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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Jellicle Cats Come One, Come All: In Conversation with the Cast and Crew of CATS

William Foxton chats to the people involved with CATS over the years to discover what makes the musical so successful.

West End actor Harry Francis was six years old when he saw CATS for the first time.

“I was obsessed with it,” he tells me, “and I watched it pretty much every day. I would even try and dress up as a cat…As a dancer, it really inspired me because it was such a mix of ballet and jazz and tap and everything. And I think as a child, it kind of blurs the lines. [Watching the show] you don’t feel like you have to train in ballet or whatever, you want to do everything. I think that was something which was inspiring to a lot of dancers.”

New York Times journalist Kyle Buchanan was a similar age when he saw the show for the first time. It was, however, a different experience.

“It was just so weird and unsettling,” he laughs, “I remember a cat on stage pointing at me – me, this ten year old – and saying ‘he doesn’t believe in a Jellicle cat!’ I could feel the audience turn on me, and I’d done nothing wrong!”

Everyone remembers the first time they watched CATS: the good, the bad, the bizarrely erotic. It’s a polarising show to say the least. Centring around an all-star, feline Battle Royale, where each cat presents their life through song and dance, hoping to be chosen to ascend to the Heaviside Layer to be reborn again, it’s a musical that should not work. And yet, it does.

The fourth longest-running show on Broadway, sixth in the West End, winner of the Olivier and Tony awards for Best Musical, and having grossed roughly $3.5 billion since its opening in 1981, its success is undeniable. It has certainly made good on the bombast of its tagline – Now and Forever.

And now, as the show celebrates its 40th anniversary, I am asking the questions many have asked before me: Why is CATS so popular? What is its legacy? And what’s with the whole cat orgy scene?

CATS was composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber, with lyrics adapted from T. S. Eliot’s 1939 poetry collection Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. It was originally conceived as a song cycle, along the same vein as his 1979 musical Tell Me on a Sunday. It was the discovery of some of Eliot’s unpublished poems, which had greater dramatic potential, that made Lloyd Webber consider turning this song cycle into a full-blown musical. And so with Trevor Nunn’s direction, Cameron Macintosh producing and Gillian Lynne’s choreography, Lloyd Webber decided to take the show to the West End.

While Lloyd Webber had faith in the idea, not everyone shared this conviction.

West End powerhouse Elaine Paige, who replaced Judi Dench as Grizabella after she snapped her Achilles tendon during rehearsals only days before opening, recalls the uncertainty felt by those in the cast:

“One of my castmates said, ‘We must be mad. What do we think we’re doing?’ They felt embarrassed by it, I think. I realised they had been involved with it already for some six weeks and probably were beginning to doubt it somewhat.”

Paige, too, shared some of their concerns:

“I remember sitting there thinking… ‘Oh my god…what have I let myself in for? What is this?’ I’d never seen anything like it before. It was a true spectacle. I can remember sitting there not knowing what any of it was about. It was a complete mystery. When I saw this extraordinary, full-dress rehearsal, I can remember thinking…well this is either going to be the most mega success or people are going to laugh everybody off the stage.”

“Like most people at the time, I thought this [was] a bonkers idea. But then again, people thought Evita was a bonkers idea. CATS was certainly a brilliant idea,” says Tim Rice, Lloyd Webber’s previous lyricist, with whom he had collaborated on hit shows such as Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar.

“It was a huge challenge for everyone. I mean the whole idea of grownups dressing up like pussycats and coming out and talking to other grownups dressed like pussycats was very new territory for everyone…”, says David Hersey, the show’s lighting designer, “But Trevor [Nunn]’s always been able to develop a storyline which, of course, wasn’t there because it was initially just a collection of poems. And they put together the whole sort of storyline and that was a huge element in the success. It was the first time England had ever done a proper, full-out dance musical because it was always assumed that only Americans could do that.”

The Brits pulled it off. And with the show’s unprecedented success in the West End, any actor worth their salt wanted in on the Broadway production.

Betty Buckley tells me about how she was eventually cast as Grizabella in the Broadway show, for which she went on to win a Tony. After an initial rejection – she was told she radiated too much health for the role – she was nonetheless certain they’d be back. “I had this very powerful feeling that the part was mine,” she tells me.

Six months later they invited her to a call-back, this time on stage at the Wintergarden theatre. She was asked to sing Memory repeatedly, each time Nunn directing her to act “more suicidal.” After her third attempt, Buckley went to the edge of the stage to speak to him.

“Mr Nunn, I know you’ve auditioned everyone who’s conceivably right for this part.  Of my peer group of singing actresses, there are people who can do this part AS WELL as I can, but no one can do it better,” she told him, “and it’s my turn.”

Her agent called her that same day, telling her she’d been offered the role.

