Mission Impawsible: How Much ‘Cats’ Can a Person Take? – The New York TimesPets
The assignment: Head to Boston to see the touring stage show and the movie musical all in one day. The result: a purr, a yowl or both?
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BOSTON — “I wanted to go because I have a cat,” Jack Maloney, 9, said, gnawing a sour gummy.
Last Saturday, Maloney sat between his parents at the Citizens Bank Opera House in Boston, just before a matinee performance of “Cats,” the unlikely Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that made a scratching post of Broadway throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
A riot of marble and gilt, the Opera House had filled to near capacity. The ushers wore cat ears; so did many in the audience. I saw a grandmother and her teenage grandson arrayed in matching spotted onesies. The bar did a brisk champagne trade. This tour, based on the 2016 Broadway revival, had already been on the road for a year. Nick Scandalios, an executive vice president at the Nederlander Organization, which presents the tour, estimates booking for at least two more.
Another “Cats” may have a shorter run. The movie musical, directed by Tom Hooper, once seen as an award-season contender, had already disappeared from many theaters. The New York Times called it a “kitschapalooza,” the Los Angeles Times, “Les Meowsérables.” Still, it has its fans, like Michaela Vlassopoulus, 8, whom I met at the Opera House. She had enjoyed the movie, she said, clutching a black stuffed cat. “Well, I saw half of it, the rest I was asleep,” she qualified. The stage show, which she had never seen, had a lot to live up to, she thought.
When the first trailer debuted, last July, I summoned my 6-year-old to watch it with me. Two minutes later, with both of us upset by the CGI, I closed my laptop. “Mommy is sorry,” I said. So as of last week, I hadn’t seen the movie, and I hadn’t seen the stage musical in about 30 years. Then my editor sent me a pitch: Would I take the train to Boston, the tour’s current stop, and see both in one day?
“Am I being punished?” I asked.
I last saw “Cats,” Lloyd Webber’s song-cycle adaptation of T. S. Eliot’s bizarro light verse collection, “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” in the mid-to-late 1980s at the Santa Monica Civic Center. (I thought it was at the Hollywood Pantages, but let’s trust my mother on this one.) It wasn’t my first experience of live theater, but like a lot of women — and a few men — I know, it obsessed me.
I wore out the cassette tape. I learned all the lyrics. I may have choreographed a gymnastics routine to the song “Jellicle Cats,” even though I still can’t tell you just what a Jellicle cat is. If I write about theater today, it’s because back then some overworked actors in leg warmers and spandex unitards ran down the aisles, petting me and my little sister in ways that were probably appropriate. Some neuron fired or some chromosomal code activated and I knew, even if I couldn’t articulate it, that I wanted to do whatever I could to experience an event like that again.
But when the show came back to Broadway a few years ago, I didn’t try to see it. Hadn’t we all grown up and decided that “Cats” was terrible? Was Andrew Lloyd Webber ever O.K.? In truth, the snub owed as much to shame as to snobbery. I suspected I wouldn’t care for it, which would mean dismissing not only “Cats” itself but the 8 or 9 or 10-year-old who had adored those tie-on tails, too. We don’t get to choose the art that shapes us — and a lot of us, if we’re honest, will know that formative art isn’t necessarily good art. But sometimes we can choose to avoid reinterrogating it. “Cats” was the hero I knew I shouldn’t meet.
But there I was at the Opera House. The lights were dimming, the overture was starting — the choked crash cymbal, the kick drum, the keyboard imitating electric piano and glockenspiel. The eye masks lit up and the hair on my arms horripilated. Jellicles could. Jellicles did.
Here, if you are not a “Cats” initiate, is what we will kindly call the plot. Every year, at the Jellicle Ball, the cats’ leader, Old Deuteronomy, chooses one cat to ascend to the “heaviside layer” and be reborn. The cats audition for this apotheosis (because Eliot’s poems are often written in the third-person, cat narrators sometimes sing on their behalf), and the honor this year ultimately goes to Grizabella, a former glamour dam (read: prostitute). She belts “Memory” — still a banger! — and then rises into the flies on an outsize tire that looks a lot like an alien spacecraft.
At intermission, I asked Jack for his thoughts. “I like it,” he said. He thought that Emma, his Maine coon, would like it, too.
