When T.S. Eliot penned a series of poems about cats for his godchildren in 1939, he couldn't have known what profound cultural significance the jocular little book could have nearly a century later.
Though relatively obscure and decidedly silly compared to some of his other works, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats inspired sixtime Tony winner and musical theater impresario Andrew Lloyd Webber (The Phantom of the Opera, Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar), to compose one of the most enduring and universally successful musicals of all time.
First staged in the West End in 1981, Cats blew audiences away with its breathtaking dance sequences and Lloyd Webber's memorable tunes paired with lyrics adapted directly from Eliot's poetry.
Staged in a moonlit back alley, with tires and discarded washing machines strewn about, the show begins as the ensemble of Cats creep onto the stage from all corners of the theater. The orchestra then kicks up the spine-tingling opening theme, like a cat's footsteps as it tiptoes along a fence.
A bit of an open mind is required to get into the premise. It centers around a tribe of 'Jellicle cats' (a word invented by Eliot) celebrating their annual meet-up in the alley. What follows is a series of quirky reflections on cats' interior lives, what they're thinking about while staring out the window for five hours, or why they knocked over all the stuff on your dresser for no reason.
The musical has a loose story structure; it's less of a linear narrative and more of a vaudeville-style variety show, as characters like lovable rogue Rum Tum Tugger and Mr. Mistoffelees the original Conjuring Cat each introduce themselves via an unforgettable theme song dreamed up by Webber.
The fluid plot does center on one character, however: the mysterious, aging former dancer Grizabella the Glamour Cat. In a role originated by acting royalty Elaine Paige, Grizabella is the only character who doesn't appear in the Book of Practical Cats; instead, Lloyd Webber based her on a woman Eliot describes in his poem 'Rhapsody on a Windy Night.'
'Memory,' her attempt at redemption and the climax of the show, is Cats' most famous song and one of the most iconic show tunes of all time, which has been covered by everyone from Barbra Streisand to Barry Manilow.
Cats will come to Shanghai this June, and attendees should expect audience participation; after all, it's impossible to keep a cat contained to one room or stage.
Though the show has delighted cat lovers throughout its record-breaking run, it's not the sole reason the musical has endured. These characters have resonated for decades mainly because their personalities feel so relatable that they seem far more human than cat.