This week the musical Cats resumes its caterwauling at the Majestic, and longtime readers of the Current might thus expect my usual Cats-related cattiness. After all, Cats has been the butt of critical jokes since at least Saturday Night Live’s “Skimbleshanks celebrates his 11,000th performance” skit, and it’s hard not to poke fun at the franchise’s furry legwarmers and Jane Fonda-era leotards. But more than a quarter century after Cats declared its present and probable world domination, it’s high time for a critical reappraisal.
So the following constitutes, if not exactly a recantation, then a re-cat-ation. As an idea, Cats is actually startling; the insufferably Anglophile author T. S. Eliot wasn’t, after all, a natural for mews-icalization. (Prufrock! might be good for a love song, but Wasteland! would be hard sell indeed. To say nothing of the blasphemous possibilities of Murder in the Cathedral: Thomas à Becket a cappella!). But even Eliot’s most accessible work — Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats — required some ingenuity to adapt. The original poetry was, by design, fragmentary: a whimsical look at the lives of eccentric and occasionally cat-ankerous felines. By con-cat-enating these poems into the slimmest of narrative arcs — of a certain Grizabella’s chance at reincarnation in an eschatological system of dubious viability — Andrew Lloyd Webber and his team of designers produced an evening of admittedly novel entertainment. What Cats lacked in coherence (a delicate understatement), it made up for in Gillian Lynne’s frisky choreography, John Napier’s junkyard world (as seen, naturally, through cats’ eyes), and Trevor Nunn’s committed conception and direction. And with excellent instincts, Webber managed to shoehorn the eternally croon-able “Memory” into an otherwise unmemorable pastiche score.
The biggest problem, then, with Cats isn’t Cats per se, but Cats’ subsequent litter, a cat-alogue that includes Starlight Express, Miss Saigon, Aida (not Verdi’s), and the other so-called megamusicals that prowled the boards in the ’80s and ’90s. For many critics, this cat-aclysmic invasion of overblown pop opera sacrificed artistic substance to the gods of spectacle and lucre: in other words, catnip for the masses (and for a sizeable kitty). Of course, it has been ever thus, which is why more Americans will thrill to Shamu than to Moby Dick; but Webber’s tabbies in tights, however well coordinated, nevertheless fail to make a timeless statement about the human condition. And yes, that’s an insufferably snobbish definition of art; and, yes, not all entertainments aim that high. But artworks that manage to combine the two — Matthew Bourne’s amazing and yet popular ballets come to mind — rarely tour to San Antonio because there’s always more Cats than you can swing a dead cat at. And while that’s not the musical’s fault, it’s an easy scapegoat — er, scapecat — for the artistic decline of commercially viable touring productions. San Antonio lucked out this year with some real winners — Avenue Q and Frost/Nixon among them — but Cats reminds us, palpably and immediately, of the wolf (and the Rum Tum Tugger) at the door.
So I’ve nothing against Cats — give me Tumblebrutus, or give me death — but I worry that its sheer ubiquity keeps other, emerging artists from claiming a share of audience exposure. As far as dance in San Antonio goes, it seems that Cats will continue to mark its territory — meow and forever. •