Cats, by Andrew Lloyd-Webber and T.S. Eliot, dir. Trevor Nunn, Citizen Bank Opera House, Boston, 2020
There is no doubt about it that a film version of Cats was always an ill-conceived idea and I am not surprised Tom Hooper's attempt has been so reviled. There is also, it must be said, a particularly poisonous backlash against the film and its very concept which has been driven by the toxo-sphere of Twitter (et al) where everyone and his ... um, dog ... seemed to take jokey delight in slandering what most did not actually bother to see. This is the danger of the age of mass broadcast opinion: everything and anything can be completely and obscenely blown way out of proportion. In the end, truth itself pales into a version of what the truth has become. Then there are people who did watch the film and were understandably bemused by it and instead of looking to the failings and limitations of cinema (in this one specific regard) or the faults of this actual version (mostly undone by the nausea-inducing horrors of CGI) they have begun to essentially dismiss the entire Cats project as being pointless, plotless, tuneless, insufferable and, worst of all, creepy. (Why is anything slightly out of favour with these puritanical narrow-minded millennial "influencers" these days accused of being "creepy"? The word suggests a perversion which is a nonredeemable slur: firstly, it's normally always nonsense, and secondly, why are they suddenly the sole arbiters of this?) Well, this is where they are so wrong because Cats, the stage version as originally conceived, is in truth so much a staple of what is effectively a small cannon of gold-standard musicals that to defame it is virtually to commit high treason in the minds of any dedicated thespian, not to mention thousands of adoring kids who just love its pantomime gusto, plus the majority of the more discerning queer community who see in it a delicious extrapolation of true gender-bending camp "bigness".
Firstly, Cats is total theatre. And I mean total. It is arguably a testament to the very notion of theatre's far-reaching bounds of invention: it is a glorious unapologetic amalgam of mime, magic, illusion, pantomime, ballet, opera, cabaret, tap-dance, music hall, vaudeville, choral verse, (the list goes on). At every turn it surprises and astonishes for the way it deploys such a wide-range of genres; the overt perfomativity of it underscores its actual thematic premise - the cats are induced to express themselves, to exhibit their true natures, to flaunt their attributes. It's not concerned with subtlety because its mission is to extricate that which is inverted in us all. Cats is a rallying cry for us as humans to shed our inhibitions, to free our inner selves, to embrace our animal instincts.
For those who say it does not have a plot, well, it does and it doesn't need to: effectively Cats is an elaborate song-cycle, a series of interwoven monologues, each song a stand-alone "story" of a character within itself. The loosely overarching concept of having the cats engage in a sing-off until one is chosen to ascend to the "Heaviside Layer" is admittedly not Hamlet but it holds the piece together, gives it direction and maintains its incredible pace. Those who say its lyrics are trite clearly aren't listening to the words or simply don't know actual poetry when they fall over it. T.S Eliot's verse is ingenious, hilarious, cunningly observant of human nature and can always be read on so many layers. This is why kids and adults love Cats. In fact, it's hard to think of a better lyricist to set to music and it's dismaying to hear people slagging off the verse as "childish" and "trite" when, in fact, there is a wealth of language, idiom and inventiveness there. Don't we all love to be told a witty, amusing story, rich and immersive? Seems not these days. To say it's "tuneless" is another slur of the millennial philistines tone-deaf to anything other than "easy beats" and manufactured synth pop which gets churned through the bowels of Pop Idol and X-Factor season after season. Cats' score carries a series of unique, almost ethereal leitmotifs while interspersing a great array of jazzy show tunes, breathtaking dance numbers, and of course the show-stopping ballad Memory. Actually, if examined closely, Cats has a complex fugue at the heart of its score which is really quite brilliant.
More than anything, Cats is energy personified. It's hard to think of a show which carries you along more thrillingly. Because of its fantastical subject-matter, the staging and lighting can be heart-stopping at times and always continually shifting to enhance mood, lift the music and intensify the magic. Cats is a fully immersive theatrical experience and one which could never hope to be replicated on film. I remember growing up and being obsessed with Cats. I had the score at home and would play all the tunes on the piano, losing hours and hours in its strange and comforting world, marvelling at the words to the songs as I went along. Later when I came to adore T.S Eliot and his more "serious" poetry, my fondness for Cats only doubled. More than that, however, when I first saw Cats in the West End, I realised it's true meaning: it's the show that gives you permission to invest in the belief of limitless expression. Because it's not an attempt to replicate the nuances of human behaviour in any way it's not limited to the spectrum of human self-consciousness. There is no pretence to a confining human dynamic: people who are actors playing characters who are just other people. Instead, it frees up all constraint, all inhibition, all responsibility to "truth". It is for this reason that Cats' fluid and androgynous design is so liberating and meaningful to so many generations of people. It's theatre which allows you to strip away conventional attachment to the constraints of reality and allows you to enter the realm of your true, unbridled self. For this reason alone it's in need of defending.