Cat Fight

Jonathan Fong and Michael Kape
So, Cats the Musical. You either love it or you hate it. And many happen to hate it. But why? Should they? Jonathan will be debating for Cats, and Michael will be debating against Cats.

 Photo by Tomwang112/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by Tomwang112/iStock / Getty Images

Jonathan: Yes, a show about felines in a junkyard feels strange to many, but does it deserve all the hate it gets? I won't say Cats is a masterpiece or on the same level with the likes of the greats (whatever those might be for you). But playing devil's advocate, it’s genuinely not as bad as most people think it is. For its time, it was musically adventurous and conceptually radical; if anything, one could argue it paved the way for much of the contemporary musical theatre we see today.

Michael: The tagline for the original production was “CATS, Now and Forever”. For some of us, sitting through the original production (and three subsequent times when it was on tour—don’t ask, it wasn’t by choice), the show felt like it went on and on forever. Does it deserve all the hate it gets, you ask, Jonathan? Well, yes. It’s nearly plotless (the nearly is because director Trevor Nunn invented the concept of the most deserving cat going to kitty heaven; it doesn’t exist in the original TS Eliot poems). Original? Uh, well, when I saw it the first time with my business partner, 10 minutes in she turned to me and said, “These are the same dances I danced thirty years ago!”

Jonathan: Well, Michael, you say Cats is nearly plotless. To some extent, I have to agree—the plot is quite vague and certainly isn’t particularly complex. But does that inherently make it a weak musical? Sondheim’s Company doesn’t exactly have a strong plot either; it’s more a series of vignettes with its various characters tied together by a central theme, somewhat similar to what Cats does with each of its songs introducing new character(s). Argue if you wish about how Sondheim did it better (I myself was bored out of my mind when I listened to the cast recording, but that’s a subjective opinion; there are plenty of people out there who love it), but he most certainly received far less criticism when he made a ‘plotless musical’ than ALW. Thus, I don’t think that simply arguing that the mere ‘lack of a plot’ itself is a particularly strong criticism of the way Cats goes about being itself.

Theatre doesn’t always have to be deep and insightful—sometimes, being accessible, simple, and an escape from reality is enough to make a work of theatre. You said you didn’t understand what was going on when you saw it and that its dancing isn’t original; to offer a contradictory anecdote, I was eight when I watched it for the first time, and I more or less understood what was going on through the dancing and staging despite not understanding half the lyrics being spoken. I’m inclined to trust your colleague when she said that she’d danced the same dances 30 years ago. No one’s arguing tap dancing, ballet, jazz and more have long been a staple of musical dance numbers, long before Cats rolled around. But did she dance them all in the same show? The dancing in Cats is unique not because it pioneered a new dance style in contemporary musical theatre, but because it unified all those styles into one unique style present throughout the show representing felinity, sexuality, and more. Unlike many shows I see where dancing is just an ‘added bonus,’ I feel the physicality of Cats actually makes sense.

When I watch Cats (which I have, thrice now), I don’t see dancers onstage, I see felines carefully crafted through Gillian Lynne’s choreography and physicality work with each of the actors; I see the characters and the theme of the show, not just bodies spinning and kicking. And on another note, in terms of what Cats has contributed to theatre from a historical point of view, its success with Gillian Lynne’s choreography opened the door for countless other choreographers to make the switch from traditional dance (Lynne started out as a classical ballerina) to musical theatre, something previously considered almost taboo, particularly in British theatre/dance (for, after all, Cats debuted in London). Without Cats, would we have the triple threat shows we do today? Who knows what theatre would be like now?

 

Michael: Oh, Jonathan, do you really think Cats introduced the world to triple-threat shows? Hardly. We can harken all the way back to the 1930s, with musicals like On Your Toes (where dance took centerstage and held it throughout the storyline—with a far better Rodgers and Hart score than ALW could ever hope to achieve). My business partner had been doing shows requiring triple threats in the early 1950s (hence her comment). So, no, Cats didn’t break new ground. It just dressed it up in kitty costumes.

Yes, Company is a plotless musical, intentionally, unified around the struggle Bobby has in finding someone to share his life. But it wasn’t the first. Hair has little plot also (indeed, it initially had no plot at all until Tom O’Horgan pulled the show together). It came to Broadway in 1968. Company two years later. Follies is equally nonlinear in its storytelling, jumping back and forth between the past and present until they crash together in Loveland.

What you’ve described in your defense of Cats is a sumptuous dance recital with elaborate sets, costumes, and makeup. But really, does that make for a satisfactory evening in the theatre? I’ve seen Cats live four times, and not once did I find it particularly satisfying. At its heart are second-hand TS Eliot poems he dashed off with his left hand. The core song in Cats, “Memory”, isn’t even from the original book; it’s based on some rejected pieces Widow Eliot found in her late husband’s notes. You have to credit Trevor Nunn for devising the song.

Musically, Cats bores me to tears from the first 10 minutes to the exit music played by the orchestra. It’s the first time we hear ALW recycling himself (and others, it’s been alleged) when an entirely new score would have been much more exciting. (ALW readily admits these days he writes six basic melodies per show and then has his lyricists do the heavy lifting.)

