Cats: Thoughts From A Long Time Fan

Last Updated on 25th February 2016

Cats at the London Palladium. Photo: Alessandro Pinna
Cats at the London Palladium. Photo: Alessandro Pinna

It was with much excitement and a little trepidation that I attended Cats on Friday night. I had long been a fan of the show, indeed this performance marked my eighty somethingth visit and for the first time I had not been a paying customer, but a member of the media invited to pass judgement on the show.

Cats, was one of the first musicals I ever saw, it left an indelible mark on my brain and was to inspire a life-time obsession with musical theatre. One of Cameron Mackintosh’s mega musicals, it opened my mind to the magic of musical theatre and has left it opened ever since, although in recent years, the magic has dwindled a little but that’s one for another time.

Andrew Lloyd Webber freely admits that on paper Cats was something that should never have worked, that his colleagues thought that he was bonkers and that he had to mortgage his house to fund the show that many thought would see his demise and end his incredible winning streak that had produced Joseph And The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar. To be sure, we should be grateful that both he and Cameron did persist, because without Cats I doubt Les Miserables, The Phantom Of the Opera or Miss Saigon would ever have eventuated. Cats laid the way for musicals to explode world-wide with runs that just about everyone considered unimaginable.

I had long believed that we would never see Cats again in the West End, so was bowled over when earlier in the year along with other press, I was invited to attend a launch at the London Palladium where the show was now only announced for a limited run but that the original production team of Trevor Nunn, Gillian Lynne and John Napier were returning to bring it up to date and establish a benchmark for the shows next 30 years.

So when Friday night arrived, I sat myself down and was immediately taken back as I sat looking at the fabulous playground for Cats that John Napier developed back in the day. I first saw the show in Sydney where the show had been staged in a proscenium format rather than in the round as it was at London’s New London Theatre so all looked right with the world.

The show itself was every bit as enjoyable as I remembered and having since read my colleague Stephen’s detailed review I tend to concur with much of what was said. I was surprised by just how fresh the show seemed and I was compelled by the energy levels of the dancers. But it did set me to wondering about whether the shows success would ultimately be its undoing.

In creating the mega musical, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh also created a sub-species of theatre-goer, the mega-fan. These mega-fans would unashamedly visit their favourite musicals multiple times, some had even been known to attend into the hundreds of times. These mega-fans helped drive the frenzy needed to keep the mega-musicals alive, they would queue for hours, attend specially convened anniversaries and often generate their own press, which in turn would help publicise the show. To mess with their favourite show could ultimately spell doom if they turned on you.

It was with some interest, that I found myself enjoying the whole, I still loved Shimbleshanks, the Gumbie Cat, Mungojerry and Rumpleteazer amongst the many other cat cameos, but was getting irritated with the changes, which I felt were inferior to the original.

The first of these to hit the stage was the Rum Tum Tugger, we’d been warmed that a rap was likely and that he would be modernised. Aesthetically I got it, but I was not enjoying the new musical material or the fact that most of what he was singing seemed incomprehensible. The original Tugger had been a vain, playful cat firmly set in a pop/rock era and the melding of Lloyd Webber’s melody with Elliot’s prose had seemed a match made in heaven, but this no longer seemed the case.

I had learned with these large-scale musicals that the creative team continued to tinker as the shows travelled in their original incarnations, by the time Cats had reached Sydney The Ballad Of Billy McCaw had been dispatched and a fabulous melodramatic Italian aria section had been installed. The sentimentality of Billy had been replaced by a suitably theatrical reminiscence for Gus and this version came complete with inflating air bag muscles, a fabulous Music Hall Melodrama Curtain and a fabulous ship upon which to play out Growltiger’s Last Stand.

I believe that this incarnation survived almost right up until this current production. The current tinkering had given us a far more macho Growltiger without the show-within-a-show magic. As a result, Growltiger seemed more about shouting than reliving Gus’s memory.

The arrival of Cats had aroused a lot of interest, fans like myself were keen to revisit it, but the cast of Nicole Scherzinger of Pussycat Dolls fame had helped the show to achieve an enormous pre-sale amounting to several million pounds. Indeed our ticketing partner here at Britishtheatre.com has warned that available for the show through the end of January is now limited. That in itself is a phenomenal achievement. If you consider the capacity of the Palladium compared to the New London this season of Cats would have been running for nearly double the amount of time if housed at its original venue.

Grizabella, is one of the great parts for actresses ever conceived. Valerie Ellliot had given Lloyd Webber a fragment of an unpublished poem about Grizabella to Lloyd Webber at an early stage. Lloyd Weber knew this fragment held the key to an important moment in the show, but even with the help of noted lyricists like Don Black and Tim Rice it had not come to pass. It was Trevor Nunn who with the help of Elliot’s earlier collection of prose the Lovesong Of J Alfred Prufrock unlocked what was to become Memory – a song that has been covered widely by some of the greatest artists, but began when Elaine Paige – standing in for an injured Judi Dench sang it for the first time on the stage of the New London Theatre.

I’ve seen some great actresses play this part, including Elaine Paige and Debra Byrne (Sydney’s first Grizabella) both of whom imbued this part with equal measures of pain and pride, making her downtrodden with dignity. One look at Grizabella, and you could see the pain etched into her face, made all the worse by the outright scorn shown to her by her fellow cats.

Unfortunately, Nicole for me was more glamour than pain, she fell short for me of what I needed from a Grizabella, and this is where I started to wonder. I spoke to friends over the weekend, many of whom had been in Cats, some mega-fans like myself, other who had just seen it and some who had yet to see it but had bought tickets based on Nicole’s presence.

In the process I was bought back to a point in 1990 when I had overheard two society ladies in Sydney talking about the upcoming production of Miss Saigon. Their banter was nothing peculiar except that one had said how much they enjoyed the shows that Cameron Mackintosh had written!

I have always supported shows which strove for excellence, which took the extra step to create something magical, and took artistic risk. But when it comes to shows like Cats, do we set the bar impossibly high through the rose-coloured glasses of memory? Can any change be good? Would a modern audience looking at the show for the first time be disappointed?

Those around me on Friday night enjoyed the show, one commented that she didn’t think she would enjoy Andrew Lloyd Webber quite so much, all of them stood to applaud Nicole and indeed stayed on their feet for quite a while. Changes aside, I thoroughly enjoyed Cats. As a reviewer you can conjur up all manner of quotes and in my time I’ve seen most of them, for me I can just say it is still a great show.

I suppose in the end, that’s the beauty of theatre. There will always be those who have memories of previous experiences that were so magical that they can’t be equalled, whilst others will sit in wonder enjoying their first ventures to the theatre creating their own memories. Ultimately, though most of them will walk away like we do and talk about their experience and hopefully encourage others.

This production of Cats, certainly inspired some heated conversations over the weekend, but what it also revived in me was my love of the show itself and it’s place in awakening my love of musicals, a love that I daresay will never leave me. These long-running shows wrote new rules for musicals and continue to do so.

We’re all about discussion here at Britishtheatre.com and would welcome your thoughts on the above and what you thought about Cats. Please join in the discussion.

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