The Stage: Does “Cats” have any of its nine lives left for Broadway revival?

July 29th, 2016 § 0 comments

Andy Huntington Jones in Cats (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

In hindsight, the slogan ‘now and forever’ looks a bit less like marketing and a bit more like hubris. While it didn’t run forever, on the U.S. side of the Atlantic, the musical Cats maintains a formidable place in the annals of longest-running Broadway shows, surpassed only by The Lion King, the revival of Chicago and The Phantom of the Opera. While those latter three shows are all still chugging along, meaning they’re widening their lead over Cats, it’s going to take another four years or so before Wicked takes over the number four slot on the list – though that looks to be an increasingly likely achievement.

When the revival of Cats opens on Broadway on Sunday, in an open-ended run (in contrast to its recent limited-run engagements in the West End), it finds itself in a very different marketplace to the Broadway of the early 1980s, one that it helped to create through its success. The 1980s were a period when Broadway was in a slump, with theatres being demolished to make way for more lucrative real estate, and one even sold to a church. Now, musicals that run for fewer than five years can in some cases be seen as disappointments; 10-year runs are increasingly commonplace, if not exactly run of the mill.

The arrival of Cats, riding on a crest of acclaim from London back in 1982, was a big cultural event. Tickets for it in its first years were as dear as Hamilton tickets today, even if the secondary market was invisible to the average theatregoer in those pre-internet days. It’s important to remember how celebrated Cats was in its day, because as its 18 year run wore on, the show began to be perceived as a bit less groundbreaking and perhaps somewhat timeworn. For all of its enormous commercial success, its penetration into the popular consciousness and successful tapping of both the family and tourist markets, its then unprecedented run ultimately yielded jokes about the show having outlived its nine lives. The parade of animals that opened Julie Taymor’s production of The Lion King for Disney became the new standard for anthropomorphised animals on Broadway; the two shows overlapped for almost three years in New York.

While Chicago returned to Broadway in a production that echoed the Bob Fosse-directed original, it isn’t the same staging; no doubt the show benefited from a hiatus of some 20 years. Conversely, Les Misérables came back to Broadway for the first time only three years after the original run closed, in the same production, and lasted just 15 months. The Cats revival has the benefit of being gone from Broadway for almost 16 years, but it’s largely the same show (save for some new choreography and lighting). It remains to be seen whether ticket buyers embrace the show that may well have been their very first time at the theatre, seizing an opportunity to take their children to an experience they once loved as children, or whether the iconic production might have needed a full rethink for the digital era, for a generation raised on The Lion King and Wicked.

I have to confess that I am rather uniquely unqualified to hazard a guess as to what the fate of the Cats revival may be. Why? Are you sitting down? Because I’ve never seen it. Despite avid theatregoing that began in the late 1970s, I never did manage to see Cats on Broadway, on tour or even in a high school auditorium. I was already a collegiate theatre snob when the show opened, and, without children of my own nagging me to take them as the run continued, I never felt the feline lure of T.S. Eliot or Andrew Lloyd Webber during the ensuing two decades. When I worked on the US premiere of By Jeeves in the mid-1990s, I always feared Lloyd Webber turning to me and saying, “Do you remember that moment in Cats when…?” I would have been left sputtering for a response.

That’s not to say I don’t have a strong impression of the show, since numbers were performed in full on television back in the day, excerpted for Broadway histories and television ads alike, parodied frequently, and so on. The TV sitcom Caroline in the City featured an actor character who was – fictionally – a member of the Cats menagerie. It was such a cultural touchstone that I remember The New York Times critic Frank Rich panning a show I did press for, about illegal dog fighting (no animals were harmed), with a withering, “Anyone for Cats?”

Come next week at this time, I will no longer be a Cats virgin. Whatever I make of it, inevitably my response cannot be one of youthful wonder nor middle-aged nostalgia. The question for the producers is whether there are enough people out there who want to evoke one or the other of those sentiments, among the already initiated or those born too late to experience the original run. As much as I plan to watch the show at long last, I’ll be keeping an eye on the audience as well, to see who turns out for the reconstituted Cats, if not now and forever, than at least once and again.


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