I Think I Kind of Like ‘Cats’

Don’t Blame Broadway For Hollywood’s Mistakes


Effie via Wikimedia Commons

The musical “Cats” in Roma Musical Theatre in Warsaw, 8 December 2007.

“For he will do as he do do

And there’s no doing anything abou-a-wow-t it.”

                                                     -“The Rum Tum Tugger”, Cats

Forgive me father, for I have sinned.

Of all the unspeakable sins contemporary society decries, from wrath to pride to envy, none is more despised than anything short of complete gag-reflex-inducing hatred of Cats. Not only do I see something in Cats that most people seem to be missing, I’m starting to think I genuinely like the musical.

That’s right, the musical. I am in no way coming to the defense of the boschian nightmare that is the Tom Hooper live-action motion picture Cats (2019). However, in our collective gasp at the horror that Cats has birthed, we have lashed out at something that deserves to be recognized as an inspired and iconic chapter in musical theory history. We have thrown the kittens out with the bathwater, and, rather than simply mocking the tone-deaf and devil-may-care Hollywood atmosphere that managed to green-light such a mess, we have brought Cats itself to the Palais de Justice.

I remember the time I knew what happiness was… Let the memory live again.

— Grizabella

I have seen film critics and comedians, in the wake of the release of Cats (2019), attack the premise of Cats, asking what a “jellicle cat” even is, or why all the jellicle cats are gleefully part of a death cult, or why they all have names like “Mungojerrie” and “Rumpelteazer”. This pandemic of not-getting-Cats is older than the screen adaptation—perhaps as old as Cats itself. Who among us doesn’t remember the episode of Tina Fey’s The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt  in which Titus Andromedon discovers that the local production of Cats is actually put on by a group of New York City drifters and failed actors who pick-pocket the audience and live on scraps underneath the theater? That episode came out months before the first trailer for Cats (2019) dropped.

So allow me to make my case. Cats is no genius musical. Its plot is paper-thin and obtuse; its choreography is dated. But that same ridiculous premise, that same chaotic energy and campy musical style, that is why I have so much affection for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats. In her hour-long analysis of the history of Cats, YouTuber Lindsay Ellis uncovers that Cats was, apparently, a labor of love for Webber, who struggled to finance such a ridiculous and idiosyncratic show. Unlike Cats (2019), a cynical cash-grab made by shadowy suits in dry board meetings, Cats the musical is full of passion and unapologetic style.

Cats exists at the perplexing intersection of bizarre 1930’s children’s poetry and equally bizarre 1980’s pop culture. It’s kitschy and tacky and gaudy. Cats’ staying power is in its unyielding excess: the bombastic music, the ridiculous hair, the meowing. For a nation that, the same year Cats (2019) was released, had an existential crisis over the definition of “camp”, the American public cringes away from the acme of naive camp in vitro. If a production of Cats had been staged at the met gala, it would not seem out of place.

As a child, I saw Cats at Playhouse Square. Understandably, I was taken aback by the in-your-face energy of the show, and by the part when the actors jumped into the audience and began interacting with us. But, upon relistening to the music of Cats, I have been hit with a cocktail of longing nostalgia and absolute sensory glee. Cats makes me long for a time when I could entertain simple, childish fantasies of being happy all the time, without worrying about all the things life puts on our shoulders. The innocence of Cats harkens back to a pre-internet cultural landscape, before there was anything inherently disturbing about adults who dress up as animals. And this makes the release of Cats (2019) so much more heartbreaking.

That film is a consequence of people not getting Cats. That peek into a rendering software’s waking nightmare is exactly what happens when people who just don’t get musical theater are given the reigns to recreate it. We all agree that Cats (2019) is a monstrosity, so let’s treat it as such, and let it pass us by. And when we think of Cats, let us think not of Judi Dench in a CGI bodysuit, let’s think of the generations of Broadway actors who cut their teeth wearing ten layers of cat makeup and prancing around the Jellicle Ball.