Spoiler Alert: Plot details are revealed in this review, but trust me, you’ll probably need the guidance.
Like about half of the pet owners out there, I have a cat that I come home to every night. Her name is Penny, and unlike the 20-some-odd actors dressed like cats on the Orpheum Stage last night, Penny does not hang out in junkyards singing like a member of a gospel choir under the Jellicle moon. Instead, like most of the domestic cats out there, lying around on a freshly washed pile of laundry conveniently left lying in a beam of sunshine is quite enough to satisfy her, and therefore, I’m satisfied too.
Though I do love my cat and there were a few spottings of me last night in a Penny-inspired cat costume, I’ve never taken the time to contemplate the complexity of her thoughts, her desires, or the reflection of myself that comes out through her quirky personality. But that type of inner exploration of the feline population is exactly what T.S. Eliot writes about in Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, the collection of poems that eventually became the tony-award winning musical book for the stand out musical review, Cats.
I cannot fathom the thought process that took Andrew Lloyd Webber from simply liking T.S. Eliot’s book as a child to composing a tony-award-winning rock opera based on its poems. Cats delves further into the feline psyche than any other composer has ever gone before, or rather, further than any other composer has ever desired to travel.
My struggle to find the significance of this musical reminded me of the struggle I face as a White Stripes fan. Many people do not agree with my taste in Jack and Meg White's raw, fundamental sound, but I still think think they are the most innovative (while still appropriately derivative) bands to come out in the last 15 years. I have to recognize my biases, I can see how many people would disagree that the Stripes’ songs about doorbells and hard to reach buttons are in any way profound, but I respectfully disagree with them.
That being said, I always want to give those with the courage to produce avant-garde work the creative benefit of the doubt. I also, however, don’t like to frivolously tout intellectual significance when none is due. But occasionally there are artists who employ outlandish structural components mixed with superb execution in a way that confuses (or in this case literally clouds) the critical eye. Some ideas are so abstract that there are not yet means by which to judge them. It is in that particular purgatory that the musical Cats lies.
Though I like to refer to Cats as a review of musical cat poems, there is a vaguely noticeable plot strung together in a style now more commonly used in modern pop musical reviews (e.g. Moving Out and Mamma Mia). The story revolves around a very special full moon that appears only once a year. This moon, known by the Jellicle feline tribe as the Jellicle moon, has the power to give one member of the tribe rebirth via a trip to the Heavyside Layer. This rebirth must be facilitated by the elder of the tribe, Old Deuteronomy, and the rest of the tribe will have to sway Old Deuteronomy to pick their favorite candidate. After a very intergalactic opening of strobe lights, smoke, and flashing strings of tree lights that surround the theater space, the tribe gathers in a junkyard for their dark ritual, known as the Jellicle Ball.
The ritual is interrupted several times by the mischievous Macavity and once by the burglarizing duo Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer. In Act II, Macavity shows up again and kidnaps Old Deuteronomy before the Jellicle choice has been made. The tribe then turns to the magical Mr. Mistoffelees, a known feline magician, to bring Old Deuteronomy back. After several candidates are named and are allowed to state their cases, Deuteronomy hints that Grizabella the Glamour Cat (the character who performs the show’s staple song “Memories”) should be the one who goes to Heavyside Layer. The rest of the tribe agrees and in an explosion of smoke Grizabella is dramatically lifted off stage on a giant tire into the mouth of extraterrestrial beams of light a la the ancient Greek deus ex machina.
My feelings at the end of this production were somewhat similar to the way I felt after the first time I watched Rocky Horror Picture Show all the way through. Sometimes, when you push the envelope too much, you fall out of it. But it is even more difficult in cases of extremely conceptual work to form a rubric by which to evaluate its artistic worth. Is this a brilliant way to avoid criticism or the only practical way to differentiate fine performance art from pop trends? It forces one to make decisions about how to define a theatrical musical separately from other musical performances such as ballet or symphonies, and whether or not the distinction is even necessary. On that decision…I am still unresolved.
Given that this was my first time seeing Cats all the way through and that the show has been touring in excess of twenty years, I don’t think it is fair to comment much on the production quality, but one undeniable source of this show’s success with audiences for the past two decades comes from Andrew Lloyd Webbers raw talent as a composer. He understands line and symphonic emotion better than any other musical composer. Also, the way he mixes the rebellious sounds of pop rock power chords with the major chords of gospel music gives his music a uniquely hypnotic quality that self-proclaimed rebels and traditionalists alike fall victim to.
Cats steps away from plot and character development and presents what is more like a feline-themed Pink Floyd music video than a storybook musical. The poetry communicates symbolically rather than in tangible narrative. It is an alternate reality where cats can have rituals, careers, and emotional struggles just like people. They wear human-like costumes to express the many facets of their personalities and they form alliances in the Jellicle selection process just like humans on an episode of Survivor. Yet the irony is that these human performers must first transform their every human mannerism into cat-like form before they can then play a personified animal.
The conceptual reality in Cats is fascinating as well as the acrobatic feat it presents for the performers. But is this show really significant beyond being just a cool premise? Would George Orwell’s Animal Farm have been half as influential had it just been about pigs dressing like people while still moving like pigs? Again, I am still unresolved. It is unarguable that Cats has entertainment value. It is also true that it stands in a cultural and musical league of its own and within it has experienced decades of success, but for better or for worse, few composers would ever aspire to expand that league.