There are some things in life that we as a species will never understand. Why is Family Guy still on? Why are there $2 fees at ATMs? Why do telemarketers always ring during dinner?

For me I will never understand, til the day I die, how on earth CATS ran for 18 years.

It may seem obvious, but I’m not a fan of this show. At all. I don’t think much of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s contribution to musical theatre is anything to scream about, with a few exceptions. I’ll always love Phantom, and Tell Me On A Sunday will remain a beloved part of my personal vocal repertoire.

But CATS, upon its recent return to Australia, having last played in 2014, seemed to reignite the flames of debate, of whether this is a beloved musical theatre classic or deserves to be shot. The casting of pop star Delta Goodrem in the iconic role of Grizabella caused more than a few raised eyebrows in the music theatre community. Once opening night rolled around and reports of a rapping Rum Tum Tugger appeared, the purists emerged from their ivory towers to cry sacrilege on fixing what was never broken.

Sorry, purists. This show is not only broken, it’s shattered into a million pieces and scattered to the four corners of the earth. It’s an unholy mess. It’s one of those musicals where I just shake my head and ask “How?”
How did this show run for 18 years?
How did it sweep the Tony Awards?
How did it win Best Musical? Best BOOK?!?

So, how did CATS all come about?
Well, the entire show is based on Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by the great T.S Eliot. It’s a collection of very creative poems about, what else, cats! It’s nothing phenomenal but it’s good harmless fun. Apparently, as a child, it was one of Webber’s favourites. And just to get this out of the way, there’s nothing wrong with adapting a childhood classic into a musical (Seussical, anyone?). It’s how you do it that makes or breaks it.
No, this is not a review of the current Sydney production. I suffered through this exercise in egomania once and not a lot could entice me to willingly sit through it again.
I’m not going to sit here and claim that CATS is destroying the source material. It’s not. And the poetry does lend itself to the musical theatre medium, but I’ll get to the music later. What I’m doing here is analysing the musical as part of the genre, and why I don’t think it works as a musical, to say the least.


Here’s your first hint

CATS is a curious case. It’s so awful, it’s actually kind of fascinating. There are times where I wonder whether it can legally be termed a musical, since most musicals have storylines and characters.
CATS does not possess these. See, T.S Eliot’s estate actually forbade the inclusion of a story and this is where things start to go wrong.
You can pretty much summarise the plot of CATS in five words. Weird creatures dance on junkyard. And that concludes our synopsis. I bet we’re going to be in for a wild ride here.
As the show opens, the audience is introduced to the Jellicle tribe. The cats dance around the stage and sing about all the wonderful and pointless things the Jellicle cats can do. And they’re also not kind enough to explain what the heck they are.
Clearly, these cats are not traditional felines, and they aren’t human. So….what are they? Where did they come from? What is their purpose? No? Nothing? Hello, confused audience here? ….Seriously?

Oh, they’ll happily tell you off as an audience for not knowing what they are. I’m dead serious. The following are actual lyrics from the end of the opening number.

There’s a man over there with a look of surprise
As much as to say well now how about that?
Do I actually see with my own very eyes
A man who’s not heard of a jellicle cat?
What’s a jellicle cat?
What’s a jellicle cat? (They repeat this 5 more times)

For a second you think they might actually tell you, but instead they launch into a rather creepy song about how they get their names. I don’t care how you get your names, I want to know what on earth you….things are!
And when they tell you how they get named, they don’t actually single out any cat so they have an identity. No, it’s just a list, a roll call of sorts, and it goes on forever. Actually, all the songs go on forever. WIth no dialogue, no story and nothing to hold your attention, I suppose it’s only fitting that they need to have something to extend the ‘action’ on stage. But there’s extending, and there’s pointless padding, which this musical has in spades. Every single song goes on for well over four minutes. Every. Single. Song. And remember how I said there’s literally no dialogue? I hope you have a comfortable seat, because things get boring fast.

As soon as the estate said a story was not to be included, this SHOULD have been a major red flag. Maybe, just maybe, musical theatre runs best when there is a flowing narrative.
I’ve had some fans try to tell me that the show is a song cycle. NO. Songs for a New World is a song cycle. Edges is a song cycle. CATS is not a song cycle. They’re clearly trying to tell something here, and with the restrictions placed on the production, it’s just not possible to make it the least bit interesting.


Great, you’re dancing again. Now will you please DO SOMETHING?

So there’s no story. Well, maybe the characters can be fun and bring some life to the proceedings? I think you give this show way too much credit. There’s about a much personality in these characters as a rice cake. The general ensemble of cats don’t even get much of a chance at development or identity so they all sort of blend together, and the cats that do get songs are rarely seen again. They aren’t even that important in the grand scheme of things. And you know what? When the show opened on Broadway, the cast was very confused about what they were doing.
When your own cast has no idea what’s going on, you’ve really run into trouble.

