Dench) dropped out with a torn Achilles tendon, only to be replaced a couple of days before the preview of Elaine Paige, London’s original Evita. Trevor Nunn had never directed a full-scale musical, and moreover they were going to a theatre which hadn’t had a huge hit in almost ten years.

So the original triumph of Cats was at least, in part, a triumph over adversity; but its real success lay in Lloyd Webber’s astute realization that somewhere buried in those apparently simple, almost child-like cat poems lay an altogether darker and more intriguing world, a world in which life and death, failure and success mystery and evil and virtue could be conveyed through the magic and music of cat-dancers on a cold tin rubbish dump.

But one of the most remarkable things about the genesis of Cats was its fragmentary nature; at a time when most big musicals were still coming out of well-established plays or novels Lloyd Webber and Nunn and Lynne went to work in a small London rehearsal hall on what was fundamentally just a concept, though one admittedly backed by nearly a million dollars of investment money raised primarily on the success of Evita. Take Grizabella again: the glamour cat who has become the star of this show, and about the filming of whom there will doubtless next year be another battle of Evita proportions. In fact Grizabella turns up in Eliot’s original poems for no more than eight lines, because he thought the story of her “haunting many a low resort, near the grimy road of Tottenham Court” was too sad to be told to the children for whom he originally intended his book for practical cats.

Yet around those eight lines has been built a character, a theme song, a mood which typifies Cats: it’s a show which takes off again and again from a single line, sometimes just a word, in Eliot and creates its own world of the derelict inner-city rubbish dump which all have to go through, and some disappear from, en route to the heaviside layer, which provides a climax easily as stunning as the arrival of the starship of Close Encounters. In his first real break from the Royal Shakespeare Company (of which he remains artistic director), Trevor Nunn has arrived at a concept which genuinely moves the musical theatre forward, perhaps for the first time since Cabaret; and to have achieved that and Nicholas Nickleby within the same 12 months seems to me a production achievement unrivaled in our lifetime.

For Lloyd Webber, not yet 35, Cats also represents a break with the more conventional ‘book’ musical (though it’s arguable that he’d in fact already achieved that with Joseph, the show he wrote for his old school more than a decade ago). There too the plot structure was fragile to a point of non-existence, but on that occasion what mattered was the songs alone; here it is the choreography of Gillian Lynne and the setting of John Napier, which create the world of Cats—a world harsher and more brutal than might be expected. An environmental rubbish-dump made of rusting cars, huge tires, dustbin lids and old bicycles forms the background, not for a series of isolated feline star-turns, but instead for the creation of a complete world, one peopled by magicians and pirates and stage-door historians and rock stars all of whom just happen also to be cats. For them, Gillian Lynne has created a choreography which is in fact also a history of modern dance—everything from tap to ballet, from Broadway-type showstoppers to quiet solos that might have come out of Convent Garden, which was in fact the original training ground for many of the original cast.

Steven Hack warming up
Courtesy of Steven Hack

Uniquely, Cats is a show that would have made sense to Martha Graham and to Oscar Hammerstein: musically, dramatically and technologically it draws on every aspect of theatre to come up with a celebration of the musical form which does for Eliot’s original what Papp’s Pirates did for Gilbert and Sullivan. It’s a show about perpetual motion, and about the possibilities of theatre: like Nickleby, it’s the kind of show which could only have come together in a rehearsal hall, Cats cannot really exist on paper, and even on record it is something less than complete. Taking it’s cue from Eliot’s Song of the Jellicles:

Jellicle Cats come out tonight
Jellicle Cats come one come all:
The Jellicle Moon is shining bright—
Jellicles come to the Jellicle Ball

(Text copyright © Faber and Faber Ltd.)

Cats lifts off into an opening eight-minute dance spectacular, which involves its audience almost as deeply as its participants. As a musical, it works on Disneyland principles: you have to be there to believe it or understand it, and you have to have eyes in the back of your head if you’re not to miss something new in every split-second. Lloyd Webber’s score has been described by at least one critic as ‘Europop’ but it’s actually more than that: the second-half songs have a lyric and dramatic quality, which far transcend his earlier writing, but then if you are looking for a partner, lyricists don’t come much finer than T.S. Eliot. Cats is, at the last, an invitation to the dance that no theatre should refuse: it will, I suspect, have a lot more than nine lives in a lot more than nine nations.

This article was originally published in the October 1982 issue of Playbill.

READ MORE: Stars of the Original Cats Share Their Favorite Memories