During the interval of the premiere of CATS, the musical, a fellow content creator seated 2 rows behind me whispered, “Eh, Zat. What’s the plot, ah? Do you get the show?” Separately, two days later at a high tea tasting, a food writer asked me the same thing: “Why is it so… cheem, ah?”.
In a zeitgeist where musicals with a clear and distinct storyline are churned out every few months, a production like CATS buck the trend so brazenly (and have been for the past 40 years) that casual theatregoers might find the entire exercise of watching the show quite, tiresome.
In a bid to not repeat myself to very confused writers and bloggers, here I present you a guide to CATS The Musical. I meant this to be comprehensive—not spoiler-free. At least, I try my best not to. However, don’t mistake this guide to be parallel to the movie version playing on screens now. That would need a whole other guide to get through.
Pass this around to friends. Let them know that someone out there (me) cares enough to want you to enjoy CATS the musical. Assure them that they need not worry that they’ll look the fool for not understanding what the production is about.
With that, I bid you welcome, to the Jellicle Ball.
Or read this. To appreciate Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1981 seminal musical, CATS, it is imperative that you know the auteur behind the inspiration—T.S. Elliot. CATS is largely—and by largely, I mean 90%—based on Elliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical CATS, published in 1939.
It is a book of whimsical poetry that centres around The Jellicle Ball, an annual gathering of all the Jellicle cats (little cats). At the Jellicle Ball, leader of the cats, Old Deuteronomy, choose one feline to be taken away to be reborn into a new life.
In the book, T.S. Elliot describes the different types of cats that come to the Jellicle Ball, which Andrew Lloyd Webber—of Phantom of the Opera and Evita fame—in turn, set to song. And therein is the outline of the musical.
The most famous tune from CATS is ‘Memory’. This is important because Memory is the only lyrical aria of the entire production. It is sung by Grizabella the Glamour Cat who, a long time ago, abandoned the Jellicle cat tribe for a better life. She comes back, a decrepit shadow of her glamorous self, much to the rejection and disgust of the other cats.
The poem based on her character was excluded from the Old Possum’s Book of Practical CATS for being far too melancholic for a children’s book—it was an unpublished poem given to Andrew Lloyd Webber by T.S. Elliot’s wife.
Grizabella appears quite early on in the musical and sporadically throughout. Her story is probably the closest it comes to a plot, though not in the traditional sense of an introduction, a conflict, and a resolution.
The entire first half of the musical leads up to the Jellicle Ball where the cast executes a solid 10 minutes dance number without a song or aria in sight. This is the party that all the cats are looking forward to. So don’t be confused and sit there looking perplexed wondering what is going on.
Enjoy the intricate dance choreography, the vibrant set, and the lights. Occasionally, Old Deuteronomy gets up from his makeshift throne and saunters about on stage to observe the proceedings. It’s all part of the script.
During the interval, if your bladder is not too full, head over to the stage and take photos with Old Deuteronomy. This is a very rare fourth wall break that most other musicals abide by strictly. But not in CATS.
The cats are often seen prancing in and out of the aisle at various points of the production. They will look you in the eyes and sing directly to you, which might be unnerving initially, but this the only time you can see their intricate costumes and makeup up close. Savour it.
The same musical I watched two years back had the cats casually purring up to you and gently stroking your arm at times. It’s very immersive. I half expected human felines to crawl from under the seats as part of the show. Alas, a musical theatre fan can only dream.
CATS was written at a time when the sound of a musical was much more layered than in its current iteration. What this means are very complex harmonies and harmonic progression that doubles up as a mood change and a character entry.
But what makes CATS impressive is the athletic abilities of each cast member who, after leaping from structure to structure, executing intense routines, squirming about in the floor, is hardly breathless from the endeavour.
I can only imagine what their offstage exercise routines are like for them to pull off this feat with such aplomb. You will never hear anyone breathless or panting as they belt number after number like it’s the most natural thing to do.
CATS The Musical runs from Tue, 17 Dec 2019 – Sun, 5 Jan 2020 at Sands Theatre at Marina Bay Sands
Every, Tue – Fri: 8pm; Sat: 2pm & 8pm; Sun: 1pm & 6pm
Ticket prices run from S$50 – S$880, available at Sistic and Marina Bay Sands Ticketing
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