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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, April 13, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 15
CATS: It's now and forever
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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CATS: It's now and forever

by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN A&E Writer

CATS
April 17-22
Paramount Theatre


The black poster with the yellow eyes and dancers for pupils is now an iconic sight for any lover of Broadway. Just one look and anyone over the age of 7 can tell you what show it represents. It's the smash hit musical CATS by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber. The cast album gave birth to such hits as 'Rum Tum Tugger,' the first Broadway video to be played on MTV, and of course the now famous 'Memory'; a song that has been recorded worldwide by some of the greatest artists. But it's odd to think that a collection of children's poems written more than 50 years prior could be the fertile ground for what became the second-longest-running Broadway musical in history.

When the esteemed poet and playwright Thomas Stearns Eliot sat down in the early 1930s, his goal was nothing more than to write a collection of simple, lighthearted poems for his godchildren. He signed the various writings 'Old Possum,' a nicknamed given to him by his contemporary, the renowned poet Ezra Pound. The book became an endeared classic of English literature.

While celebrating his success from his previous musicals Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, Andrew Lloyd Webber was killing time in an airport when he picked up a copy of Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats in 1977. After reading the poems, Lloyd Webber decided to take on the task of setting them to music. It was in 1980 that he presented some examples to Eliot's widow, Valerie. She gave her blessings with the condition that only the original prose would be used as text, and that no further script would be written for the show. It was agreed.

Being that there wasn't any plot (which confused the cast and angered many critics), Lloyd Webber used a variety of musical styles to tell the story, including classical arias, pop music, jazz, rock, and even hymnal variations. Through the music and poetry, a quasi-storyline fell into place: a group of magical cats of different breeds and temperaments gather one evening to decide which of them has earned the right to go to the 'Heaviside Layer'; a kind of kitty-heaven where one lucky cat shall be reborn. Focusing on being a heavy 'dance' show, the casting calls were sent out.

'We all thought it was silly,' recalls Sarah Brightman. 'We thought it would only play a few weeks, but it was a job.' Brightman created the role of Jemima for the original London cast, a job that seemed to pay off well as she eventually became Mrs. Andrew Lloyd Webber. Other members of the original London cast included Judi Dench as a newly created cat named Grizabella.

Grizabella is a former 'Glamour Cat,' and was a poem that went unpublished from the original book as Eliot's widow thought it to be 'too sad' for children. The character is also taken from two other poems by Eliot, Preludes and Rhapsody on a Windy Night, the latter recalling days of a formerly glamorous woman past her prime. The poems were combined to form the song 'Memory,' originally to be sung by the principal role, Bombalurina, but after being rewritten several times, it was given to Grizabella when Elaine Paige took over the role. (The song was originally written for Perón as a ballad in Evita, and then as a song for Max for a 1970 version of Sunset Boulevard, (both by Lloyd Webber). The role was originally to be played by Dench, but during rehearsals she tore an Achilles tendon, and Paige stepped into musical theater history just four days before the opening previews. Said Paige, 'A different set of lyrics was sung to that tune for the first 10 previews of the show.'

When the musical transferred from its debut in London in 1981 to Broadway the following year, the musical kept the original production team, including producer Cameron Mackintosh and Trevor Nunn, who wrote filler lyrics for the show. The cost rose from £900,000 to $5,000,000. Originally slated for Lorna Luft (Judy Garland's daughter) to play Grizabella on Broadway, the role was eventually given to Betty Buckley. 'If I had to stand around all night long just to come out at the end and sing one song,' Luft recalled, 'I'd go bat-shit crazy!' Buckley would subsequently win her first Tony Award for the role, and become forever associated with the song. Other members of the original Broadway cast included Ken Page (Old Deuteronomy), Terrence Mann (Rum Tum Tugger), Harry Groener (Munkustrap), and Marlene Danielle (Bombalurina), who has the distinction of being the only performer in the musical from its Broadway beginnings until it closed.

In June 19, 1997, CATS won the honor of becoming the longest-running Broadway musical, only to be surpassed three years later by another Lloyd Webber musical, Phantom of the Opera. CATS won the Laurence Olivier Award (London) for best musical and choreography in 1982. In 1983 it would be nominated for 10 Tony Awards including Best Featured Actor (Harry Groener, Stephen Hanan), Best Featured Actress (Betty Buckley), and Best Musical. It would again make history by awarding the first posthumous Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical (awarded to T.S. Eliot and accepted by his widow, Valerie). The song 'Memory' would go on to be recorded by some of the greatest vocal artists in the world, including Barbra Streisand (her version would reach No. 9 on Billboard's Adult Contemporary charts), Barry Manilow (No. 8, and the highest-ranking version on Billboard), Johnny Mathis, Shirley Bassey, Celine Dion, Petula Clark, and Susan Boyle, to name only a few.

A filmed version of the musical was released on VHS and DVD in 1998, directed by David Mallet and choreography/musical staging by the show's original creator, Gillian Lynne. For the final showing of its original London run (its 21st-anniversary date - May 11, 2002), demand was so high for tickets that it was broadcast on a large screen in Covent Garden, and held the record as London's longest running musical until it was surpassed by Les Misérables on October 8, 2006. The show has been produced around the world including productions in Brazil and the Philippines (starring Lea Salonga as Grizabella) in 2010. It has been translated into over 20 languages worldwide, and a London revival has been rumored for the 2013 season.

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