Despite being forbidden to have a storyline, there’s still a few laughable attempts at creating some kind of narrative. Macavity shows up occasionally, and for some reason the cats are disgusted by Grizabella’s presence, though neither “plot threads” are ever actually given any motivation or justification.
Macavity is allegedly the antagonist, though a presence is barely established. Don’t try to tell me that the less you see the better. That only works if there’s a build up to the climax, and there’s ZERO build up here. Macavity isn’t even mentioned until he first appears in the shadows with an evil laugh. They never say why Macavity is so evil or what his problem is with everyone else. He isn’t talked about, foreshadowed, and the song about him tells us very little. The most you glean is “he’s not there!”
*sigh* Two things.
1. What kind of criminal hangs around at the crime scene?  Do you honestly expect that?
2. These “crimes” Macavity is committing are little more than harmless pranks. And frankly he doesn’t seem scary to begin with so I have trouble believing he’d be pulling off anything worth worrying about.
The bottom line is, Macavity is a useless antagonist. He never seems a legitimate threat to anyone. So….WHAT WAS THE PURPOSE OF THIS GUY? Just a half baked attempt to put another pointless song in? That’s pretty weak.
Oh, Grizabella. Nice to see you suddenly appear for no reason into the plot. Oh, that’s right. We need to pretend there’s something going on other than dancing. Grizabella is an old grey cat, who was apparently once glamourous, but she isn’t anymore, and for some reason the Jellicle tribe hates her. She only comes on to get ridiculed before singing sadly and leaving. Le sigh. You could take her out of the show and you’d really not have a major difference. But of course, she sings that one song and everyone swoons.
And I’m just going to say this now. Memory can go die. In a fire.


My face throughout the entire show

This is definitely not a case of the music saving a show, like Chess or RENT. The songs for CATS are sub-par at best, even for Andrew Lloyd Webber. There’s song after song after song with no purpose. Pretty much the only thing you can get from these songs is that these are nominees for the Heavyside Layer. Riveting.
Normally I might not mind this. After all, Spring Awakening‘s score comments on the action rather than driving it forward, but like I said before, these cats are rarely seen again. They are not consequential. And from the second Grizabella staggers onto the stage, you know she’s going to be the one chosen.
By the way, what exactly is the Heavyside Layer? Yeah, they aren’t going to tell you that either.
For me, this is the most fascinating thing about CATS. And by fascinating, I mean fascinatingly bad. This show spends the entire running time explaining everything, and never actually manages to explain anything at all. Grizabella and Macavity are one thing, but what about the other questions that are never answered? What’s the Heavyside Layer? What are these things? What is going on? Why should I care? Can I stop watching now, please?

CATS is a marvel. Truly a gift to bad theatre. There’s just nothing here. Nothing to like. Nothing to be interested in. Nothing to care about, nothing to hold your attention.
I will give the cast a huge amount of credit, because to get through this show you need to be a superhuman. And the choreography is impressive, but after about ten minutes the sheen wears off and you crave something more.
The only reason this show won so many awards is because of Webber’s involvement. It was made at the height of his reign as King of Musical Theatre, so audiences were willing to swallow anything regurgitated onto the stage. It’s a dancer’s show, so it was kind of a new idea, and I’ve heard it referred to as the first ‘concept’ musical, though what ‘concept’ it was I would love to know. I can’t even give it the excuse of being style over substance. This isn’t like Love Never Dies, where I can at least understand people being sucked in by pretty visuals. See what you’ve done, CATS? You nearly made me justify Paint Never Dries. Bad kitty.

If you like CATS, fine. Go ahead and like it. And if you think it has a storyline or legitimate answers to any of the questions raised, then please tell me. I am beyond curious. I’m praying for the day the industry finally wakes up and realises that Australia needs and deserves better quality musical theatre, not just endless revivals of the same dull shows that aren’t even that great to begin with. Until then, and possibly after, I’m tossing this kitty litter out into the cold where it belongs.


4 thoughts on “CATS

  1. Daniel Austin

    Okay, so I wasn’t going to see this show until I saw the movie trailer. I didn’t realize there was going to be a movie until a few weeks before its release, and it piqued my curiosity. However, I wasn’t going to see the movie without at least seeing the stage show first because movies always make changes and I wanted to at least be aware of the differences. That said, I requested the Broadway version on DVD from my library and checked it out so I could watch that first.

    I kept everything you said about this show in mind, and I was expecting to hate it. But when I finally watched it…I didn’t think it was that horrible. In fact, the more I watch it, the more I enjoy it. I really like a good number of the songs (Moments of Happiness is probably my favorite, especially Jemima’s singing part, and I really like Memory), though most are just kinda ‘meh’ for me. And then…I was expecting to hate the movie due to its increasingly bad reception but I ended up enjoying that too! I don’t know if you were told this, but there is more of an attempt at a plot line in the movie (and I’ve heard CATS fans say they hate that part of it).

