The History of Cats
Cats, one of the longest-running shows in West End and Broadway history, received its world premiere at the New London Theatre in 1981 where it played for 21 record-breaking years and almost 9,000 performances. The ground-breaking production was the winner of the Olivier and Evening Standard Awards for Best Musical. In 1983 the Broadway production became the recipient of seven Tony awards including Best Musical and ran for 18 years
Based on T. S. Eliot’s 1939 poetry book ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’, the songs of the musical comprise Eliot’s verse set to music and is unusual in terms of its construction. Along with Eliot’s poems, music and dance are the main focus of the show at the expense of a traditional narrative structure. The magnificent musical score – composed by the legendary Andrew Lloyd Webber – includes the poignant hit song Memory, which has been recorded by over 150 artists from Barbra Streisand and Johnny Mathis to Liberace and Barry Manilow.
Andrew Lloyd Webber began composing the songs in late 1977 as a song writing exercise, partly because Eliot’s book had been a childhood favourite and partly to see if he could write music to predetermined lyrics. The compositions were performed privately for friends and initially Andrew Lloyd Webber had no further intentions for them at the time. However, after Tell Me on a Sunday was televised on the BBC in early 1980, he began to consider using his musicalisations of Eliot’s poems in the same vein for a televised concert anthology. At the time, Andrew Lloyd Webber was also looking to collaborate with a new producer, namely Cameron Mackintosh, and he approached him to discuss possible avenues for the songs.
Practical Cats, as the show was then called, was first presented as a song cycle at the 1980 summer Sydmonton Festival. The concert was performed by Gemma Craven, Gary Bond and Paul Nicholas and Eliot’s widow and literary executor, Valerie, was in attendance and had brought along various unpublished cat-themed poems by Eliot. One of these was ‘Grizabella the Glamour Cat’ which, although rejected from Eliot’s book for being “too sad for children”, gave Andrew Lloyd Webber the idea for a full-blown musical.
Shortly after the Sydmonton Festival, Andrew Lloyd Webber began setting the unpublished poems he had been given to music – a few of which were later added into the show – and composed the overture and ‘The Jellicle Ball’. Meanwhile, Cameron Mackintosh recruited Trevor Nunn, the then artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company to direct Practical Cats. After much persuasion, Trevor Nunn came on board and was joined by his fellow RSC colleagues, choreographer Gillian Lynne and set and costume designer John Napier. One of Nunn’s stipulations for agreeing to direct Practical Cats was that Judi Dench would be cast in the musical and she joined the cast in the dual roles of Grizabella and Jennyanydots. Casting for the other parts began in earnest in November 1980, with auditions held across the UK for dancers who could also sing and act, and by the December the full cast had been assembled.
Meanwhile, Cameron Mackintosh had engaged the advertising agency Dewynters to design a poster for the musical with the final minimalist logo consisting of a pair of yellow feline eyes, with dancing silhouettes for the pupils, set against a black backdrop. The producers and the creative team loved the design but felt that the title — Practical Cats — looked out of place when paired with the logo, and so the musical’s title was thus shortened to Cats.
The musical was scheduled to open on 30th April 1981 and rehearsals began on 9th March in a church hall in Chiswick, London. However, the production faced a number of setbacks – it still had no established story or score, the original musical director quit on the first day and Judi Dench was forced to pull out a week prior to previews after snapping her Achilles tendon during rehearsals. In the meantime, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cameron Mackintosh and Trevor Nunn had met with Richard Stilgoe – a musician known for his ability to improvise lyrics on the spot – hoping that he could write an opening song for the musical, resulting in ‘Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats’. However, ‘Memory’ still had no lyrics at this point and were not in fact completed by Trevor Nunn until well into the previews. Opening night was pushed back to 11th May with Elaine Paige agreeing to take over the role of Grizabella.
The development of Cats was also plagued by financial troubles. Cameron Mackintosh struggled to raise the £450,000 needed to stage the musical in the West End as major investors were sceptical of the show’s premise and refused to back it, so Andrew Lloyd Webber personally underwrote the musical and took out a second mortgage on his house for the down payment of the theatre. The remaining capital was eventually financed by small investments procured from 220 individuals through newspaper advertisements and Cats finally premiered on 11th May 1981.
Since its world premiere, Cats has been presented in over 30 countries, has been translated into 15 languages and has been seen by more than 73 million people worldwide, with both the original London and Broadway cast recordings winning Grammy Awards for Best Cast Album.