Cats has been seen by more than 70 million people worldwide, breaking records on both sides of the Atlantic – so it is hard to believe that just days before the premiere of the musical in May 1981, there were real fears it was going to be a monumental flop.
Even with musical-theatre impresario Andrew Lloyd Webber’s name on the banner, securing funds for the production went down to the wire.
As a last resort, even the cast members were asked to chip in, just days before the curtains rose for the first time. As anxious as everybody else about the fate of the outlandishly conceived project, most declined – 35 years later, those who did not take the plunge to invest, must be kicking themselves.
Cats became the longest-running musical on both London's West End – where it wrapped on May 11, 2002, after exactly 21 years at the New London Theatre – and Broadway in New York, where it ran uninterrupted from 1982 to 2000. Though those records have since been surpassed (by Les Misérables in London and Phantom of the Opera in New York), it remains the fourth-most-successful musical in both cities.
As absurd as it sounds in hindsight, the fears about the show’s prospects were justified in the climate of 1980s Britain. The country was in the grip of an economic recession, and theatres were struggling to sell even sure-fire Broadway blockbusters to a public finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet. Moreover, a successful dance-based show had never been staged in the West End, yet this was precisely what Lloyd Webber was eccentrically proposing.
The composer's career and reputation had been built on previous musical smashes including Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1968) and Evita (1976), but rather than turning once again to Tim Rice, the lyricist for those shows, this time Lloyd Webber was, bafflingly to many, was set on adopting a beloved book of poetry written from the perspective of domestic pets.
Lacking any kind of narrative thread, TS Elliot's whimsical 1939 volume, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, was a peculiar choice as the basis for a piece of musical theatre. Moreover, a demand by the poet's estate that Elliot's words must make up the entire script – with no additional dramatic dialogue – meant the cast struggled during rehearsals to identify any discernible plot. Word inevitably got out, and to outsiders, the whole thing smacked of reckless artistic self-indulgence.
“It’s a show we were told would be impossible to do,” Lloyd Webber said at the time. “Which is precisely why we’re doing it.” The cast had even greater problems to contend with. A major coup for the production was signing Judi Dench for the lead role of Grizabella. However, after suffering a torn Achilles tendon during rehearsals, the stage great was forced to pull out.
This twist of fate set the stage for stage-musical veteran Elaine Paige to turn in the performance of a lifetime. Her recording of the show's calling-card song, Memory, even scored her a top-10 single in the United Kingdom.
This was just one of many ways Cats broke the mould by breaking out from the stage and into mainstream culture.
Cats was a media phenomenon unlike any previous West End show before it, and the iconic yellow cat's eyes were for years a familiar sight staring out from the side of buses and billboards alike. Merchandise, from T-shirts to soundtrack albums, was aggressively marketed and voraciously consumed to a degree never before seen in the theatre world.
The combined effect was to create an anti-elitist cultural omnipotence – fostering a sense that this was a show for everyone and which everyone must see – that fuelled a record-breaking run.
However, its greatest contribution was to move the goalposts, redefining the perceived ingredients of a hit West End musical, and bringing dance into mainstream British theatre for the first time. More than three decades later, the rule book Cats rewrote is still being pawed over eagerly.