What do Taylor Swift, Idris Elba, Ian McKellen, and Rebel Wilson have in common? If you guessed that all their bodies have been turned into horrifying human/cat hybrids that will unsettle your sleep for years to come, you’d be right. The trailer for Cats dropped yesterday, and it’s…something. Something wonderful, something off-putting, something mystifying and magical and so effing weird.
The internet is full of vitriol and hate for this Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tom Hooper creation, whispering what have you done!? in the same transfixed tones that the townsfolk used on poor, misguided Victor Frankenstein. CGI has come far, but clearly not far enough. As many a YouTube commenter quoted, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” But they could, and they did, and I for one am so here for this crossbred aberration of technology and theater.
Cats is not truly a musical, and it was never meant to be one. Cats is a spectacle. It’s an experience: confusing, emotional, weirdly sexually charged.
From the beginning, Cats has been repeatedly born and born again out of nothing but creators having fun. The lyrics, word for word, come from a hundred-year-old book of poems that T.S. Eliot wrote not to be published, but to entertain his godchildren. He would watch his cats roam about the garden and the house, he’d give them silly names and narrate their lives.
The Rum Tum Tugger is a terrible bore: / When you let him in, then he wants to be out; / He’s always on the wrong side of every door, / And as soon as he’s at home, then he’d like to get about.
I have known the family to call / Him in from the garden for hours, / While he was asleep in the hall. / And not long ago this phenomenal Cat / Produced seven kittens right out of a hat!
I have a Gumbie Cat in mind, her name is Jennyanydots; / The curtain-cord she likes to wind, and tie it into sailor-knots. / She sits upon the window-sill, or anything that’s smooth and flat: / She sits and sits and sits and sits—and that’s what makes a Gumbie Cat!
Read any poem in this book with that in mind, and you’ll see the imaginative, wonderful musings of a man who loves his cats a lot, and his godchildren more. The poems were eventually pulled together from letters and published in 1939 under the title Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, with “Old Possum” being the nickname of T.S. Eliot himself, and the book has continued to delight children and adults alike ever since.
Years later, much like the scientists who created Jurassic Park, Andrew Lloyd Webber initially began writing the music simply to see if he could. He took the book of poems he had loved as a child and set the words to music for the fun of it. When a few of the individual songs were performed at a festival on the grounds of his country estate, T.S. Eliot’s widow attended, bringing with her a few of Eliot’s unpublished poems—one of which inspired a main character of the show: “Grizabella the Glamour Cat.” The musical began to unfold from there, with any attempt to legitimately produce a musical being thwarted at every turn. Less than two months before opening, the play had an unfinished script, an unfinished score, and a revolving door of frustrated creatives. A week before previews, the star of the show—Judi Dench—snapped her Achilles’ tendon and had to pull out.
But attempts at doing the impossible, at trying new things and having a great time with it, were wildly successful. The choreography was done with the intention of making a show that positioned British dancers as superior to Broadway dancers. It’s unceasing song and dance, with no actual dialogue in the show, and the movements of each actor not only bring to mind the actions of actual cats, but also distinguish each character from the others. During rehearsals, with little more than poems set to music and some choreography, more of the show was created simply by actors having fun. The ensemble characters in Cats were largely improvised, with the actions and relationships created there cementing the soul of the show. Even the costume and set designer went in with an idea to have fun with the design, to “create an environment rather than a set,” and ended up changing what people thought was possible in the theater.
Since its opening night in 1981, Cats has continued to delight and confuse theater-goers everywhere. Its openings were met with mixed critical reviews, and to this day people still argue over its merit and influence on theater as a whole. There’s a sense of simplicity in the absurdity of it all, so there’s surely something to be said for people lauding its excellence in an attempt to sound smart as they pull deeper meanings from nowhere. And there will always be those who hate spectacle for its own sake, and those who believe that change is always for the worse. Cats is nonsensical, it is fun, it is fantastical and revolutionary. Andrew Lloyd Webber himself said of the show, “It’s no good putting on something nowadays which people can see just as well on their video. That’s why Cats is so popular. They can’t get anything like it, not at all. It doesn’t exist.”
Cats is not meant to fall easily into a genre or conform to your expectations. And while actors in spandex and state-of-the-art makeup would have made for a phenomenal film, Tom Hooper’s brainchild falls solidly in the Cats tradition of pushing boundaries and having a (Jellicle) ball with it. The CGI is unsettling, sure, but nothing about Cats is supposed to sit nicely within your everyday sensibilities. So give the movie a chance. Go in without expectations. Let yourself be swept away by the spectacle.