Cats, the musical and now the movie, is a trippy delight — but it doesn’t have to be confusing.
If you’re not familiar with the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Cats — or even if you are — then you probably have many, many questions going into the film adaptation this weekend, especially if you’ve witnessed the widespread bafflement the trailer provoked when it pounced upon an unsuspecting and baffled nation this week.
Les Miserables director Tom Hooper helms this version, which boasts a surprising, A-list cast including Taylor Swift, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Jennifer Hudson, James Corden, Rebel Wilson, and Idris Elba. But the new adaptation also, unfortunately boasts blurry CGI fur, oversized set pieces whose scale seems to shift from sequence to sequence, and a completely literal, straight-faced commitment to the concept of singing cats. It’s all carried off with all the subtlety of original Cats star Elaine Page belting an E-flat.
But as you judge whether to brave the wilds of a half-CGI movie about weirdly horny London street cats, it’s important to keep one thing in mind:
This movie, relatively speaking, isn’t that weird.
That’s because Cats has always been so much weirder than most people remember.
Just listen to the overture — here’s the original London version, from 1981 — and you’ll immediately hear Cats announce itself as quirky and slinky and spectacular, and wildly off-kilter from the typical Broadway milieu. So if you’re wondering what on earth this Cats movie is going to be like, strap in for a journey to the Heaviside Layer: We have answers, and they probably aren’t what you’re expecting.
1) What is Cats?
Cats is a musical by famed theater composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and his occasional lyricist collaborator Richard Stilgoe, based on assorted works, including some unpublished poems, by T.S. Eliot, most notably his collection of children’s poems about cats, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. (More on the cat poems in a sec.)
At the time Cats was being developed in 1980, Lloyd Webber had churned out three of his most popular musicals: Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. The latter two were still playing in New York, and the public was hungry for whatever Lloyd Webber was going to do next. Before Cats even opened, its cornerstone anthem, “Memory,” was covered by Barbra Streisand and Barry Manilow, as well as other pop vocalists of the era.
Despite despairing reviews from theater critics like the New York Times’s Frank Rich, who acknowledged its “purely theatrical magic” while also calling it low on feeling and quality, Cats presided over Broadway for 18 years, from 1982 to 2000, becoming what was then the longest-running musical in history and inspiring its longtime slogan: “Now and Forever.” (The show’s record was eventually surpassed by another Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, The Phantom of the Opera.)
2) What makes Cats such a big deal?
Cats heralded the start of the “British invasion” of lavish, high-budget musicals exported from London that characterized Broadway in the ’80s and early ’90s. The original production of the show opened in 1981 in London’s West End, and was sold out for a year there before it moved to Broadway, where hype for it grew rapidly.
When the show arrived in New York in 1982, the Winter Garden Theater famously had to cut a hole in the roof and paint the entire theater pitch black to create its oversized junkyard set.
This extravagance, along with the show’s then-massive budget of more than $4 million, good buzz coming from London, hit recordings of “Memory” already burning up the airwaves, and the public’s anticipation of the next big Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, all resulted in a clamor for Cats that drove what was then one of the largest advance sales in Broadway history. It may not seem like much to look at compared to today’s lavish theatrical production designs, but in 1982, Cats was pure spectacle of a type rarely seen on Broadway.
The other attractive, unique thing about Cats at the time — and today — is that it contains two hours of non-stop dancing. Cats is a very demanding show with pretty well-known choreography; originally by Dame Gillian Lynne, it was reworked for the 2016 revival and Hooper’s film by Hamilton choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler. The costumes emphasize the dancing: They’re furred-up everyday dance uniforms, tights, leotards, leg warmers, and ballet shoes, plus tails. They also emphasize the show’s core request for the audience to suspend their disbelief. These are obviously people pretending to be cats, but that’s part of the magic.
It’s not a big deal, these days, to see performers assume anthropomorphic qualities through dance and other theatrical devices — just look at the Broadway production of The Lion King, or any of the recent Planet of the Apes films. And the arts, of course, share a longtime love of turning people into animals, as in Swan Lake, or this early 19th-century cat duet, set to music by Rossini:
But Cats, more than just celebrating cathood, legitimized the idea that theater reliant almost totally on its physical and theatrical effects — music, costumes, stage design, and dance, rather than on a deep plot — can provide a powerful evening of entertainment that audiences will pay high prices for, and return to see again and again.
