What’s the secret of Cats’ success?
One of the most popular stage musicals of all time is set to take cinemas by storm this Christmas. So what makes Cats so moving and memorable?
Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, first exploded onto the West End stage in 1981. ‘Memories’, one of its many classic songs, became an instant worldwide hit. Since then Cats has smashed numerous records captivating audiences in more than 30 countries with productions in more than a dozen languages.
The award-winning stage production ran for 21 years in London and 18 years on Broadway. The musical was released as a video in 1998, with a feature film adaptation by Tom Hooper set for release on 20 December. This big screen adaptation by Hooper, who directed Les Miserables and The King’s Speech, uses the latest technology to transform the star-studded cast into vivid new versions of the classic characters using digital fur.
Hamilton choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler brings his expertise to the production and Francesca Hayward, principal dancer in the Royal Ballet at London’s Covent Garden, dances the role of the innocent and shy white cat, Victoria who poses the question: ‘Are you going to try for a different life?’. Andrew Lloyd Webber has written a new song for her character.
The timeless tale is based on TS Eliot’s collection of poems Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, originally penned for his godchildren in the 1930s and first published in 1939. It tells the story of a tribe of cats called the Jellicles, and the night they make the ‘Jellicle choice’, deciding which cat will rise to a cat version of heaven known as the ‘Heaviside Layer’ and come back to a new life.
Eliot, who was awarded the 1948 Nobel Prize for Literature, became a Christian in the 1920s and often expressed his faith in his poetry. Cats is an example of his preference for ‘literature which should be unconsciously, rather than deliberately and defiantly, Christian’. As well as music that tugs on the heart-strings, Cats’ stirring storyline echoes the ageless truth that at the heart of the universe there’s a rescue plan: healing and forgiveness are possible.
Could it be that Cats is so popular because it echoes eternal epic themes, playing on our longing for life beyond the grave? Did TS Eliot express his Christian faith and belief in God’s great rescue plan through this crazy cat story?
Director Tom Hooper says ‘At the centre of this incredibly entertaining, comedic, fantastical musical is a very timely story about the importance of inclusion and redemption.’
Author Mike Fulmer adds, ‘At first glance it may appear as though Cats is just a musical about some random cats, with very little or even no theme. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The hidden parallels and symbolism seem to whisper to the subconscious mind of everyone in the audience, a message of salvation. Perhaps the intent of Eliot’s poems was to stir a desire for each of us to better understand our own salvation.
‘I believe this symbolic message in Cats is no mere coincidence, but the creative plan of a great Christian writer spreading the message of salvation in a most unique manner. To put it briefly, I believe the musical Cats is a classic work of art that goes much deeper than just fantastic singing, dancing, and costume. Perhaps this is why Cats has been so popular worldwide.’
The new live action movie version brings together a stellar cast from the best of film, music and stage. Singer song-writer Taylor Swift plays the flirtatious and confident Bombalurina, one of the principal characters, alongside stage and screen legends Dame Judy Dench, Sir Ian Mckellen and Idris Elba.
Dame Judy stars as Old Deuteronomy, normally a male role. Old Deuteronomy leads the cats into the ‘Heaviside Layer’ where they receive their new life, much like Moses, the character from the Bible book of Deuteronomy who led the Hebrew people through the wilderness into the Promised Land.
Sir Ian Mckellen, who played Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies, is Gus, The Theatre Cat, an old cat, who ‘suffers from palsy, which makes his paws shake’. Looking back with pride on the highlights of his career, he contrasts his frail present state with his acting heyday. Although he is loved and respected, Gus can’t rely on his own past successes to give him access to cat heaven.
Like every great story, there’s a bad guy; a struggle between good and evil. Luther-star Idris Elba is the villain, Macavity, the evil one with his demons, who aims to scupper the life-saving process by kidnapping Old Deuteronomy.
Dreamgirls star Jennifer Hudson, who grew up singing in church, plays Grizabella, a former glamour cat who sings the hit song ‘Memories’. Grizabella, like the Bible character Mary Magdalene, carries ‘memories’ of a painful, sinful past. She seeks forgiveness, and longs to be healed. Pouring her heart out she sings the words ‘touch me’ – longing for a healing touch and a fresh start.
Humble and repentant, it is Grizabella who is chosen to be reborn and lifted up into the Heaviside Layer. Was this Eliot’s allegory of what the Bible describes as being ‘born again’ to eternal life?
Grizabella goes up a stairway into her new life. Is this ‘stairway to heaven’ which the Bible character, Jacob, saw in his dream; a stairway that connects earth to heaven with angels ascending and descending on it; the gateway to heaven?
In keeping with the musical genre, the Jellicle cats form a Jellicle choir singing in ‘Jellicle highs’ throughout the musical to its triumphant finale with all the cats rejoicing and singing with Jellicle ‘angelical’ voices.
Love cats; loathe them. Love musicals or loathe them. Whatever your preference for pets or entertainment, the new film will be a hit with millions. If you enjoy the show, what’s your answer to the question: What’s the secret of Cats’ success?