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Table of Contents

Critical Review on Cats - J Waterfield

Themes

‘Heralded as “now and forever”’ (Prece and Everett, 2008, p.250), Cats (1981) is widely regarded as being the first true megamusical. A genre characterised by ‘“larger than life” visual and aural spectacles’ (Prece and Everett, 2008, p.250). Emanating from the collaboration between Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Cameron Mackintosh, both of whom were relatively unknown at the time, it is based upon ‘T.S Eliot’s verses from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’ (1939) (Citron, 2001, p.267). A colossal risk was taken in producing this somewhat unconventional musical; based on a dead poet’s work, with little if any definitive plot to hold it together and with a foremost focus on dance (for which the British were not particularly well renowned) (Citron, 2001, p.273), it seemed fated to be a massive ‘flop’. However Cats exceeded expectation.

Morely predicted a smash hit that would run at least four years (a bold estimate before the era of the megamusical truly took hold) (Sternfeld, 2006, p.121)

Cats in fact became ‘one of the longest running shows in Broadway History’ (Broadway the American Musical: A History of Broadway, 2004[DVD-ROM]) and ‘continued to sell out for nearly 18 years,’ becoming a ‘cultural icon’ (Sternfeld, 2006, p.112). Part of this was down to the fact that ‘for the first time in a musical the power of merchandising and advertising came to the fore’ (The Story of Musicals. Episode 2, 2012[online). There was also the sheer spectacle of the show as discussed by Prece and Everett.

This junkyard song and dance spectacle is a vaudeville/minstrel/ burlesque populated by a company of colourful, dappled, tabby, be-whiskered and grizzly coiffed felines. Cats is an experience. (Prece and Everett, 2008, pp.259-260)

The set is quite extraordinary, spectacular even, ‘rendered in cat perspective, huge so that the performers would look cat size in comparison’ (Sternfeld, 2006, p.116). Exciting technology and special effects, such as the tyre, also widen the appeal. ‘There are no barriers across generation’ (Broadway the American Musical: A History of Broadway, 2004[DVD-ROM]) and so there is a broadened market. Although there is no definitive plot, due to the fact that we are distanced, looking through the eyes of cats, the musical is able to combat philosophical ideas such as redemption, immortality and the underdog. These universal themes allow the musical to extend to other continents, combined with the fact that a majority of the story is told through narrative dance. Another feature which has come to be quintessential to the megamusical is the eclectic range of musical influences, such as jazz, pop, rock etcetera. These are reflective of the various cat personalities but also of the time.

One influence, both musically and stylistically, that becomes apparent is the rock genre. This is demonstrated resoundingly by the character Rum Tum Tugger. ‘Rum Tug Tugger is a curious cat’ (Cats Ultimate Edition, 1998 [DVD-ROM]). It could be construed that the cat pays homage to the infamous Mick Jagger, a popular and influential figure in the rock and roll industry. Like Jagger, Rum Tum Tugger stands as a counter culture figure, notorious for his womanising. His movements are somewhat reflective of Jagger’s mannerisms conveying his arrogance and egotistical nature. However, these traits are further enhanced through clever costuming. (Class lecture) In the DVD version, the cat is dressed entirely in black, apart from his wild, fiery, leopard print collar which he spruces regularly, giving a heightened sense of superciliousness. His studded belt and platformed creepers play up to the rock image, humanising the cat whilst also physically elevating him above the others who wear lower heeled dance trainers. Nonetheless, this self indulgent, boisterous figure, like the cat Victoria does mature as the musical progresses, paying his elders and fellow kittens their due respect, coming back to the idea that youth see truth and redemption. Tugger, who remains distant from the group, becomes increasing involved; the epitome of which being his speech to the group that introduces Mr Mistoffelees. This shows a very distinct development of character and it is interesting to note that he is the only character that speaks throughout the whole musical.

The popularity of the longest-running musical in both London and New York was further endorsed when the United States Postal Service honoured the show with a commemorative stamp in its ‘Celebrate the Century’ series. It was thus heralded as one of the fifteen most important events in 1980s American culture. (Prece and Everett, 2008, p.260)

Bibliography

BOOKS

Citron, S. 2001. Sondheim and Lloyd-Webber. Chatto and Windus.

Everett, W.A. and Prece, P. 2008. The Megamusical: the creation, internationalisation and impact of a genre. in W.A. Everett,. and P.R. Laird eds., The Cambridge Companion to the Musical. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sternfeld, J. 2006. The Megamusical. Indiana University Press

DVDs

Broadway the American Musical: A History of Broadway. 2004. Dir. Michael Kantor. Granada Ventures [DVD-ROM]

Cats Ultimate Edition.1998. Dir. Trevor Nunn. Universal Studios [DVD-ROM] Online The Story of Musicals. Episode 2. 2012. Dir. Stephen Franklin. BBC [online]


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