3) What is Cats about?
Unlike most successful Broadway musicals, Cats has so little story that its title essentially doubles as the plot summary. Cats is a musical about cats. It is relentlessly about cats.
cause of death: this real, actual quote pic.twitter.com/Q9rtShyKRO
— Melanie Gill Man @ CCA! (@melgillman) July 19, 2019
Summarily — and we mean very summarily — Cats is about the annual cat ritual known as the Jellicle Ball, where all the cats gather for the mystical selection of a very special cat to ascend to cat heaven, known as the Heaviside Layer (which is a real place that exists!). This extra-special cat will presumably endure a glorious death on the journey into cat heaven, where they will — so they think — be reincarnated into one of their next nine lives.
Having established all this through its opening sequence, Cats then simply presents all the cats who are competing in the annual cat battle to be the first to die. Relying almost entirely on dance and costumes to convey the idea of, well, cats, the show cycles through characters faithfully taken from T.S. Eliot’s cat poems. Each cat has its distinct personality, and most of them get their own songs over the course of the show.
So basically, Cats is a two-hour dance musical about … different cats. At the end of the musical, the correct cat is chosen to ascend to the Heaviside Layer, and the show simply ends.
Weird but acceptable, right? It’s a musical that just really wants to be about cats, right?
Because — surprise! Cats is actually … not only about cats!
4) If Cats isn’t really just about cats, what is it about?
Cats is also about the Trauma Of Old Age and the Sweet Release of Death.
During Cats’ development, the T.S. Eliot estate gave Lloyd Webber and Stilgoe access to a few of Elliot’s unpublished poems, including some sadder cat poems, and some unpublished poetic fragments that make it into “Memory.” The theme of Cats, if Cats can be said to have a theme beyond just cats, is what’s encoded into these other unpublished works of Eliot’s — and that theme is, um, the increasing obscurity and obsolescence of old age, and death as an escape from a nihilistic and cruel world.
Cats’ true underbelly is a super bleak, depressing story structured around offering its weird cultish reincarnation ritual to its oldest cats as, essentially, a mercy killing.
Both of the elderly cats in the show, Gus (who’s played in the movie by Ian McKellen) and Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), are former performers — cats who once had made names for themselves on the stage, more or less.
Gus, short for Asparagus, now hangs out as a cat usher reliving his glory days as a great actor of the Victorian age, while Grizabella is portrayed as a down-and-out stray who is hinted to have fallen into sex work (seriously) after losing her once-stylish life. “She haunted many a low resort,” we’re told, and the other cats brutally reject her when she attempts to return to the community, noting that she’s unrecognizable from the “glamour cat” she once was. (This is a bit hypocritical of the other cats, most of whom flagrantly exude sexual energy.)
The stories of Gus and Grizabella are both framed as bittersweet, if not flat-out tragic; even though Gus has happy memories of the theater, he’s portrayed as feeble and infirm: “His coat’s very shabby, he’s thin as a rake, and he suffers from palsy that makes his paw shake.” Poor Gus! Meanwhile, Grizabella’s reminiscences of the good life bring her only intense pain and bitterness, and an increased awareness of how lonely she is.
Which brings us to what is probably the only thing you know about Cats, if you know anything about Cats: its most iconic song, now one of Broadway’s biggest standards.
5) Which song would I know from Cats?
You might know a song from Cats, and that song — the only song you know, unless you are a more serious musical theater and/or cat fan — is “Memory.” That’s the song that Grizabella sings at the show’s climax, after all the other cats reject her when she attempts to reenter the cat community.
For all this talk about how weird Cats is, “Memory” is arguably the weirdest thing about Cats. It’s the only song in Cats that has nothing to do with cats, lyrically. The words — about, uh, memories and loneliness — are so generic that they helped turned the song into a pop hit before the show ever opened on Broadway. With its spare, sad, introspective melody, it’s completely tonally different from any other song in the show.
It feels dropped in from another musical — it was originally intended to be for an early draft of Lloyd Webber’s 1993 musical Sunset Boulevard, and it could easily be swapped in for any song Norma Desmond sings in that show. But it also seems to be broadcast from another plane of existence altogether, much as the outcast, lonely Grizabella has been living a completely different life than most of the Jellicle cats in their cosseted community spaces.