For Buckley, it was the rehearsal process of CATS that made it so unique. She describes “a very intimate bonding experience”, “weeks and weeks of improvisational work”, trying to establish the dynamic of the tribe.

“The whole experience of being in CATS was like being a part of an incredible, living, moving art piece,” she tells me.

The essence of CATS, Buckley explains, lies in “the consciousness of the ensemble”. Watching the show, I understand what she means. The Jellicle tribe is a complicated network of interrelationships. Part of the allure of the show is watching these relationships unfold on stage. We get a sense of their history and traditions. You feel as if you know each cat intimately, even the minor ones, who don’t have their own songs. It’s a testament to the power of dance as a means of expression and to the choreography of the late Gillian Lynne. All the performers I speak to credit the show’s success to her creativity and skill.

“Gillian Lynne’s work in the show is the show,” says Ken Page, who played Old Deuteronomy in both the original Broadway production and the 1998 film, “It is the narrative, it is the story. I always thought of CATS as an opera in dance because the plot, the storytelling, [it’s] all in movement. All relationships are told in movement. In Gillie’s choreography, she really invented a vocabulary that was specific to CATS.”

Everyone I speak to cherishes their memories of working with Lynne. Kerry Ellis, who played Grizabella in the London revival, vividly recalls a one-on-one rehearsal with Lynne onstage at the Palladium:

“To see it through her eyes was just amazing. And to get her take on it and how she moved her body and why she moved her body, it was just beautiful and I’ll treasure that moment.”

“When I first saw [Jellicle Songs For Jellicle Cats], I burst into tears very early on because I realised I was in the presence of a great, great craftswoman,” says Peter Land, Lynne’s husband.

“She was an extraordinary lady. To be a woman in that position, she was made of stern stuff. She didn’t take any prisoners, but she was always such a lady about it,” says Phyllida Crowley-Smith, who played Victoria in the original London run and in the 1998 film.

Lynne imbued Eliot’s somewhat twee poems with sensuality. At the end of Act 1, the cats perform the iconic Jellicle Ball routine. It’s a remarkable feat of athleticism, the complicated routine lasting well over ten minutes. It also features a solo from Victoria, a cat on the verge of adulthood, discovering herself and experiencing the sensuality of touch for the first time. She dances with Admetus, one of the male cats, in a slow and sensuous pas de deux. The rest of the tribe follows suit, culminating in what many have termed the infamous “cat orgy scene”.

“I think it was probably something far more cerebral than that,” says Crowley-Smith, “but it’s certainly driven by animal instinct. Gillie was a very sensual lady. She was very witty, very naughty. She very much believed in physical expression and she was not afraid to be sensual and I think that, as a woman in her position, especially at that time, she was very bold. She put things out there and I don’t think she minded whether she shocked people. But the thing is, Gillie was an incredibly intelligent lady and she wouldn’t do it for a cheap reason.”

Every movement she choreographed in CATS was grounded in an understanding of character and, well, cats. She understood their movements, their mannerisms, their foibles. She even held mandatory cat school to help her cast impersonate their feline friends better. She was a choreographer, of course, but more than anything she was a director. And a spectacular one at that.

If Lynne’s choreography is the body of CATS, then Memory is its heart. The show’s iconic 11 o’clock ballad, performed by Grizabella the Glamour Cat, is undoubtedly its most recognisable tune and is frequently hailed as one of the greatest songs in the history of musical theatre.

Paige’s original doubts concerning the production were assuaged when she heard Memory.

“Whether [CATS] was going to work as a piece or fail was almost immaterial to me because I knew I would get to sing that wonderful tune, and that’s what mattered most to me,” she tells me.

Grizabella is only a featured role in the piece. She appears onstage for less than 15 minutes. But her presence is felt throughout, as she provides moments of sobriety in this otherwise joy-fuelled romp of a musical.

“She was this beautiful, wonderful cat that was very glamorous and had a brilliant lifestyle and was very looked after and very adored,” says Ellis, “and then she got tossed away and forgotten about and nobody really accepted her.”

We are told little of her backstory, though we get the impression Grizabella previously abandoned the tribe to pursue a life of glamour. Now, with her beauty fading and her happiness but a memory, she repeatedly tries to return to the tribe, but is refused. She has become a cautionary tale for the younger cats, less they fall victim to the same hubris. Memory is her final plea to the tribe to forgive her past and understand her present.

For Mamie Parris, who played Grizabella in the recent Broadway revival, Memory occurs in the “in-between place that I think many people who have suffered have been in, where you want to give up, but there’s a part of you that knows if you can just make it through that night… it may be the same tomorrow, but it offers a chance that it may not. It’s that fine line that you tread between feeling absolutely hopeless and having that small bit of hope.”

The stakes in Memory are high, for Grizabella, but also for the actor performing it.

