`Cats' finally uses up its ninth life

Lloyd Webber's work, daring in its time, gave musicals new energy, new size and an ensemble style

Theater

September 10, 2000|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Forever is a long time.

"Cats" didn't quite make it.

But the musical whose ads boasted "Now and forever" came closer than any Broadway show ever has.

Today the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical based on T.S. Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" closes after 18 years at New York's Winter Garden Theatre.

In 1997, "Cats" surpassed "A Chorus Line" to become the longest-running show in Broadway history. This evening's invitation-only performance will be the New York production's 7,485th. On Broadway alone, "Cats" has grossed more than $400 million and been seen by more than 10 million people.

Touring companies of "Cats" played Baltimore seven times - a record number of visits for a touring production in this city, though the show played other towns, such as Atlanta and Memphis, at least a dozen times. The fourth and final national company ended its 12 1/2 -year tour on Dec. 19, 1999, two years after setting the record as America's longest-running touring show.

But longevity isn't the only measure of the show's success. Over the years "Cats" became part of common parlance. References popped up in other Broadway shows, including John Guare's "Six Degrees of Separation," Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" and Wendy Wasserstein's "The Sisters Rosensweig," as well as on TV sitcoms. (In "Caroline in the City," the lead character's best friend was supposed to be an actress in "Cats"; the musical outlived the sitcom.)

"Cats" was not merely a joke, however. It was a trendsetter in a number of respects, paving the way for a bevy of British megamusicals (albeit of varying artistic merit), relying on music and dance to relate the plot, and allowing the action to expand off the stage and throughout the theater.

Not too shabby for a show originally regarded as a considerable risk on both sides of the Atlantic. In Britain, where "Cats" got its start, it was widely believed that America had a lock on musical theater, and especially dance-based productions. Lloyd Webber mortgaged his house to help pay for the British production.

A hit - or a miss?

After the musical was a hit in London - where it is still running - there was concern that it was too British to make it over here (regardless of Eliot's American background). "There was all kinds of gossip about the show - that it was British, that the underlying poems were British in nature, that American people had no familiarity with them and that this wouldn't work in America," the late producer Bernard Jacobs said in 1987, when "Cats" first played Baltimore.

Lloyd Webber originally envisioned the show as a small-scale concert piece. A fan of "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" since childhood, the composer, who had collaborated with lyricist Tim Rice on his three previous hit shows, was partly attracted by the challenge of setting existing poems to music.

In 1980, several of these were performed at Lloyd Webber's annual arts festival at his British country home. The performance was attended by Eliot's widow, Valerie, who presented Lloyd Webber with some of her late husband's unpublished material. Included among this was the poem "Grizabella the Glamour Cat," which had been deemed too dark to be part of the published anthology.

"The moment I saw the pieces I felt that I really did have the bare bones of a theatrical evening because one of the most thrilling things is that there was a sketch by Eliot himself for how the evening could go," Lloyd Webber told me in 1981.

That interview, more than a year before "Cats" came to this country, was my introduction to a show I would eventually see - and review - more times than most Shakespeare plays. At the end of the interview, the excited young composer played a tape recording of Barbra Streisand singing "Memory" with a full orchestra. The song became Lloyd Webber's greatest hit, recorded by everyone from Judy Collins to Liberace, and inescapable on Muzak.

Months before the musical opened on Broadway, I stood in line at the Winter Garden to buy tickets, like so many others whose curiosity was whetted by "Cats." The Broadway show was an eye-opener. It wasn't so much the music; Lloyd Webber had set Eliot's whimsical verses to a tuneful, if occasionally derivative, score. It was the way the music flowed. The thin story, about an outcast cat, Grizabella, who ascends to cat heaven and wins another life, was told almost entirely through song and choreographer Gillian Lynne's acrobatic dances.

Appealed to all

The production was ingeniously conceived by director Trevor Nunn, whom Lloyd Webber temporarily lured away from his post as head of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Essentially a catalog of cats with a loose theme about redemption and rebirth, the show transcended age and language. It was as accessible to children as it was to scads of tourists of all nationalities.

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