Note: Contains spoilers for the Cats musical (and potentially the movie).
There are cats singing, cats dancing, cats with breasts and a cat that wears a fur coat – which, if it’s made from another cat, is Silence of the Lambs-style disturbing – in director Tom Hooper’s new movie Cats.
We think it’s safe to say there are lots and lots of cats in it. But what in the furry hell is Cats actually about?
Based on the stage musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cats actually began life as a book of poems by TS Eliot called Old Possum’s Book Of Practical Cats.
First printed in 1939, it’s a collection of light-hearted poems, each one about a particular cat such as Macavity the Mystery Cat, who is a master criminal (and modelled on Sherlock Holmes’ adversary, Moriarty), the ancient and wise Old Deuteronomy and Skimbleshanks, a tabby who works on the railway.
Eliot’s quirky poems were hardly the most obvious choice of material for a stage musical (because, you know, they have no plot).
But back in the late 1970s Lloyd Webber – who had already had huge success with Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Evita – decided to set Eliot’s words to his own music.
After they were performed live as stand-alone songs at the Sydmonton Festival in 1980, Lloyd Webber, with the help of theatre director Trevor Nunn, added that missing plot using elements from some of Eliot’s previously unpublished work.
He also wrote extra songs, including the show-stopping ‘Memory’ with lyrics from Richard Stilgoe), to create the stage musical Cats in 1981.
It would become one of the longest running and most successful musicals of all time.
Quite impressive, when you consider that Lloyd Webber and his producer Cameron Macintosh struggled to find investors due to the show’s strange premise: actors in striped leotards pretending to be cats.
In fact, as Lloyd Webber recalled in his autobiography, things got so bad he had to take out a second mortgage on his own home to pay the theatre staging it.
When you hear the plot synopsis, it’s easy to understand why investors scampered in the other direction when they were approached. Those same hesitant investors are probably regretting running away now, as by 2012 Cats had made an estimated $3.5 billion worldwide. Yes, billion.
Here’s what happens in the stage version. (Note: all names in brackets that follow are the actors playing the roles in the movie version.)
The bizarre story begins as cats gather on stage to tell the audience (in song – there is no dialogue between the tunes) about the Jellicle tribe of cats and how they get their names.
Then, after kitten Victoria (Francesca Hayward) has a bit of a dance, a moggy named Munkustrap (Robbie Fairchild) reveals that wise Old Deuteronomy – who is male in the stage version and played by Judi Dench in the movie – will appear at the upcoming Jellicle Ball, held at the local junkyard.
Old D’s job is to decide and reveal which cat will be chosen to be reborn into a new life (cats have nine of them, remember?) in a place called the Heaviside Layer, which seems to be some sort of kitty heaven, presumably filled with cat scratchers, yummy mice and all the catnip you can sniff.
(Some Cats fans believe the kitties are volunteering to be put down but that’s just, well, horrid).
Cats then becomes like a fluffy version of The X Factor as cat after weirdly-named cat takes to the stage to reveal via song and dance why they should be the chosen one.
First, there’s Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson), who lazes around all day but is super-productive at night and can tap dance, which must be good for getting stubborn kitty litter off your paws.
Then comes the rebellious Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo), followed by the formerly glamorous but now rather old, moth-eaten and lonely Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson).
There is also podgy gentleman cat Bustopher Jones (James Corden) and naughty Mungojerrie (Danny Collins) and Rumpleteazer (Naoimh Morgan) to meet before Old Deuteronomy finally shows up.
Adding to the feline weirdness (it’s hard to believe the writers and producers weren’t at the catnip themselves), the assembled cats then put on a play for the elderly cat, before he makes a speech that is interrupted by a crash – believed to be criminal cat Macavity (Idris Elba) – and the Jellicle Ball begins.
In the second act, set after the ball where poor Grizabella was ignored by her fellow felines as Old Deuteronomy looked on, more cats step up to be noticed.
Among them is Gus (Ian McKellen), the old theatre cat, and his caretaker Jellyorum (Freya Rowley), and the central plot is put on pause again as Gus tells the story of a famous pirate captain he once played on stage.
Then comes Skimbleshanks (Steven McRae), the railway cat, before another crash reveals the infamous Macavity at last.
His followers capture Old Deuteronomy and Macavity returns to the stage disguised as him. Macavity is soon discovered, but manages to escape the angry cats as the stage lights go out.
Rum Tum Tugger asks magician cat Mr Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson) for help in finding the kidnapped Deuteronomy, and after a supposedly magical dance solo, the lights come back on and Old Deuteronomy returns.
Grizabella comes to ask to speak to everyone and she belts out ‘Memory’, leading to her – surprise, surprise – being chosen to go to the Heaviside Layer. She heads up towards the sky as Old Deuteronomy addresses everybody one final time and the curtains close.
Yes, it is as utterly bonkers as it sounds.
But, odd though it may be, Cats remains beloved among musical theatre fans, nearly four decades after it first opened in the West End and on Broadway.
It remains to be seen whether the rest of us will be dabbing away the tears along with them, if Grizabella gets her happy kitty ending in the movie version or if it decides to go in another direction altogether.
Cats is out in cinemas on December 20.
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