“The thing with Memory is that everyone’s waiting for it,” Ellis tells me, “it doesn’t come until the end of Act 2. So there’s this pressure, this expectation. People are waiting for that final belt on ‘Touch me’. You can’t mess it up. You’ve got to deliver.”

“Everyone is waiting for that note,” agrees Sophia Ragavelas, who understudied the role at the Palladium and played it on tour, “if you don’t deliver that, it doesn’t move you.”

“It pulls the very best out of you because it demands no less,” says Beverley Knight, who took over the role from Ellis at the Palladium.

Upon its release, Memory was a hit, in the world of musical theatre and beyond. Paige went to #6 on the UK singles chart in the summer of 1981. Since then, it’s been covered by a variety of singers, such as Barbra Streisand, Barry Manilow and Céline Dion.

“It’s a masterpiece in itself,” says world-renowned musician André Rieu, who regularly performs the songs at his concerts, “like a famous aria, which also works outside the context of an opera. This song has the kind of beauty that brings tears to my eyes and the eyes of my audience. It is all about emotions, it is sad, passionate, full of  desire and it ends hopeful – ‘Look, a new day has begun!’ No matter who you are and where you live, Memory is a song that will go straight to your heart and music that goes straight to your heart never needs any explanation, nor context.”

Another musician to take on the iconic song is acclaimed singer-songwriter Judy Collins. “It calls to your voice, it calls to your abilities,” she explains, “it’s like being dropped in on by a good friend, or somebody that’s going to become a good friend, and you take one look at them and you say… ‘I could get along with you’”

But why is it so powerful?

“I’m not a musical analyst, so I can’t tell you,” says Collins, “but I will tell you that the first time I heard it, the shivers began to run up and down my back. And when that happens, I can tell that’s a song I’ve got to get my hands on.”

The lyrics were penned by CATS’ director, Trevor Nunn, who took influence from the T.S Eliot poems, Rhapsody on a Windy Night and Preludes. Though the song, and our relationship with it, could have been very different if Lloyd Webber had opted for a different lyricist. Tim Rice was also asked to write a set of lyrics for the song. His lyrics are darker than Nunn’s interpretation, with a clearer suicidal intent, offering elegy without redemption.

“Daylight / I won’t care if it finds me / With no breath in my body / With no beat in my heart / For I’m certain / That now I know what happiness is / Wish I’d known that / From the start.”

“It’s not bad,” Rice says, when I recite them to him, “Though maybe it’s too gloomy for a dance show about cats.”

There are many ways of performing Memory. Joanna Ampil, who is currently touring as Grizabella, chooses to go all out with the song:

“Absolutely give everything. For me, it works if this is my final plea. I’m going to give everything I’ve got. Either you can take it or I’m just going to die in one corner.”

Parris, too, chooses to give everything to her audience:

“There’s a feeling that you get as an actress and as a singer when you exhaust every resource available to you.  It’s kind of like visiting another dimension. Rising up and using every ounce of breath and every part of my vocal energy and that emotional exhaustion to sing ‘touch me’ was glorious.”

For Broadway veteran Liz Callaway, though, it’s about holding back:

“If I see someone cry on stage, often I’m not moved. But when I see someone who wants to cry, but doesn’t, even though deep down that’s what they feel, that’s what moves me more. It’s having that dignity and letting the audience feel.”

Everyone has their favourite rendition of the song. For Adam Feldman, Time Out New York theatre editor and critic, it’s Broadway’s first Grizabella, Betty Buckley.

“She had this muscle memory of the song,” he tells me, “She would sing it in concerts and she would just be in that weird Grizabella space. She’d lift a paw and the tears would stream down her face for what must have been the 4000th time.”

Vocally, Buckley is incredible, but it’s her interpretation of the song that stands out. Buckley’s Grizabella is stoic and steely. Her desperation never verges on the pathetic. This is a Grizabella who has lost everything, apart from her dignity.

“It worked because she was playing it very held back,” Feldman tells me.

There are different ways of appreciating CATS. For some, the show raises compelling questions about exclusion and acceptance, all the while presenting an optimistic message about the power of forgiveness.

“It’s a lesson of self-exploration. Do you ever ask, when you’re watching it, why these cats are acting in this way, especially towards Grizabella? And if you ask yourself why, do you think it’s a reason that you don’t know? Do you fall into a gullible state where you just go along with what these cats are telling you or do you want to know more? I think that speaks to how we behave as humans toward other people. It’s ironic that it’s about cats because it’s an exploration of humanity,” says Parris.

For others, it’s pure entertainment value.

“I think it’s just a bit bonkers really,” says Steven McRae, who played Skimbleshanks in the 2019 film adaptation, “To be able to sit and watch it, and just enjoy it for what it is, you don’t have to be too serious about it to be honest.”

It’s this inherent silliness that makes CATS fodder for parody and pastiche. One example was a brilliant subplot in an episode of the fourth season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Kimmy Is Rich!, co-written by CATS-sceptic Evan Waite.