In your final line, you ask where theatre would be now without Cats? The answer is simple: just where it’s at now. I can think of only one show imitating Cats in style and substance—ALW’s own Starlight Express. Its major change is instead of cats in a garbage dump we get actors on roller skates. As Sondheim says in Gypsy, “you gotta have a gimmick”. Cats and Starlight Express are just gimmick-laden dance recitals. That doesn’t make them great (or even good) theatre.

 Jonathan: Michael, I think you misinterpreted my point on the dancing in Cats - I was commenting on the unique dance style of Cats, not merely on the fact it’s a triple-threat show. I’m well aware that the concept of a triple-threat musical and/or a dance-heavy musical are not new nor pioneered by Cats and its creative team by any means. I wasn’t arguing that Cats broke new ground by merely being those things, but that Cats is unique because of how it did those things—see my earlier comments on the dance style and physicality Gillian Lynne created for the show.

I suppose a lot of your criticism depends on what you define as a “satisfactory evening in the theatre.” In my opinion, theatre—and art in general—is not merely that which is striking and emotional; the majority of definitions I find refer it to only the act of creating works expressing an imaginative, conceptual idea. To only call those works which are as such ‘art’ or ‘theatre’ and ignore all others would devalue the genre as a whole. No one’s arguing Cats is an incredibly deep piece moving you to tears, but to call it merely nothing is disingenuous at best, hypocritical at worst. It’s a flashy show, yes, and flashy shows most certainly have their place in musical theatre. You criticize the fact “Memory” isn’t based off of a poem from the original Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by TS Eliot, but do a song (or indeed, a show)’s origins define its value? If it were revealed some of Shakespeare’s most moving and renowned love sonnets were written about his yearning for a slice of bread, would this make them any less moving?

And Michael, when you say theatre would merely be ‘just where it is now’ without Cats, I believe you’re forgetting about how Cats reinvigorated theatre, the musical, and Broadway in the 1980s, in a period where it was slumping and slumping hard. Back then, in case you and others have forgotten, shows were closing left, right, and center not because they were bad—many were incredible works of theatre—but because there simply wasn’t an audience for them. The classics from the 50s/60s were aging rapidly and there was nothing new to ‘define’ Broadway. Yet Cats, with its family-friendly appeal and a promise of an entertaining night out (even if merely on a surface level at best compared with the works of Sondheim or Rodgers and Hammerstein), reinvigorated the theatrical scene, drawing so many into theatre and giving Broadway the spotlight and new audience it desperately needed, allowing those shows which debuted on Broadway just a few years later (with investors now more eager to put their money into theatre, even on shows nothing like Cats) an actual chance to succeed—Les Miz, Sunday in the Park with George, and even more recent hits like Little Shop of Horrors (which debuted Off-Off-Broadway around the same time as Cats) and more come to mind. Hell, I don’t think half the people reading this would’ve found theatre if it weren’t (directly or indirectly) for the influence Cats had on the rekindling of musical theatre in the 80s. If we’re arguing about the value of Cats based on what it did for theatre, it most certainly did a lot more than I think many realize.

Michael: For centuries, people have been saying theatre is dying and other artforms are going to kill it off. I think even Molière groused about it. There is a reason theatre is called the fabulous invalid—it’s always dying but somehow manages to come back even stronger than before. I’ve lived through this enough times to know it’s true.

I was there. I disagree with your contention musical theatre was dying until Cats came along. Just a couple of years before, a nonlinear musical with barely a plot took everyone by surprise—A Chorus Line. People flocked to that show with the same kind of enthusiasm as you claim Cats had. But A Chorus Line was a gut-wrenching experience, a choreographic breakthrough and it didn’t need elaborate scenery—just the music, and the mirror, and the chance to dance. No writhing dancers pretending to be creatures outside their species; they were real people and we cared about all of them.

The Fabulous Invalid has managed to last through opera, comic opera, operetta, movies, records, streaming music services, silent movies, talkies, color, television, and Cinemascope. At the time you paint for when Cats appeared, the theatre was doing just fine. I can say that with certainty because I was there, I was going to the theatre at least once a week (I was still kind of single then), and there plenty of shows from which to pick.

A very wise (and successful) composer/lyricist once told a friend of mine a good musical needs two things:

1.      A musical reason for being—what can be said only through music when words alone fail to convey the story, advance the plot, or give us insight into the characters.

2.      A real conflict as the engine propelling the show from the first scene though the finale. Without conflict, there is no raison de etre.

There was no reason to have set TS Eliot’s throwaway collection of poems into a musical (except greed, I suppose). I mean, it’s TS Eliot. His words alone paint the picture. Did we really need them then set to mediocre music? I think not. The second element, conflict, is where Cats sinks in its own litterbox. Basically, there isn’t any. Oh, one cat gets selected to go to the sunnyside layer. Yawn. It’s not conflict. It doesn’t propel us through the evening. Without conflict, ennui tends to creep in on catlike paws and bore us for two-and-a-half hours.

