Who knew that a musical featuring felines could be a worldwide phenomenon? Cats is the fourth longest-running Broadway show of all time with a total lifespan of 18 years. A sung-through musical composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cats, is based on the 1939 poetry collection by T.S. Eliot entitled Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. It tells the story of a tribe of cats called the Jellicles.
While it’s basically plotless, Cats became an unlikely candidate to become Broadway’s longest-running show, but it was a distinction it held for many years before it was overtaken by another Lloyd Webber show, The Phantom of the Opera. It even won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
Fun fact: Webber had to remortgage his house to secure the funds for the West End production. Apparently, the struggle was worth it. Despite its unusual premise that initially deterred investors, the musical became a commercial success. Besides being a hit, Cats pioneered the megamusical (or big-budget blockbuster) phenomenon, establishing a global market for musical theater. The musical’s influence on theatre reshaped its aesthetic, technology, and marketing.
Andrew Lloyd Webber started setting Eliot’s poems to music in 1977 and was first presented as a song cycle in 1980. Producer Cameron Mackintosh hired director Trevor Nunn and choreographer Gillian Lynne to turn the songs into a musical. Cats opened in 1981 at the New London Theatre in the West End and garnered positive reviews.
Cats is completely told through music and no dialogue in between the songs. But, there are occasions when some music accompanies spoken verse. The show uses an eclectic range of musical styles to reflect the characters’ different personalities. The concept of having a set of contrasting numbers without a narrative meant that every song must have a musical characterization independent of the others so that the performers can develop a rapport with the audience.
West End production
Cats premiered on May 11, 1981, in the West End at the New London Theatre. The musical was produced by Mackintosh, with direction by Nunn, choreography by Lynne, set and costume design by John Napier, lighting by David Hersey, music direction by Harry Rabinowitz, and sound design by Abe Jacob.
The production played a total of 8,949 performances before closing on its 21st anniversary in 2002. The original cast included:
- Elaine Paige as Grizabella
- Stephen Tate as Asparagus (Gus)
- Paul Nicholas as Rum Tum Tugger
- John Thornton as Macavity
- Brian Blessed as Old Deuteronomy
- Sharon Lee-Hill as Demeter
- Susan Jane Tanner as Jellylorum
- Sarah Brightman as Jemima/Sillabub
- Myra Sands Jennyanydots
- John Thornton as Mungojerrie
- Ken Wells as Skimbleshanks
- Brian Blessed as Bustopher Jones
- Jeff Shankley as Munkustrap
- Finola Hughes as Victoria
- Wayne Sleep as Mr. Mistoffelees
- Geraldine Gardner as Bombalurina
- Bonnie Langford as Rumpleteazer
- Roland Alexander as Rumpus Cat
- Peter Barry as Bill Bailey/Tumblebrutus
- Julie Edmett as Etcetera
- Anita Pashley as Electra
- Femi Taylor as Tantomile
- Donald Waugh as Coricopat
- SeetaIndrani as Cassandra
- Luxe Baxter as Carbucketty
- Steven Wayne as Admentus/Plato
- Roland Alexander as Alonzo
- Stephen Tate as Growltiger
The musical was revived to West End in 2014 for a 12-week run at the London Palladium but was later extended through April 2015. The second revival had another limited run that lasted from October 2015 to January 2016.
Cats debuted on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theatre on October 7, 1982. The original creative team remained, with Stanley Lebowsky replacing Rabinowitz as music director and Martin Levan replacing Jacob as sound designer. At the time, it was the most expensive Broadway show ever mounted at the time with a production cost of $5.5 million, while the show recouped its investment in less than 10 months.
In June 1997, Cats overtook A Chorus Line, becoming the longest-running Broadway show at the time. The musical had an economic impact of $3.12 billion on New York City and generated the most theatrical jobs of any play or production in Broadway history.
