Jellicles Can and Jellicles Do
by TYLER COATES
When I was in fourth grade my teacher had us watch some sort of educational video that I assume was about saying no to drugs, which is the kind of troubling situation in which most nine-year-olds in rural Virginia find themselves. I remember one important thing from the movie: I'm always supposed to say no, because if I don't I will most certainly jeopardize my chances of performing in the school talent show, which is the conflict the film's heroine was struggling with. In the end, of course, she made the right choice, and the video ended with her giving a rousing rendition of "Memory," the essential song from Andrew Lloyd Webber's smash musical Cats.
I remember watching that scene and thinking, "This song is beautiful! What is it?!" One of my classmates, who already had the genetic predisposition of becoming someone's fag hag, was the only one who knew what it was, and she was the person who introduced me to the glory of Cats.
A few weeks later I bought the double-cassette soundtrack and made my mother play it on the car stereo on the way home. I was floored. It was amazing! I listened to the tapes over and over again. I danced around my room pretending I was Mr. Mistofelees. I tangoed with stuffed animals to "The Rum Tum Tugger". I belted my own version of "Memory," surely blowing Betty Buckley's Tony-award winning performance out of the water. My obsession with Cats culminated in my mother buying orchestra-section tickets to the Richmond-stop on the national tour. It was every pre-pubescent gay boy's dream: to be fifteen feet below a group of adult men and women clad in spandex and yak fur prancing around and singing on stage for two and a half hours.
As an adult my fascination with Cats has morphed from being baffled by the actual performances to being amazed that the show actually exists. Seriously: why would anyone enjoy a musical in which adults dress in cat costumes and dance to bizarre choreographed routines that are supposed to represent how cats would dance if they could dance like people (but really look like what humans dressed as cats would dance like if they thought cats could dance like humans)? More so, how did this play become a smash hit and stay that way for eighteen years? I decided that I really had to see it as an adult, and when I announced that I was absolutely going to see a performance of the show in Chicago, my friend Bethany volunteered to go with me.
I bought tickets - the cheapest! - on the morning of the show, which of course meant that we had the worst possible seats in the Cadillac Palace: the very back row of the upper balcony, and to the right. I was concerned since Bethany had never seen the show, nor had she heard any of the songs except for "Memory," which is the only song that isn't absolutely batshit insane. I then realized that sitting very far from the stage might be a good thing, as someone seeing Cats for the first time at twenty four (and, you know, it being 2009 and not 1982, when the show opened on Broadway) would probably be terrified. Especially if she was drunk, which she was: I had suggested we slam multiple martinis before the show.
I was shocked how full the house was for a Tuesday night performance of Cats, and I wondered how many people were like Bethany and seeing it for the first time. (I did notice that most of the audience had drinks in hand when the house lights came down.) I also speculated how many of our peers would be as sober as we were by the end of the opening number, "Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats," which serves as an introduction to the kinds of cats. There are practical cats, dramatical cats! Romantical cats! Political cats! Oratorical cats! Cynical cats! There are even rabbinical cats! And they are all Jellicle cats, which is a term that the cats promise to explain, but never do. I mean, they're cats, and I suppose what one takes away from Cats is that they can do and say whatever the fuck they want. And you had better CHEER for them.
Toward the end of the first song, Bethany turned and gave me a confused and exasperated look, and I knew that my prediction that she would hate me within fifteen minutes of the overture had indeed come true.
While watching the incredibly sobering first act, I thought about the actors as they impersonated cats impersonating tap-dancing rats and cockroaches. Bless their hearts! These were most likely musical theater nerds who worked very hard for their dreams, which probably did not involve paying their dues as Munkustrap and Bombalurina in a national tour of Cats. The saddest part about Cats is that it's entirely an ensemble piece: no one stands out in any way. Even if you're lucky enough to get the part of, say, Old Deuteronomy, Grizabella, or Rum Tum Tugger, you're still an anonymous actor covered in pancake make-up and fur, and no one pays you much mind other than the middle-aged women who publish their self-aware and self-deprecating Cats fan fiction on the Internet (because even hard-core Cats fan understand how sad depressing their interests are).
Bethany, who had fallen asleep at the beginning of the second song, regained consciousness during the long dance sequence that ends the first act. "What is going on?!" she whispered. I told her that she'd be asking me that question had she not fallen asleep twenty minutes into the show. There's very little plot to Cats: it's mostly a revue of narrative songs, each one describing a specific cat (this is what happens when you try to string together a book of obscure T.S. Eliot poems into a musical). The only over-arcing storyline is this: all of the cats in London get together once a year for the Jellicle Ball, which turns into a celebration featuring song and dance and, naturally, an opera starring the cats.
The opera, which is a post-modern wink probably lost on the middle-American audience who most likely don't appreciate the references to Puccini that would certainly incite the more academic Cats fans to cream their pants, is called "Growltiger's Last Stand," which is about a pirate cat who is captured and killed by Siamese cats. It is at this point in the show where the audience gets to experience the casual racism: how do you think the Siamese cats are portrayed on stage? It's The King and I-level racism, or, as my friend suggested, "Defcon Flower Drum Song" (but at least they changed Eliot's original line that called the Siamese "chinks"!). It's also overly-long and confusing, which I guess ads to the meta-madness of Cats in general: there's a bizarre and confusing musical starring cats within a musical about cats. It's a taco wrapped in a burrito wrapped in a pizza covered in fur, and it won't stop doing somersaults.
To make a long story about a long musical about cats short: the play ends with Grizabella the Glamour Cat belting "Memory", which receives the only applause of the night. Then Grizabella rides on a floating tire up to the Heavyside Layer, which is some sort of cat heaven, to be reborn. I suppose cats have eight chances to do this? I'm not sure, because it's never really explained, nor are we given a reason why Grizabella gets to do it, because all of the other cats hate her until she sings "Memory" and they feel sorry for her. Isn't that how it always goes? Old Deuteronomy sings a song about how "cats are very much like you" at the end of the show, which was a theme I happened to pick up on already when I watched two cat burglar cats rob a house and then a railroad cat drive a train. But that's the Andrew Lloyd Webber way: he gives you a theater piece with fairly obvious themes, and then he follows that with an explanation of those themes. It's a very high school senior approach to art.
What I learned from re-watching Cats, however, is that some things you liked as a pre-teen don't age very well, no matter how many t-shirts featuring the words, "Now and Forever!" were on sale at the merchandise table (next to DVDs priced at forty-five dollars a pop, which makes me confused about how the economy works). And to use an analogy that is probably oft-repeated and obvious (and therefore COMPLETELY APPLICABLE): Cats is like your childhood pet. Eventually, she's too old and frail to go on, and you've got to put her down. And sorry, honey: she's not going to Cat Heaven in a tire.
Tyler Coates is the senior contributor to This Recording. He tumbls here.
Songs about cats that are not from Cats:
"Phenominal Cat" - The Kinks (mp3)
"Plea From A Cat Named Virtue" - The Weakerthans (mp3)