CATS, the Andrew Lloyd Webber-T.S. Eliot musical that was once the
longest-running musical in Broadway history, has become the butt of jokes
and rarely gets respect. Partly this is because of envy toward Lord
Lloyd-Webber, who is an easy target. It also stems partly from the show's
concept -- a meeting of felines with actors in costumes that resemble your
neighbor's tabby -- which doesn't lend itself to "serious" interpretation,
despite a Nobel Laureate as co-author. And it should also be noted that
Judi Dench was originally scheduled to "star" in the show as Grizabella
before a knee injury forced her to withdraw, replaced by Elaine Paige. In
its American premier, the role was played by Betty Buckley and many
other fine singer-actresses from the late Laurie Beechman to Liz Callaway
had a go at it.
What people also forget is that when the show opened in London
in 1981 and in New York the following year, the American musical theater
was undergoing a crisis from which it still fully hasn't emerged. Attendance
was down, costs were rising and there were few new songwriters and even
fewer book writers on the scene. CATS was one of the first spectacle shows
in an era when old movie musicals (42nd STREET) and revues (TINTYPES)
were the norm. Look at the other musicals during the 1982-83 Broadway
season: MY ONE AND ONLY, a reworking of the Gershwin classic
FUNNY FACE; A DOLL'S LIFE, a flawed attempt to write a musical sequel
to Ibsen's A DOLL'S HOUSE; a stage version of the film SEVEN BRIDES
FOR SEVEN BROTHERS; and the magic show-cum-musical comedy MERLIN
(perhaps best-recalled because it featured a young Christian Slater).
So when this oddball amalgam of poetry set to music opened, it
seemed fresh and exciting. The clever staging — the entire theater has
the feeling of a junkyard — and the lilting melodies (if seemingly borrowed
from Puccini) entranced audiences. I have to admit, I've seen the show
twice. The first time was New Year's Eve 1983 in Boston, about a week
after my mother's death. There was something healing in seeing live
theater and I can remember being entranced and caught up in the magic
of the staging by Trevor Nunn. By the time I saw it, the Broadway
production many years later, the show had earned eight Tony Awards,
including Best Musical. Also, I owned both the London and New York
cast recordings. Like many, I thought "Memory" was a terrific song —
until nearly everyone and their brother and sister recorded it. But I also
delighted in some of the other songs and the clever lyrics drawn from
Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats.
A friend's children, who look upon me as "Uncle Ted" were staying
with me and begged me to see the show. I had put them off several
times and finally decided to bite the bullet. By then, I had adopted
the jaded attitude many had (and still have) about the show. We got
really great seats and I got to experience it all over again through the
eyes of two awestruck youngsters. That has led to a love affair with
live theater for one of the boys and, although his mother may want
to kill me sometimes, is heartening.
I approached watching the video production with some trepidation.
Would the filmmakers be able to capture the magic of the piece? Would
it hold up to yet another viewing? If nothing else, it was a chance
to see the great Elaine Paige recreating one of her signature roles
as Grizabella and the nonagenarian John Mills as Gus the Theatre Cat.
Most of the rest of the cast, though, were relative unknowns culled from
the British company.
Overall, I have to register my disappointment. Director David Mallet
breaks the cardinal rule of filming a dance sequence by moving the camera
too much, cutting to faces, close-ups of the dancers, etc. so that you
very rarely get to see the full line of the performer. Fred Astaire
reportedly had it in his contract that all his dance numbers would be
filmed in medium to long shots, so the audience could see his feet in
every frame. I long for those days again. We've been too conditioned
by MTV and the quick edit to fully appreciate what a true dance film
can be. The only director who utilized this technique brilliantly was
Bob Fosse in the opening number of ALL THAT JAZZ (1979).
Granted Gillian Lynne's choreography is not the most inspired but
from watching this production, one couldn't judge. The production
numbers, for the most part, were uneven. I wish they would have
rethought The Rum Tum Tugger and his song. When it was first done
in the theater with the actor impersonating Mick Jagger, it seemed an
ironic commentary. Fifteen years later, it comes across as stale. On
the other hand, watching John Mills draw on his musical theater heritage
was quite moving, particularly as the elderly feline recalls his days with
Beerbohm and Tree. Mills' own theatrical legacy added unique layers to
the interpretation and was arguably a high point. That Paige finally
got to recreate one of her stage roles should be cheered, although I
personally might have preferred to see her as EVITA. (Hopefully, she
might have a chance to capture on filme her heartbreaking turn as
Norma Desmond in SUNSET BLVD. but the rumors are that
Lloyd Webber wants Glenn Close.) As Grizabella, sort of the old hooker
cat that is disdained by the others, Paige created a memorable character
and tore into "Memory".
Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Company took a major step in releasing
this direct-to-video production while the show was continuing to attract
audiences in London and New York. For a while, CATS lived up to
its advertising slogan: "Now and Forever". It ran for many years before
finally giving up the ghost. For better or worse, the show will find future
audiences thanks to this rendering and will live on forever -- or at least
for nine lives.
|© 2007 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.