Cats is a sung-through British musical composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber, based on Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot, and produced by Cameron Mackintosh. The musical tells the story of a tribe of cats called the Jellicles and the night they make what is known as “the Jellicle choice” and decide which cat will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and come back to a new life. Cats introduced the song standard “Memory”. The first performance of Cats was in 1981.
Directed by Trevor Nunn and choreographed by Gillian Lynne, Cats first opened in the West End in 1981 and then with the same creative team on Broadway in 1982. It won numerous awards, including Best Musical at both the Laurence Olivier Awards and the Tony Awards. The London production ran for 21 years and the Broadway production ran for 18 years, both setting new records. Actresses Elaine Paige and Betty Buckley became particularly associated with the musical. One actress, Marlene Danielle, performed in the Broadway production for its entire run (from 1982 until 2000).
As of 2018, Cats was the fourth-longest-running show in Broadway history, and was the longest running Broadway show in history from 1997 until 2006 when it was surpassed by The Phantom of the Opera. It has been performed around the world many times and has been translated into more than 20 languages. In 1998, Cats was turned into a made-for-television film. The musical has grossed approximately $342.2 million. December 2019 saw the release of a box office film directed by Tom Hooper and starring the likes of Dame Judi Dench, Taylor Swift and Jason Derulo.
Act I — When Cats Are Maddened by the Midnight Dance
After the overture, the Cats gather on stage and explain the Jellicle tribe and its purpose (“Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats”). The Cats (who break the fourth wall throughout the production) then notice that they are being watched by a man, and proceed to explain how the different Cats of the tribe are named (“The Naming of Cats”). This is followed by a dance from Victoria the White Cat, who performs a ballet which signals the beginning of the Jellicle Ball (“The Invitation to the Jellicle Ball”). Meanwhile, Munkustrap, the executive chief of the tribe, explains that tonight, the Jellicle leader, Old Deuteronomy, will choose a cat to be reborn into a new life on the Heaviside Layer.
Munkustrap introduces Jennyanydots (“The Old Gumbie Cat”), a large tabby cat, who “sits and sits and sits and sits” every day, while (every night) she teaches the mice and cockroaches various activities. However, when Jennyanydots finishes her song, the music changes suddenly, and the cats get a visit from the Rum Tum Tugger himself (“The Rum Tum Tugger”). He is very fickle and unappeasable, “for he will do as he do do, and there’s no doing anything about it”.
As Rum Tum Tugger’s song fades, a shabby old grey cat stumbles out and looks around (begging forgiveness of her sin she made before she was exiled from the tribe years ago); it is Grizabella. All the Cats back away from her in fear and disgust and explain of her unfortunate state (“Grizabella: The Glamour Cat”). Grizabella leaves and the music changes to a cheerful upbeat number as Bustopher Jones, a fat cat in “a coat of fastidious black”, appears (“Bustopher Jones: The Cat About Town”). Bustopher Jones is among the elite of the cats, and visits prestigious gentlemen’s clubs. Suddenly, a loud crash then startles the tribe and the Cats run off the stage in fright. All of a sudden, hushed giggling sounds signal the entrance of Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer, a pair of near-identical Cats. They are petty burglars, very mischievous, and they enjoy causing trouble for human families (“Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer”).
Finally, the Jellicle patriarch, Old Deuteronomy, appears (“Old Deuteronomy”). He is a large old Cat that “has lived many lives” and “buried nine wives (And more, I am tempted to say—ninety-nine)”. He is the Cat who chooses which Jellicle Cat will go to the Heaviside Layer every year. After rejoicing to their leader’s arrival, the Cats put on a play for Old Deuteronomy, called The Awefull Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles. It is a story about two dog tribes clashing in the street and subsequently being scared away by the Great Rumpus Cat, a cat with flashing red eyes. After a moral from Old Deuteronomy about the destiny of Jellicle Cats and Pollicle Dogs, a second loud crash, presumably from Macavity, sends the alarmed Cats scurrying. Old Deuteronomy calls the Cats back and the main celebration begins (“The Jellicle Ball”), in which the cats sing and display their “Terpsichorean powers”.
During the Ball, Grizabella reappears and tries to dance along, but her age and decrepit condition prevent her from doing so. Once again, she is shunned by the other Cats, but that does not stop her from singing a short version of “Memory” while a guilty Old Deuteronomy looks on.
Act II — Why Will the Summer Day Delay — When Will Time Flow Away?
After the Jellicle Ball, Old Deuteronomy complains about “what happiness is”, referring to Grizabella, but the Cats do not believe him, so he sends the message to Jemima (or Sillabub, depending on the production), the youngest of all Jellicles, who sings it in simpler terms (“The Moments of Happiness”). Gus — short for Asparagus — shuffles forward (“Gus: The Theatre Cat”). He was once a famous actor but is now old and “suffers from palsy which makes his paws shake.” He is accompanied by Jellylorum, who tells of his exploits. Gus then remembers how he once played the infamous Growltiger, the Terror of the Thames (“Growltiger’s Last Stand”). He tells the story about the pirate’s romance with his girlfriend, Lady Griddlebone, and how he was overtaken by the Siamese and forced to walk the plank to his death.
Back in the present, after Gus exits, Skimbleshanks is seen sleeping in the corner (“Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat”). He is the Cat who is unofficially in charge of the night train to Glasgow. Skimbleshanks is considered vital to the train, as without him “the train can’t start”. Within his song, a whole steam train engine is assembled out of objects in the junkyard: Various Cats spin wheels, hold up the structure, and light the headlights.
With a third crash and an evil laugh, the “most wanted” cat Macavity appears. He is a “master criminal” and is never found at the scene of the crime. Macavity’s minions throw a net over Old Deuteronomy and capture him. As Munkustrap and his troops give chase to rescue Old Deuteronomy, Demeter and Bombalurina explain what they know about Macavity (“Macavity: The Mystery Cat”). When they are finished, Macavity returns disguised as Old Deuteronomy, but when Demeter blows his cover, Macavity ends up fighting with Munkustrap and Alonzo. Though the confused Macavity holds his own for a time, the rest of the tribe begin to gang up and surround him, but he shorts out the stage lights as an attempt to escape in the confusion.
After the fight, an honest Rum Tum Tugger suggests that the Cats should find a local magician named Mr. Mistoffelees (also known as “the original conjuring cat”) for help (“Magical Mr. Mistoffelees”). According to Tugger, Mr. Mistoffelees is small and black and can perform feats of magic that no other Cat can do. Mr. Mistoffelees can also perform his own dance, which is often one of the most intricate and challenging dance solos in the show. As soon as he arrives just in time, the magical Cat restores the lights and brings back Old Deuteronomy, and all the Cats hail him as their emancipator. Now, the Jellicle Choice can be made.
After Old Deuteronomy sits down, Grizabella returns to the junkyard and he allows her to address the gathering. Her faded appearance and lonely disposition have little effect on her song (“Memory”). With acceptance and encouragement from Jemima and Victoria, her appeal succeeds and she is chosen to be the one to go to the Heaviside Layer and be reborn to a new Jellicle life (“Journey to the Heaviside Layer”). A large tire rises from the piles of junk, carrying Grizabella and Old Deuteronomy partway toward the sky; he then steps off so she can finish the journey on her own. Finally, Old Deuteronomy gives his closing speech to the human audience (“The Ad-dressing of Cats”) and the show comes to a close.