“I’m not really sure what’s happening,” said his father, Tim Maloney, who was on his second Coors and wondering if he should have bought a third.
Maybe this is just the toxoplasmosis talking, but I was with Jack. The story remained as shaky as ever, and if the dramaturgy never troubled me as a kid, I now didn’t understand why the action yowls to a stop toward the end of Act I for a dance sequence. As Act II began, I saw that they had cut “Growltiger’s Last Stand” (wise) and retained a rejiggered version of “The Awefull Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles”(less wise). The lyrics to “Memory” — a contribution by the original director Trevor Nunn — now confuse. (“If you touch me, you’ll understand what happiness is”?) The finale is a bore.
But the dancing — Gillian Lynne’s choreography, goosed by Andy Blankenbuehler — is as thrilling as ever. And I had never appreciated what a workout the show is (“A soggy mess is what I feel like afterward,” Emma Hearn, a cast member who fell in love with the show as a toddler, would tell me) and what a party. The music and dance rarely rest, and the immersion into the cats’ world is complete — helped, I’d argue, by the shameless theatricality of these obviously bipedal and very clearly human cats. And if you can hear a song as irresistible as “Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat” and not feel your soul elate, you may be a stranger to joy.
I finished applauding and texted my editor: “Ha ha ha. I love ‘Cats’ now.”
Now and forever? That’s tricky. Earlier that morning, I had spoken to Scandalios about whether or not the movie’s flop had imperiled the show’s brand. It was doing as well as ever, he assured me. “It was selling out without the film, and it’s still selling out now with the film,” he told me. “‘Cats’ is ‘Cats.’”
Several hours after the matinee let out — and after I had stage-doored a few of the actors — I trudged through a snowstorm to see for myself. “Cats” had already exited most of Boston’s larger movie theaters. (Ty Burr’s review in The Boston Globe: “My eyes are burning. Oh God, my eyes.”) But I found a late-ish showing at the Somerville Theater, which had responded to rowdy audiences by rechristening “Cats” as an audience participation film. “This grew organically,” the house manager, Peter Mattchens, told me.
Patrons entered, a few of them in costume, and a woman, Mary Freed, handed out Amazon-purchased glitter cat ears to anyone who wanted them. “I went to ‘Rocky Horror’ in the early ’80s,” she said, mentioning the cult classic movie, as she gave me a pair. “And here it comes again.”
I would hazard that if you are going to see “Cats” the movie, you should see it like this, with a hundred or so people around to share in your fascination and horror. (Marijuana is legal in Massachusetts. So that’s an option, too.) The visual effects, as have often been reported, plunge the movie into an uncanny valley of cat-human hybrids. It never claws its way free. Why did no one warn me about the human cockroaches, the human hands? The scale seems all wrong, the scenes underpopulated, the dance numbers apparently shot by someone who doesn’t get or like dance.
To strengthen the plot, the musical now centers on newcomer Victoria (Francesca Hayward), the non-singing white cat of the original, and her seeming attraction to various toms. “Kiss!” the crowd yelled at each two-shot. They also shouted every time Idris Elba’s Macavity the Mystery Cat appeared and protested as he abducted several fellow felines. “Not canon,” a man behind me mumbled. If the stage version of “Cats” is sexy, that sexuality is inherent and unremarkable, just what happens when you put that many pretty young things in unitards. But the movie, with its erect tails and butt shots, is dumb and lewd.
“Imagine if you couldn’t scream,” Eliza Malecky, a ticket holder who had arrived in a leopard print, told me later.
Perversely, the expensive CGI achieves the opposite effect of those spandex and leg warmer outfits — it trades real theatricality for slipshod illusionism, pushing you out instead of pulling you in. “A cat is not a dog,” Judi Dench says in the finale. Or is it? If I’d seen the movie as a kid I might have liked it, because children have terrible taste, but I know it wouldn’t have worked on me in the same way that the show did.
I also know that if the stage musical comes through New York again, I’ll ask for a ticket this time. I still don’t know if “Cats” is good, but I know why I love it, then and now. Because it gives me what I want from any show, an invitation to a new and comprehensive world.
I’ll buy a couple more for my kids, even though I did try to show the three-year-old “Magical Mister Mistoffelees” today, only to have him say, “This is weird” and walk away. I’ll pass down some love, some trauma. Let the memory live again.