There are plenty of other good songs in Cats — “Macavity” is a personal favorite — but given that it and all the other songs are about cats, it’s no wonder they’re not Top 40 hits. “Memory,” however, is the show’s emotional highlight, the song that catalyzes the choice of cat to ascend to heaven. “Memory,” and specifically the moment when the diva of the evening wails, “Touch me!” on a climactic high note, is the song audiences wait two hours to hear.
It pretty much doesn’t matter that none of the other songs from Cats are eminently hummable or well, as memorable; there’s something so powerful about “Memory” by itself that it packed audiences in night after night for two decades straight.
You can hear Jennifer Hudson’s Grizabella singing a low-key version of it on the new movie trailer. Expect it to be hitting the radio waves soon.
6) What’s a Jellicle Cat?
A Jellicle cat, according to T.S. Eliot lore, is a bowdlerization of “dear little cats,” one apocryphally created by a child in his life that he then co-opted for his cat poems. It is also the opposite of a ”pollicle dog,” or “poor little dog.” But of course, as a cat lover, you knew that already.
7) Who are the cats?
Cats is an ensemble musical: Except for Grizabella, who’s barely onstage for half the runtime, there aren’t any real leading roles. The movie’s all-star cast might leave you confused on that point, so let’s clear it up. Below is the ensemble starring in Tom Hooper’s version of Cats:
Francesca Hayward as Victoria, the White Cat
Victoria is a regal white cat who has no songs in the musical, but instead is represented as a delicate feline ballerina. On stage, she’s also the unofficial dance captain, leading most of the ensemble dance numbers. In the movie, she’s the main character, played by Francesca Hayward, star of the Royal Ballet, and the entire story is framed through her perspective. This is a new addition to the musical, one that lets us see the world through her eyes as a recently abandoned young cat. Oh, and she’s been given an entirely new song to sing, “Beautiful Ghosts.”
Taylor Swift as Bombalurina
Bombalurina is a minor cat in the scheme of things — with her pal Demeter, she sings lead on one of the show’s bigger numbers, “Macavity,” but otherwise doesn’t get much of a spotlight. Knowing Taylor Swift, however, it’s unsurprising that she’s turned “Macavity” into a solo number, making herself known as the criminal’s number one fan.
Jennifer Hudson as Grizabella
A diva actress for a diva cat.
Idris Elba as Macavity
Billed as “the Napoleon of Crime,” Macavity is the devilish criminal cat who’s never at the scene of his dastardly crimes. If you think that sounds hot, you are correct.
In the musical, Macavity is a mysterious miscreant who runs around making trouble, apparently with a dose of magical powers. In the movie, he’s now the villain of the story, and not only that but he’s been given a new role as a pimp — a literal pimp! — and a drug pusher. And here we thought Idris Elba had spent enough time being typecast!
Jason Derulo as the Rum Tum Tugger
The Rum Tum Tugger is a cat whose defining trait is that he is sexy. He has a song that’s all about how he’s sexy. In the new film, he’s played by R&B and hip-hop artist Jason Derulo. His big number onscreen is the Rum Tum Tugger song, a showy caricature of rambunctious pop stars.
“In the room the women come and go / talking of Jason Derulo”
— skimbleshanks, first of his name (@chachch_changes) July 18, 2019
Rebel Wilson as the Gumbie cat, Jennyanydots
The “Gumbie cat,” according to Cats, is the classic housecat who lazes all day and then gets busy at night, fussing and scolding and terrorizing the house’s vermin into tip-top shape.
James Corden as Bustopher Jones
Bustopher Jones is a roly-poly aristo-cat who embodies the stuffy, influential, yet benevolent businessmen of London’s upper-crust cat-ocracy. James Corden is pretty much playing to type.
Judi Dench as Old Deuteronomy
Continuing her habit of genderbending upper-management roles once inhabited by men, Dame Judi portrays Cats’ grand cult-leader, who relies on her religious-y wisdom to decide on who gets to ascend to the Heaviside Layer.
Laurie Davidson as Mr. Mistoffelees
Known for playing Shakespeare in the short-lived, sexed-up Shakespeare pastiche Will, Laurie Davidson has the showman’s role of the evening as the magician Mr. Mistoffelees, who, apart from generally being charming, sort of handwaves the plot resolution — such as it is — into appearing.
Other assorted cats!
You’ll meet other assorted cats throughout Cats, like the chaos twins Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer; Growltiger, a renegade barge pirate cat; Skimbleshanks, the always-disciplined train cat; and Munkustrap, the cat emcee.
