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.