“I think it’s really polarising which is always good,” he says, “some people love it and some people hate it, but it doesn’t seem like anybody’s that neutral on it…so always a good thing for comedy. If people don’t have any opinions about something it’s a little bit soft when you parody it.”

Another example is RuPaul’s Drag Race UK’s iteration, RATS!, a tongue-in-cheek take on the 2019 film.

Ginny Lemon, a fan favourite of the series, tells me “it felt fabulous to add more camp to one of the campest musicals ever! A very eggy custard! It made no sense. It was ridiculous and utterly fabulous at the same time.”

Are they a fan of the original?

“I personally think it’s terrible! But that’s why we love it, right?

Not exactly.

“[When CATS was released] people blamed it for the death of the American musical in the 1980s and 1990s,” explains Feldman.

With a decline in ticket sales around this time, CATS was the blockbuster hit that Broadway needed to stay alive. Some feared, however, that the invasion of the British mega-musical ­—Les Misérables, Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon — would mean the disappearance of its American equivalent. CATS’ success only stoked the flames of its most ardent critics.

“The reaction against CATS wasn’t just… ‘oh this isn’t for me’, it was sort of like ‘this is the worst thing that’s ever happened. This is a disaster from which dignity demands I avert my eyes,’” Feldman tells me, “And yet it was enormously successful. And so it seemed to presage an era in which all standards were to be thrown out the window.”

David Cote, long-time New York City-based theatre critic and reporter, has a lot to say about the show.

“CATS, along with Les Misérables and The Phantom of the Opera, exemplifies one of the least interesting periods of the Broadway musical – the 1980s imported megamusical,” he tells me. “Bombastic, politically tone deaf, and out of touch with popular music, these shows drew hordes of foreign tourists, but did they advance the form? I feel all of these shows suffer from a particularly British and European limitation when it comes to building a musical: poor integration of story, music, dance, and drama. Thus Les Miz is turgid melodramatic operetta, and for decades, Andrew Lloyd Webber has churned out concept albums that have as much musical-narrative savvy as English music hall.”

“Soulless, heartless mega-musical”, “style over substance”, Ken Page has heard it all.

“My first response is…I didn’t write it!”, he laughs.

“There are people all over the world who absolutely love the show and some of them can’t even tell you why. They just have a visceral reaction to it and they love it. You can’t argue with the success that CATS had all over the world, no matter what you say. It’s real and it exists, and it continues. Our publicity catchphrase was ‘now and forever’. Did it lie? Not at all…” he says.

“A lot of people secretly have a lot of affection for CATS even though people diss it all the time,” Feldman tells me, “It’s an easy one to diss because it’s a big target and it was an enormous success and it made an enormous amount of money for everyone involved. People don’t feel bad making fun of it, even people who love musicals. You’ll get a lot of people who will publicly shit on CATS, who are Broadway people, who are musical people, but I think you will also find, if you scratch beneath the surface, that there is a lot of residual, secret affection for at least parts of CATS.”

To fully appreciate CATS is to take a leap of faith. Whether you want to apply grand themes to the piece or simply appreciate the spectacle, you have to approach it with an open mind, to break from ingrained scepticism and preconceived ideas of what musical theatre should be.

“If you give yourself over to it, it’s magical. But you have to give into it. You can’t watch it as a sceptic. You have to watch it as a believer because then you appreciate things in a whole new light,” says Parris.

“At the end of it, most people don’t know what happened, but they know something happened and they know that everybody’s pretty okay with what happened…and that dirty, smelly girl who sang the really high notes, she won! Whatever it is. And that’s pretty good!” says David Hibbard, who played the Rum Tum Tugger on Broadway.

Cat person or not, there’s no denying that CATS has become a legend in the musical theatre world and beyond.

“It’s now its own history,” Ken Page tells me, “everything else is a footnote.”

And how does it feel to be a footnote in CATS’ history?

“Being part of the Original Broadway Company of CATS was one of the great blessings in my life,” says Buckley, “Working with Trevor Nunn, Gillian Lynne, Andrew Lloyd Webber, John Napier and the whole team, all of whom are amazing Master Artists of Musical Theatre, and getting to debut Memory on Broadway was a gift! I am so grateful.”

“It’s pretty special really,” says Elaine Paige, “For me, to have the opportunity to be the first to be able to sing [Memory]…it’s become my signature song. I really am very fortunate indeed in that respect. It was an extraordinary piece. We almost certainly haven’t seen anything quite as amazing or as magical since. We have seen other major musicals, but there’s been nothing quite as unusual as CATS…”

CATS is coming to a theatre near you, now and perhaps forever. Currently playing in North America, Japan and South Korea, and with renewed hopes for an international tour, it has not yet begun to outlive its nine lives.

Image credit: Viaggio Routard via Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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