I’m Excited for Cats and I Don’t Care Who Knows It
Because Jellicles can and Jellicles do.
Hi, friends. You may recognize my name as a regular Mary Sue contributor, but for the next few months, I’ll be stepping in as the Weekend Editor, and I thought I would start things out with a seriously controversial opinion: I love the musical Cats, and I’m actually legitimately excited for the movie to come out. Honestly.
I know the trailer was nightmare fuel for a lot (well, most) of you, but allow me to explain why I think the feline film is going to be a great interpretation of an extremely weird show, and why I’m even okay with digital fur technology.
First off, I’ll just come out and say it: I was a theater kid, and I still am one at heart. Unfortunately, I’m not a cool theater kid. Sondheim just isn’t my thing, and I’ve never seen anything by Jason Robert Brown. My Broadway drug of choice is and always has been Andrew Lloyd Webber. I know, some would say it’s the theater equivalent of eating at McDonald’s—but the fries are delicious and there’s a reason it’s the most popular food in the world.
My love for ALW, Cats, and theater in general all started at the same time. I was six and on a family trip to London. Cats was the biggest thing at the time, and to prepare me, my mother read me all of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. I loved it and had “Macavity” memorized weeks before we left. We arrived in London, and it was nearly a hundred degrees with no air conditioner to be found anywhere, but it didn’t keep us from the theater.
And to my six-year-old self, what we saw that night was magic.
There’s a reason Cats became the longest-running show in Broadway history (to only be eclipsed later by ALW’s greatest masterpiece, The Phantom of the Opera). It’s a strange, simple story that succeeds because it’s the essence of great theater: costumes, dance, and fantastic music that transports the audience so that no one thinks about how weird the whole thing is because it’s just pure entertainment.
Cats is more like a jukebox musical than anything. It’s a series of songs and dances, each with their own small story and cast of characters, and the connections between them are thin at best. The show was based on a book of poems written for children, and the overarching plot (the Jellicle ball as a pageant for kitties to see who gets to … die? Be reincarnated? Who knows?) is mainly an excuse to get to “Memory.”
But it works because all the songs and dances and vignettes are great. “Memory” is ubiquitous because it’s heart-wrenching and beautiful, and it doesn’t need to be anything more. To return to that McDonald’s metaphor, Cats is fun and great as long as you don’t think about the ingredients or nutritional value—and that’s fine, because some food we just eat because it tastes good, and we don’t care if it’s good for us.
As much as I have always loved Cats, I never thought it would be a movie. There’s a great filmed version of the show that aired on PBS back in the ’90s, and I certainly owned that VHS, but it lacked the magic of the theatrical show because it wasn’t as immersive. Andrew Lloyd Webber doesn’t have a great track record in film: Evita is great, but Jesus Christ Superstar is a dud and Phantom is an utter travesty.
When Tom Hooper was announced as director, I was still suspicious. Hooper’s Les Miserables leaned too far into realism, and the resulting film was a mishmosh of bad singing, long shots, and a few moving performances that shone through. Cue my surprise when the trailer for Cats dropped and it looked … good?
Okay, yes, the cats have boobs and fingers, and that looks weird onscreen; but to my eyes, it was a faithful homage to the costumes of the original show. Whereas stage performers wore greasepaint and leg warmers to signify Cats, so now are the screen actors using digital technology to do the same thing. Cats would be pretty terrifying if the titular felines looked real, and we all saw how lifeless and boring the remade Lion King was.
But the element of the trailer that really got me was the focus on Francesca Hayward as Victoria. Victoria is a very small role in the stage version, who shows up mainly to dance, but it appears that, in the film, she will be the “audience” for the various vignettes.
That’s actually brilliant, because it allows Cats to remain a performance and will give the film an emotional core. And the fact we have an actual dancer in the role, as well as great singers and performers (Ian McKellan! Judi Dench!) throughout the cast gives me hope, too. Cats lives or dies on the shoulders of the ensemble, and unlike with some other movies, it looks like the screen will be filled with folks who belong in such an event musical.
The rest of it—the oversize sets and Idris Elba as a Cat in a Hat—we’ll see, but from my perspective, Cats looks like it’s staying true to the weird, beautiful spirit of the show that made me love theater, and finding new and exciting ways to communicate that theatrical experience onscreen. It may look strange, but that’s exactly why I can’t wait.
(images: Universal Pictures)
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