The show closed in September 2000, but its Broadway run record was surpassed by The Phantom of the Opera by January 2006. The original Broadway cast included:
- Betty Buckley as Grizabella
- Stephen Hanan as Asparagus (Gus)
- Terrence Mann as Rum Tum Tugger
- Kenneth Ard as Macavity
- Ken Page as Old Deuteronomy
- Wendy Edmead as Demeter
- Bonnie Simmons as Jellylorum
- Whitney Kershaw as Jemima/Sillabub
- Anna McNeeley as Jennyanydots
- Rene Clemente as Mungojerrie
- Reed Jones as Skimbleshanks
- Stephen Hanan as Bustopher Jones
- Harry Groener as Munkustrap
- Cynthia Onrubia as Victoria
- Timothy Scott as Mr. Mistoffelees
- Donna King as Bombalurina
- Christine LangnerRumpleteazer
- Kenneth Ard as Rumpus Cat
- Robert Hoshour as Bill Bailey/Tumblebrutus
- Christine Langner as Etcetera
- Janet Hubert-Whitten as Tantomile
- Rene Clemente as Coricopat
- Rene Ceballos as Cassandra
- Steven Gelfer as Carbucketty
- Kenneth Ard as Admentus/Plato
- Hector Jaime Mercado as Alonzo
- Stephen Hanan as Growltiger
The Broadway revival opened in July 2016 at the Neil Simon Theatre and closed in December 2017 after 593 performances.
Cats is an anthology-style musical that narrates a story taking place over the course of one night. The cat of all types, shapes, and sizes, gather in a junkyard for the Jellicle Ball, during which the Jellicle leader selects the most deserving cat who will ascend to the mysterious Heaviside layer – the cat equivalent of Heaven, to be reborn as a younger cat. The proceedings are overseen by the kind Deuteronomy, though the shadow of the criminal cat Macavity looms.
Each song is about a cat introducing itself or telling a story about its life. The audience learns about their personalities exactly as T.S. Eliot portrayed them in his book of poems.
During the night, an old, washed-up, former glamour cat named Grizabella attempts to join the festivities several times but is mocked and rejected. The other cats judge her colorful past and her rugged coat and shun her.
After the lead cats got their moment in the spotlight, Deuteronomy chooses Grizabella to receive the prized additional life, and up she goes.
- Overture – Orchestra
- Prologue: Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats – The Company
- The Naming of Cats – Munkustrap, The Company
- The Old Gumbie Cat – Jennyanydots, Munkustrap, Bombalurina, Jellylorum, Demeter
- The Rum Tum Tugger – Rum Tum Tugger and Company
- Bustopher Jones: The Cat About Town – Bustopher, Jennyanydots, Jellylorum, Bombalurina
- Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer – Mungojerrie, Rumpleteazer
- Old Deuteronomy – Munkustrap, Rum Tum Tugger, Old Deuteronomy
- The Awful Battle of The Pekes and the Pollicles – Munkustrap, Rumpus Cat and Company
- The Song of the Jellicles – The Company
- The Jellicle Ball – Orchestra
- Grizabella, The Glamour Cat – Grizabella
- The Moments Of Happiness – Old Deuteronomy, Jemima
- Gus: The Theatre Cat – Asparagus, Jellylorum
- Growltiger’s Last Stand – Asparagus as Growltiger, Jellylorum as Griddlebone, and Company
- Gus: The Theatre Cat (Reprise) – Asparagus
- Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat – Skimbleshanks and Company
- Macavity: The Mystery Cat – Demeter, Bombalurina
- Macavity Fight – Macavity, Munkustrap, Alonzo
- Mistoffelees – Quaxo, otherwise known as Mr. Mistoffelees, Rum Tum Tugger
- Memory – Grizabella, Jemima
- The Journey to the Heaviside Layer – The Company
- Finale: The Ad-Dressing of Cats – Old Deuteronomy and Company
Original London production
- Best Musical, Evening Standard Theatre Awards (1981)
- Best New Musical, Laurence Olivier Award (1981)
- Outstanding Achievement in a Musical, Laurence Olivier Award (1981) – Gillian Lynne
- Best British Musical, Ivor Novello Awards (1982)
- Best Song Musically and Lyrically, Ivor Novello Awards (1982) – “Memory”
Original Broadway production
- Outstanding Costume Design, Drama Desk Award (1983) – John Napier
- Outstanding Lighting Design, Drama Desk Award (1983) – David Hersey
- Outstanding Music, Drama Desk Award (1983) – Andrew Lloyd Webber
- Best Broadway Musical, Outer Critics Award (1983)
- Best Musical, Tony Award (1983)
- Best Book of a Musical, Tony Award (1983) – T.S. Eliot
- Best Original Score, Tony Award (1983) – Andrew Lloyd Webber and T.S. Eliot
- Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical, Tony Award (1983) – Betty Buckley
- Best Direction of a Musical, Tony Award (1983) – Trevor Nunn
- Best Costume Design, Tony Award (1983) – John Napier
- Best Lighting Design, Tony Award (1983) – David Hersey
- Best Cast Show Album, Grammy Award (1984)