8) Why did Cats director Tom Hooper make the sets so big?
The new film features the lavish, carefully oversized furniture and backdrops of director Tom Hooper’s set — all designed to make the humans appear cat-sized. But as strange as this might seem, Hooper is adapting this faithfully from Cats’ original production design, which transformed the stage of the Winter Garden theater into a massive junkyard featuring an assortment of trash and accoutrements that were “more than three times human size.”
The problem you’ll run into with the film, however, is that Cats’ sense of scale shifts wildly from sequence to sequence: for example, the cats keep running into CGI mice that are actually as small as they’d be if the cats were human-sized. Don’t try to make sense of this, because you won’t: just assume that this is how big cats think they are. Or something.
9) Why are all the Cats so … sexualized? And what is with the fur?
It’s no real secret that humans have always had a thing for sexualizing cats — and conversely using a wealth of cat euphemisms to objectify and dehumanize women. (Think about it.) We describe two women fighting over a man as a catfight; when they get competitive, we say their “claws” come out. Cats plays right into this narrative, though in its egalitarian way, it sexualizes the men just as much as the women — most notably, Rum Tum Tugger. Watch Terrence Mann, the original Rum Tum Tugger on Broadway, aggressively thrust sex appeal at the audience:
The blatant sexuality of this number didn’t go unremarked-upon at the time; Frank Rich stated in his New York Times review that “the only real flaw in this large company is Terrence V. Mann’s Rum Tum Tugger, who tries to imitate Mick Jagger’s outlaw sexuality and misses by a wide mark.” (Mann would go on to brilliantly create the role of Les Miserables’ Javert, the most sexually repressed character ever, in the original Broadway cast.)
It’s not just one cat that’s barely clothed and gyrating around the stage, of course, but all of them. To be fair to Cats, this is mainly because, again, it’s a dance musical — the actors are dancing the entire time, so their costumes are skin-hugging, light uniforms out of necessity as much as style.
But Hooper, in his strange relish for recreating the exact parameters of the musicals he adapts (arguably to their detriment), seems to have wanted to recreate the flesh-colored appearance of scantily clad, nearly-nude cats, in the vein of the original theatrical costumes — but using photorealistic CGI fur to do it with.
A note on CGI fur: Hooper and his cast of actors kept emphasizing the fur a tremendous amount in their behind-the-scenes footage of Cats. There’s a reason for that: The difficulty of making CGI fur look realistic is a notorious element of CGI animation; it’s apparently so difficult to animate that scientists are researching how to do it better. The difficulty of creating convincing CGI fur is partly what led to a brief fandom backlash over a pet in Game of Thrones. So when Taylor Swift says excitedly that Hooper has invented a new way to apply CGI fur to the actors in Cats, she’s probably really, truly excited. It’s probably a big deal.
But of course, as we all saw in the trailer, no matter how advanced the technology is, CGI fur still looks really weird, especially when it’s paired with Hooper’s near-nude costume designs. And especially when those nearly-nude costumes mainly seem to be worn by the young women in the cast and not the men:
“Why do the man cats wear clothes but the lady cats don’t?” she thought, several hours after the cauldron of cat-madness had boiled away all strength to resist pic.twitter.com/hOxGGWffR1
— Sady Doyle (@sadydoyle) July 19, 2019
The exception to this “men wear suits” rule is, predictably, Macavity, who starts off wearing a baggy pimp coat (sigh) but then, at some point, whips it off for a musical number spent largely in the nude. And yes, this is just as creepy as it sounds:
Then there’s the existential crisis that results when you have cat-furred cats wearing cat-fur coats — like a terrible CGI furception:
the judy dench cat wears a fur coat. but is her coat made of cats? or is her flesh made of coat? she screams, for she does not know pic.twitter.com/SDTMfe434p
— erin chack (@ErinChack) July 18, 2019
All in all, sexy cats notwithstanding, this does not seem to be the kind of movie that results in a new generation of furries being born. If anything, Cats might actually have the opposite effect, and cause many of us to reconsider why we’ve spent so much time anthropomorphizing our feline friends into sexy creatures of the night.
Correction: This article originally misidentified the Heaviside Layer as the Heavyside Lair, proof that listening to a cast recording for 30 years straight is no substitute for actually looking at the lyrics once in a while.
Author: Aja Romano