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A Hiss-tory of CATS!
Kitty December 18th, 2019
The new movie adaptation is almost here
As the world gears up for the release of the shiny new film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's world-wide mega-musical CATS, we thought we'd take a look back at where the feline phenomenon began.
Far from springing fully formed onto stages and celluloid, CATS' journey to the screen actually began nearly 100 years ago in the letters of Poet T.S Eliot to his godchildren. Writing under the name 'Old Possum' he'd delight his young readers with fantastical tales of that age-old mystery - the private lives of our beloved pets.
What followed was a delightful tribute to the inner world of cats (or Jellicles), with tricksters rubbing shoulders with thieves, magicians, rebels, wide-eyed kittens and weathered old alley cats, all gathering together to tell their stories through a series of 14 whimsical poems. In 1939, the vintage verses were collected and published under the title 'Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats', where they went on to entertain generations of young children and inspire one very much indeed.
In 1977 Andrew Lloyd Webber was certainly not a young child, but he was a successful musical theatre creator, when he remembered his favorite childhood book and set out to write music to the poems as a musical exercise. (Whilst it might seem outlandish to imagine 14 poems about cats could become the basis for a fully-fledged musical, we must remember that this was the man who'd made Jesus into a rockstar the decade before). Initially playing them for entertainment to friends, the project was soon turned into a song cycle, and premiered at the Sydmonton Festival in 1980. Whilst there, Eliot's widow Valerie so enjoyed the show she gave Lloyd Webber some more of Eliot's poems that hadn't made it to the original book - ones initially deemed too dark for children. Among them was 'Grizabella The Glamour Cat' who laments on the memories of her glittering past...
Realizing he now had a fully-fledged musical on his hands, he asked up and coming producer Cameron Mackintosh to help bring his vision to the stage. In enlisting Trevor Nunn to direct and write, choreographer Gillian Lynne and set and costume designer John Napier, Mackintosh had the team he needed, and the version of Cats we now know and love was born. While it proved a bit of a struggle to adapt (Memory still had no lyrics until well into the preview process and Dame Judi Dench dropped out of the project early after breaking her ankle), it finally opened at the New London Theatre on the 11th of May 1981, where it received warm reviews and to everyone's surprise, ran until 2002, becoming the West End's sixth longest-running show of all time. A Broadway transfer to the Winter Garden soon followed in 1982, where it stayed until 2000. The New York critics were not so complimentary but were largely ignored by theatre goers and producers alike, the latter of which enjoyed a rate of return of nearly 3,500%.
In the years since the show shuttered in both the West End and on Broadway, it has enjoyed a highly successful life on tour and internationally, with a 15-year engagement in Hamburg and a continuous engagement that's been running in Japan since 1983. (And in 1998, after it was filmed and released on video, it also became the top playing tape in this writer's house, much to the chagrin of her parents, who were not fully on board with letting their 9 year old go to school dressed as a cat for a whole year, but begrudgingly put up with it.)
Now, with the movie about to re-ignite the public's interest and introduce a whole new generation of little ones to T.S Elliot and Andrew Lloyd Webber's unexpected collaboration, it looks like CATS is far from using up its 9 lives!