Here in the Age of Adaptations, when even roller coaster rides can become multi-million dollar franchises, it is easy to forget that the act of turning one art form into another is nothing short of alchemy.
Cats is an example of that strange transmogrification, having been born from mere letters then metamorphosed into a musical, a movie, and now a remake due out in December.
Of course, these days, the internet is obsessed with furry babies and we’re all familiar with the troop of celebrity felines, but how did a musical about cats become such a hit pre-viral video?
Cats began in the unlikely soil of letters. T. S. Eliot, an American poet better known for his sprawling meditations on post-war Europe, included verses in correspondences to his three-year-old godson, Thomas Faber. The lines were collected and published as “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.”
Several composers added music to the poems; however, it was Andrew Lloyd Webber, a man who would set the newspaper to music given the opportunity, who became best known for his interpretation. Webber introduced his Practical Cats at a 1980 performance during his own Sydmonton Festival.
After seeing this rendition, Valerie Eliot, Eliot’s widow, gave Webber an unpublished poem that had been excluded from “Old Possums” for being too dark for children. It included Grizabella, a downtrodden cat, who would become Webber’s main character. He combined her story with another of Eliot’s discarded ideas: “the Heaviside Layer.”
Webber retooled Practical Cats to revolve around Grizabella and ascension to this otherworldly place. With these additions, Webber’s musical was transformed into a robust story with character development and a throughline.
Judi Dench, Sarah Brightman, and Elaine Paige were cast in the newly renamed Cats musical. Choreography, costume and set designs soon followed and Cats was set to open at the New London Theater in 1981. Investors and audience members were skeptical (it was after all a musical about cats), so Webber had to foot a chunk of the musical’s bill himself.
The skepticism grew when Judi Dench, who played both Grizabella AND Jennyanydots, snapped her Achilles tendon during rehearsals a week before the preview. Though she was replaced by understudy Myra Sands and Elaine Paige, the accident forced the musical to open a month late.
And yet despite all the near-death experiences the musical underwent, it landed on its feet. Somehow Cats sunk its claws in our collective heart. Frank Rich (aka “Butcher of Broadway”) in his 1982 write-up of the musical supposes that “the reason why people will hunger to see ‘Cats’ is… it’s a musical that transports the audience into a complete fantasy world that could only exist in the theater…”
So fantastical is the set and so ravenous the reception that a production was filmed at London’s Adelphi Theatre in 1997 with the intention of screening it and releasing it on VHS. Steven Spielberg began work on an animated version. However, the project was abandoned when his studio shuttered. In the meantime, the stage version enjoyed one of the longest runs on both Broadway and the West End.
Cats, at this point, is far from that childlike oasis of poetry that Eliot penned. It has been revived and revived with no signs of retiring, which proves how magical the material is.
However, the most recent remake, Cats (2019) is an attempt to up the ante on extravagance has managed to corrupt the charm of the original entirely.
Helmed by director Tom Hooper and boasting a cast that includes Judi Dench, James Corden, Jason Derulo, Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson, Ian McKellen, Taylor Swift, and Rebel Wilson, it seems like Cats (2019) has all the hallmarks of success. However, the movie is facing some of the same skepticism as Webber’s original.
The doubt now is not that cats aren’t interesting enough creatures to carry their own musical, but rather that these cats will cause nightmares.
Cats (2019) follows the trend of introducing audiences to a new and terrifying CGI rendition of a classic character.
Like in this year’s Aladdin, moviemakers skirted as close to real life as they could to produce what is ultimately fiction. The fursuits of the stage play were abandoned in favor of computerized cat-like humanoids that combine all the disturbing likeness of Polar Express with the unnecessarily melding of real-life and CGI of Sonic the Hedgehog.
The result is a DeepDream-esque sequence where the faces of familiar actors are grafted with feline features and mounted on shrunken bodies. These cats fall into the uncanny valley, a meridian where a certain level of likeness disturbs viewers. They don’t transport the audience, they terrify them and it’s that failure to delight that may mean that Cats (2019) is the musical’s ninth and final life.
Perhaps, in the wake of that failure, viewers will turn to “Old Possum” again.