I concede some people actually like Cats. You like Cats. I do not like Cats. I find it long, boring, unimaginative, overblown, mindless drivel. No matter how many times I’ve seen Cats (four), my opinion never changes. Why? Because there is NO subtext, no greater vision to explore. It’s just a bunch of screeching cats, hanging out in a junk yard. And by the end, nothing has really happened.

Cats is certainly not the first full-length theatre piece where nothing happens. The greatest example of that is Waiting for Godot. But that’s a masterpiece. Cats is a waste of my valuable time—in my humble opinion, of course.

Finally, I think we’ve all grown up a little since Cats first hit the scene. I was 30 when I saw it the first time. Now I’m a mean grumpy olde guy of 64. Is it too much to expect the theatre I see now is actually going to keep me away?

 

Jonathan: Ah, but are you sure A Chorus Line was as big a success in truly revitalizing musical theatre as Cats was? You say people flocked to it like I said they did for Cats, but what people? Did A Chorus Line bring in new fans and expand the musical theatre community or did it merely appease those which were already here?

I don’t deny its success nor its quality, but if you were to survey New Yorkers or Londoners who were alive when both A Chorus Line and Cats debuted about musical theatre, you’d get far more answers relating to Cats than A Chorus Line. A Chorus Line and other shows of the time were successful within the ‘establishment,’ but I argue the success of Cats stretched beyond this, drawing fans into musical theatre who weren’t there before and would likely not have found musical theatre otherwise (I know this is what it did for me when I saw it at eight; I wasn’t the biggest fan of it then and neither am I now, but it holds a special place in my heart for this very reason).

You say Broadway was doing fine then—you may be right; you were there after all while I’m merely relying on statistics. The West End, though, from what I’ve found was actually doing significantly worse before the arrival of Cats on the scene—financially, many shows simply couldn’t afford to stay open. Perhaps this wasn’t the case on Broadway as I originally posited. Of course, musical theatre isn’t just limited to Broadway and I do still believe Cats revitalized musical theatre in a way no other show from the 80s coming before it did. Maybe theatre wasn’t dying, but at least in some ways it was certainly was in a bit of a slump before Cats came along, particularly on the other side of the pond.

I accept your criticisms of the weaknesses of Cats—yes, it does lack conflict in its plot. I myself find it to be more centered around the design—set (which is quite incredible in its detail; this can’t be denied), costumes, etc. than the story, almost like a revue (which, to be fair, it would work quite well—perhaps even better—as). But for those theatre aficionados who don’t always have to have depth and explore a greater vision, as you put it, who are comfortable with music and lyrics sounding good even if they’re simple, who enjoy and are amused by simple pleasures such as cats roaming the audience in character, Cats is all right, I think. There are always going to be people who don’t find such things amusing or interesting in the slightest; for them, seeing the show would absolutely be a waste of their time, as it is yours.

I’m not trying to make you a Cats fan nor do I think you could ever be one (maybe when pigs fly), neither do I think I’ll convert anyone to become a Cats fan if they already hate it. If you already inherently dislike the characteristics of Cats which make it, well, Cats, there’s no changing it. However, I still believe Cats does have a certain appeal and a significance in the history of musical theatre in the past 40 years or so and it should be respected. Love it or hate it, it didn’t get where it is now by being an utterly terrible and irredeemable show period, and the effort far too many musical theatre fans put into outright bashing Cats simply because ‘ew, people dressed up as cats’ could be much better spent in constructive discussion on the actual merits and weaknesses of the show—like ours!

 

Michael: We could continue to go around in circles, but it comes down to this: either you like Cats or you don’t.

You cite the sets and costumes as being among its greatest assets. I won’t argue that. But as they say, “You can’t hum the scenery.” Your argument weakens (I can say from having seen both) when you take into consideration the touring version of Cats. The costumes are similar to the sitting productions, but the sets are considerably stripped-down versions of what was on the West End or on Broadway. Without the sets to distract you, the glaring weaknesses in the piece become even more obvious.

I can tell you from having been there for A Chorus Line when it first opened, it generated a lot of excitement, even from people who’d never seen a musical before (which seems to be your main criterion for judgment), both on Broadway and even in the West End (I saw it in both). And A Chorus Line simply has a better score. It doesn’t have the elaborate sets or costumes, of course, but that’s the point—it doesn’t need anything outside of the actual piece, which would otherwise serve to distract the audience. You indicate the sets and costumes are the main selling point for Cats (and not the meh score).

A quick story. When I was still in school (yes, we had school back in those days), I was sent to review the circus when it came to town. Dazzling costumes and daring acts, but ultimately it was empty spectacle and it bored me to tears. This was 1972, more than a decade before Cats. So, I guess the die was already cast by the time I went to the Winter Garden to see Cats. Spectacle for the sake of spectacle is tiresome after 10 minutes.

So, let’s end it here before we frustrate readers on both sides even further. I’m glad Cats was the motivator for your eight-year-old self to get into the theatre. This is a good thing and I applaud it. I hope now, in the years (and several musicals later) since, you’ve seen better shows.