Theatre Lover's Journal for August 2000

Cats - The Last Meeeooow

by John Kenrick

Lots of new shows are revving up for the Fall, but the main topic of discussion on Broadway these days is the closing of Cats. September 10th will mark the 7,485th and final performance of the show that has entertained more than ten million people and made Andrew Lloyd Webber the wealthiest composer in theatrical history.

Theatre buffs are reacting in all sorts of ways. Fans and employees of the show are saddened, while musical theatre purists are celebrating what they hope is the beginning of the end for British mega-musicals. Both sides have valid points to make.

In grossing over 350 million dollars, Cats has provided the theatrical community and New York City with much-needed income. Everyone from actors and ushers to cabbies and physical therapists has profited handsomely from the business generated by this unlikely hit. However, some complain that the tremendous success of Cats and the other Brit-hits (Phantom, Les Miz, Miss Saigon) has tied up four of Broadway's best theatres for more than a decade, making it harder for new musicals to find a home.

I remember seeing Cats just days after its opening, when it was the hottest ticket in town. (My date was so impressed that I had gotten prime seats – who says musical theatre is not a great prelude to romance?) The Broadway scene was very different in 1982. A Chorus Line and 42nd Street were the reigning musical hits, and such diverse gems as Ain't Misbehavin', Nine, Annie and Dreamgirls were still running strong.

So it is not just hype when I tell you standards were different. Theatregoers expected Broadway musicals to give them something more than a banal score, cheesy sentiment and some eye-catching special effects. Little did I realize as I sat there in the Winter Garden surrounded by prancing pussies and flashing cat's eyes that an art form was changing right before my eyes. And although I prefer things like solid characterization and genuine wit, even I was impressed by the hydraulic tire. When Al Jolson played the Winter Garden, the Shuberts built a runway so he could go out into the audience. Thanks to that smoky tire, Betty Buckley (and all who succeeded her) got to go right through the roof.

And what marvelous people filled that original cast! Aside from the already known Buckley (1776) and Ken Page (Ain't Misbehavin'), we were treated to future musical stars Harry Groener (Crazy For You) and Terrance Mann (Beauty and the Beast). Few will forget the sight of Mann singing his way through the audience, leaping from armrest to armrest like a somewhat fuzzier (but infinitely sexier) version of Mick Jagger.

In the end, my only objection to Cats was that so much of it it was a crashing bore. Oh the first and last fifteen minutes have enough spectacle to bedazzle anyone, but the two hours in between yawn with mindlessness. How ironic that T. S. Eliot, one of the most intellectually demanding writers of the 20th Century, should reach a larger audience than ever with this hairball-light rehash of his "Book of Practical Cats." Some suggest he would have been furious, but I think he would have laughed all the way to the bank. When Eliot was alive, Broadway gave him a Tony and a relatively short run for his play The Cocktail Party. Only after he was long dead did Broadway gave him a seemingly endless run (and a questionable Best Book Tony) for a bastardization of his verse.

It pains me to think of the millions of children who were taken to Cats as their first Broadway show. What a sad standard to set! No wonder so many now think of The Lion King as theatre. We once would have dismissed it as a puppet show, not worthy of consideration for the "Main Stem." Now it seems that no new musical can afford the luxury of anything as dangerous as an idea. I am not saying that Cats was the beginning of the end for the Broadway musical, but it certainly was a milestone in the art form's descent into vapidity.

For many years, I could earn surefire laughs in any piano bar singing a parody of "Memory." The highlight was the bridge, which involved everyone joining in a chorus of "meow, meows." As the run dragged on, New Yorkers LOVED to make fun of Cats – a trend that climaxed with a wicked skit on Saturday Night Live spoofing the boring routine of life backstage at Broadway's longest running show. This trend had nothing to do with New Yorkers being jaded or looking down their noses at a popular tourist attraction – we simply got tired of being bombarded by "Memory" and that omnipresent logo of yellow kitty eyes with dancers as irises.

As much as I hate to resort to a clich , this ending is just a beginning. Think of all the high school and community theatre directors who can now fulfill their decades-old fantasies by sewing fur onto leg warmers, painting stripes on dancer's faces and filling auditoriums with gigantic faux trash. Girls who who have not stopped a show since they were young enough to get away with singing "Tomorrow" can find new glory belting through the "burnt out ends of smoky days." Hundreds of small town aerobics instructors will suddenly be acclaimed as choreographers, and young gymnasts can augment their dreams of Olympic gold with a taste of musical comedy stardom.

When Broadway's Cats stages its invitation-only farewell performance, I will be elsewhere. If I feel (you should pardon the expression) frisky, I may even treat myself once again to the sensational revival of The Music Man, and revel in memories of a time when Broadway musicals had brains, heart and creative courage.

However, when they back-up the trucks to the Winter Garden on Monday Sept. 11th, I just may stop by to see the kitty litter cleaned out. Till then, please join me in raising a catnip-laced glass to toast all the jellicles as they scamper towards their final "meow" – here's purring at you kids!

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