It’s one of my all-time favorite theater stories.
Spring, 1990. An actor whose identity I’ll protect has been out of work for months. So when his agent calls and tells him to audition for Old Deuteronomy for a road company of CATS, he reluctantly agrees.
“A job’s a job,” he told me, before adding “even though the one time I saw CATS I thought” – he paused to take a bewildered breath before continuing – “‘What’s the point?’”
Our Actor got the part, rehearsed and went to Philadelphia to join a battered and embittered company. CATS, after all, is a terribly difficult musical to perform, for no human being was meant to walk – let alone dance – as any cat does. Soon after the show had opened on Broadway, a chiropractor was hired to be on call for each company. Plenty of Our Actor’s new castmates were using the good doctor at least now and perhaps forever.
So when Our Actor arrived, his new co-workers immediately snarled their frustration. What was worse, following the matinee that day there’d be a backstage visit from a local sixth-grade class. Our Actor was told, “We have to talk to these kids all the time, we’re sick of doing it and we need to lie down after a show. YOU’RE the new cat on the block: YOU do it.”
Actually, Our Actor was exhilarated at the prospect of talking to the students. Imagine! Some of them would be seeing their first-ever Broadway musical! He remembered the thrill of seeing his first show some twenty years earlier and wished that back then he’d had the once-in-a-lifetime chance to go to this magical place called Backstage and talk to An Actual Actor he’d just seen dazzle him.
So after the matinee, Our Actor, still in his Old Deuteronomy costume, bounded out enthusiastically to greet the group. “Any questions?” he asked.
“Yeah,” said a tween boy in a most bored voice: “What’s the POINT?”
Well, the kid DID have a point. Where’s the story? When I first saw CATS at the Winter Garden in 1982, I was unfamiliar with T.S. Eliot’s poems. As a result, as the musical unfolded, I was stunned to learn that the show was really a glorified revue that offered very little connecting material.
Now in 2016, as I entered the Neil Simon Theatre to see the new production, I knew what I was getting into; as a result, I had a much better time. CHICAGO is not the only “musical vaudeville” in town; that’s what CATS truly is.
Let’s admit it: CATS’ music is really quite wonderful. When the show opened in London in 1981, Andrew Lloyd Webber was still a master of melody. But because CATS would eventually surpass the beloved A CHORUS LINE as the longest-running musical in Broadway history, it suffered a most serious backlash where few would deign to recognize its value.
Exhibit A: LOVE! VALOUR! COMPASSION!’s film version starts with a man shuffling through his original cast CDs to decide which to take on a trip. He does choose Lloyd Webber’s EVITA as well as MACK & MABEL and FUNNY GIRL, but when he reaches CATS, he tosses it far away from his suitcase.
Bad decision. “Old Deuteronomy” is one of musical theater’s most beautiful melodies. “The Old Gumbie Cat” would have Kurt Weill swoon with admiration. “Gus the Theatre Cat” has a tender sound befitting the age and delicate condition of its character. “Macavity” offers a surreptitious sound just before “Magical Mister Mistoffelees” brings us hand-clapping-in-rhythmic joy. And isn’t it overexposure and not the song itself that makes many a person thrust a finger into his open mouth and make a gagging sound whenever the vamp from “Memory” starts?
Nevertheless, CATS is still the greatest show for “children of all ages” and for all those for whom English is a second-language — or no language at all. Truly, it IS better not to know English, for never has such a musical smash opened with so doleful a lyric as “Are you blind when you’re born?”
You’ll be glad that you weren’t when you see the trim, in-shape cast in this body worshipper’s nirvana. Many of the muscular men and trim women wear skin-tight costumes that accent their every asset in both, to quote A CHORUS LINE, “orchestra and balcony.” The ladies are playing cats, but that doesn’t keep them from revealing camel toes. Those who admire a gluteus maximus will get maximum pleasure here, too.
Andy Blankenbuehler acknowledges in the Playbill that his choreography does borrow from original dance-creator Gillian Lynne, but whoever did what, it’s all marvelously entertaining and skillfully executed. There was never an English musical from “The British Invasion” era that offered this much choreography; all those other mega-musicals let the scenery do the dancing.
Not here. The opinion on dancing found in HELLO, DOLLY! — “Well, the word I think I’d use is athletic” – applies; the high-kicks are much higher than the ones you see in all other current Broadway shows. So much of what Blankenbuehler has put on stage is such a gymnastic workout that fans of the Olympics who can’t get to Rio will find this a nice consolation prize.
The conventional Broadway wisdom has dictated that good dancers are rarely good singers. Ah, but since CATS originally opened, musical theater conservatories and programs have proliferated around the country; every one of them teaches its students to be triple-threats in singing, dancing and acting. Only the first two are truly relevant to CATS, but the cast has gloriously beautiful voices, too.
The cast is so superb that Broadway fans will once again hope that the Tonys institute a Best Ensemble award. But CATS might lose the prize because of its Grizabella. Leona Lewis is far too young to seem at death’s doorstep. When someone approaches her, she reacts much too quickly for someone who’s supposed to be old and sickly. This Grizabella seems so healthy that we must start to wonder if she’s a hypochondriac. She should watch Christopher Gurr’s Gus, who looks like a Golem and makes us believe he’s an aged one.
Nothing wrong with Lewis’ pipes, of course; she delivers “Memory” with the power of a 21st century 20-million selling recording artist. For that matter, everyone in the cast has a magnificent voice. While the singing was fine on the original cast album, it will be better on the revival recording.
Will there be one? Well, business has been surprisingly good, apparently suggesting that there’s always room for Jellicle Cats on Broadway. Frankly, I would have never predicted this when I was watching that early performance in 1982. By the second act, I was bored, inured to the fact that CATS had a big hole that was keeping the whole from being more than the sum of its parts.
And then, as the beleaguered, elderly and grizzled-looking Grizabella was dying en route to heaven, I suddenly forgave CATS everything.
“Wait!” I actually whispered aloud. “I get what’s going to happen! The show will end triumphantly!!”
I just knew that at the finale in the midst of a big chorus number, Grizabella would return, confidently walk to center stage, alive and well and looking like a million dollars – because cats have nine lives.
As any CATS lover (or hater) knows, that didn’t happen. But it should have. If CATS had included this heartwarming moment, we might have forgiven its passing A CHORUS LINE.