Some time ago, as many of you know, I spent a good chunk of time as an Assistant Company Manager on an Australian tour of ‘Cats’ which traveled around various countries in Asia. When I was first told about this opportunity, I was excited about almost every part of it… except the ‘Cats’ part.
You see, being a lover of musical theater comes with certain burdens. Perhaps it is a remnant of a collective built-in High School hierarchy, perhaps it is a general discomfort with people singing their emotions, perhaps it’s just that it tends to be an art form known mostly for its excitement and optimism (two things that are never hip), but our poor art form is not one of the cool kids. And any devotee (or, as the Aussies say, ‘Musical Theatre Tragic’) will have that moment when they are trying to explain to a civilian that musicals are complex and deep, how the dissonance of Sweeney Todd singing ‘Epiphany’ illustrates his impending madness, say, or how Marion and Harold Hill are meant to be together because they both sing versions of the same song. And the civilian will nod politely, then say “so you like musicals. Like… ‘Cats’?”
Ah yes, ‘Cats’. The Andrew Lloyd Weber megahit that broke box office records, swept the globe, filled the world with cabarets full of ‘Memory’s, and probably single-handedly kept the unitard business afloat. And the show that is so well-known that if there is one show known by non-show people, it is probably the dancing, singing, meowing juggernaut that coined the term ‘Jellicle Ball’. And the show that pretty much has every element that gives musical theater a bad reputation mushed into one sweaty, be-wigged package:
1. People pretending to be non-people.
2. People pretending to be non-people, then interacting with you in the audience as if you were not aware that they were actually a person in makeup and a unitard, and you might be on the same subway on the way home.
3. Extreme earnestness.
4. Extreme earnestness about things that are silly/made up/incomprehensible (see: Jellicle Ball, choosing of cat to ascend to ‘Heaviside Layer’)
And, as someone who had always had to talk my way past ‘Cats’ to convince anyone that musicals were a legit art form (not to mention someone who was sort of blah on the show myself – I am not a huge fan of the animals themselves, or tons and tons of dancing, or lyrics like “Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat/The cat of the railway train” (as my sister says – you JUST SAID he was the railway cat!! Why are you telling us he’s the cat of the railway train?!?!?!), I wasn’t thrilled to have to watch the show the many, many times I would be seeing it while working on the tour.
And yet, over the course of the many, many months I was on the tour, something shifted. I grew to love the talented people in those unitards so much that I grew to love the characters they played, and I spent so many weeks with the songs playing on repeat in my brain that I gained a grudging respect for their sheer tunefulness. I saw children cackle with glee when a cat snuck up next to their chair, and I heard from crying fans who felt the show taught them that a family is made by the love that connects a group of people.
So, I adjusted.
Now let me make that clear – I am still not really what you’d call a fan of the musical ‘Cats’. It is not in my pantheon of greatness, I do not search the internet for pictures of different productions or talk about the extensive backstory of the cats that other, more devoted people, have concocted (Demeter was raped by Macavity, which is why she’s so jittery, is my favorite “oh sure, that makes sense/IS TOTALLY DISTURBING” little factoid. I mean, you guys, cat rape? Really? In a show that also features a magical dancing cat who shoots fire out of his fingertips?) What I feel for the show can more accurately be described as a grudging respect/fondness – it’s as if we were two very different people forced to be roommates who, while we would never be friends under normal circumstances, manage to cohabitate and bond. So when I hear little clips from the show now, I smile. And, when I read a teaser like the recent tmz.com ‘Tom Cruise gets his face painted like a cat’, I get really excited and think, it’s TOTALLY Tugger.
But alas, it was a false alarm; Tom Cruise will do as he did do, and alas, this meant he was just getting his face painted at his daughter’s party not as a curious cat, but as a Thundercat.
Luckily, I can quell my desire for celebrities dressed up as characters from the musical ‘Cats’ in other ways. Like looking at this, of David Hyde Pierce, from an episode of ‘Caroline in the City’ (remember that?)
Or, for true ‘Cats’/schadenfreude joy, this video of Celine Dion in full costume, singing ‘Memory’ on a television show. Because the only thing that is better than watching uber-earnest Celine Dion sing a ballad is watcher her do it in a furry unitard on a random television set:
If only she had done Mr. Mistofelees’ fouette turns. But maybe she’s saving that for her Vegas show.