    Don’t get me wrong. Most of your points are totally legit. They don’t explain what a Jellicle cat is (just tells us what they do, and the song says they’re black and white cats but that’s only true for a few of them), they don’t tell us what the Heaviside Layer is (I guess it’s cat heaven?), and even though there’s no real plot, a story IS trying to come out. One thing I would disagree on is Mccavity – he does kidnap Old Deuteronomy, which is pretty bad. Worse than a ‘harmless prank’, to be sure, though we’re never told why he does it. He’s supposed to be inspired by Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes, who was nicknamed ‘the Napoleon of Crime’ – also a name given to Ratigan in The Great Mouse Detective. I do agree though, that Mccavity needs to do more to earn that title if ALW wants us to take him seriously as a villain.

    But despite all that, I can’t help but like this show. I now have plans to buy the CATS on Broadway DVD as well as the movie when it’s available. It’s not in my top 10, 20, or even 30 list of favorite musicals, but I do like it a lot now that I’ve seen it. I really wasn’t expecting to like it at all, especially not this much. But I’m glad I gave it a chance and finally saw it.

  2. Daniel Austin

    I’ve never seen CATS – heard some of the music, wasn’t interested. Especially after hearing it doesn’t have a story or plot. Endless singing and dancing tends to bore me after a while. I like my musicals with reasonable portions of singing and dialogue mixed together, dancing being optional or even a bonus at times.

    I wanted to comment on what you said about this show having no dialogue. This is actually one of my issues with Andrew Lloyd Webber as a musical composer. Even though I love Phantom of the Opera and it’s one of my favorite shows, I believe there are portions that are sung that could easily be dialogue instead (one example being “Notes” – did that REALLY have to be sung?). I fell in love with Phantom because I saw the Wishbone episode of it first and was intrigued by the story – I was first exposed to Webber’s version through singing a medley of six songs from the show in my 8th grade choir – unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to see it onstage when it came to my city shortly after, and I had to wait for the movie to come out two years later if I wanted to see it at all. Even though it was a great experience, I was having trouble following it at certain parts because I believe the characters were singing when they didn’t need to sing. It took me several viewings of the movie to get me to really fall in love with the show, so now I can watch it and follow it just fine. But I checked out a few of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s other works, like Joseph and Evita, and I was bored out of my mind because there was almost no dialogue in those shows!

    I love musicals, but if I have to listen to constant singing with little to no break, my mind tends to wander, I miss out on some things happening because I’m trying to listen to the music and follow the story at the same time, and sometimes the music that could be replaced with dialogue is just not that memorable, so it’s even harder for me to follow the plot. I’d have to view it at least several times to get a full feel of what’s happening in the story, and that’s if I even have the opportunity to see the show more than once. Other times I look up the synopsis on Wikipedia, and I feel like that’s cheating. It also doesn’t help when the performer doesn’t enunciate the lyrics and I can’t understand what they’re saying, and I probably could have if they simply spoke the lines instead.

    Classic musicals like West Side Story, Sound of Music, Singing in the Rain, Oklahoma, etc. tend to not have this issue – they have a lot of dialogue that helps us get to know the characters and move the story forward, and when the characters do sing it really matters. Not only that, but the songs are memorable, catchy, powerful, they really pull you in, and a lot of them just plain knock your socks off. The songs in those musicals made an impression because the dialogue surrounding them made them stand out.

    And that’s just not the case with musicals that have no dialogue. Yes, there are and have been great, amazing, memorable numbers that come from such shows, some of which I consider my top favorites, but it’s hard for me to enjoy them as much I do with musicals that have plenty of dialogue when I’m actually watching them in their live shows or movie versions, because the excessive singing that replaces the dialogue is often boring, goes on forever, and waters down the songs that really matter. I know some theatre goers and performers don’t have an issue with this, but it’s a big deal for me. Which is why I want to team up with some music writers and write musicals with them together – I would just be the person that writes the dialogue. I know that some modern musicals have more dialogue than others and are more like classic musicals in that way, but I feel like they’ve become fewer and fewer, and they’re getting overshadowed by musicals that have little to no dialogue.

  3. Erik

    Yet another musical you clearly have no idea about. But you have a ‘blog’ so you clearly think you matter. And again, another article so full of inaccuracies about the show, you sound like a spoilt, uneducated brat. If you’re going to slag a show off, at least educate yourself about it first.

    1. AbStar921 Post author

      HAHAHAHA! Oh my, your comments make me laugh.
      At least point out the inaccuracies. And again, I’m only telling the truth about the show. If you don’t like my blog/my views, don’t read them sunshine! It’s as simple as that.
      CATS is rubbish.


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