Why was the musical a sensation? What's with the plot? Based on what we know of the show, here's our guide to this unlikely mash-up of C.G.I. and T.S. Eliot.
"Now and Forever", the old Winter Garden Theater posters used to read. Loosely translated, that means you've had the equivalent of forever to see Cats in one incarnation or another. But maybe, despite everything, you never got around to it, or maybe you saw it so long ago that you no longer recall what all the fuss was about.
Or maybe, just maybe, you saw the much-reviled trailer for the forthcoming film version and lost whatever coordinates you once had. Spooky catpeople with swishing tails and human digits? Judi Dench in a big chinchilla coat? Taylor Swift in a hammock? James Corden looking like he's auditioning for Penguin in the next Batman flick? Digital fur technology?
It's all right. Universal may not have offered us any previews of the movie, but we've scraped together enough hints, supplemented by enough performance history, to guide even the most timid Cats initiate through the maelstrom that will descend on December 26. Listen up, y'all.
There won't be any story
Not much of one, anyway. Cats, composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber, is based on a collection of light T.S. Eliot verses that lack anything in the way of narrative thread, so the show's creators give us a slender reed of theological suspense: Which lucky cat will get to ascend to the Heaviside Layer by evening's end?
In Six Degrees of Separation, John Guare boils that down to "a bunch of chorus kids in cat suits prancing around wondering which of them will go to kitty-cat heaven." That's unkind but not exactly wrong. Knowing this, you can view the rest of the movie as a time-killing music-hall revue — or, if you like, a series of existential auditions, with each character implicitly vying to make the Heaviside Layer cut. ("But I danced my ass off! I belted an E flat! I make the trains run!") If you've been as weaned as I have on Shirley Jackson's The Lottery, you might also wonder if the whole business is a disguise for ritual sacrifice. Population control, even. The point is this is all the story you're going to get.
The cats won't know how to pronounce their tribal name
At least when it comes to Jellicle, their tribal name, the cats in the stage show are still figuring out which syllables to stress. "Because JELL-icles are and JELL-icles do,/Jell-ih-KUHLS do and Jellicles WOULD/Jellicles would and JELL-icles can/Jell-ih-KUHLS can and Jellicles DO."
There will be a lot of cats
Twenty-two in the original New York production and, it would seem, rather more in the film version. They hail from a junkyard and are not engineered for cuddling. In the original show, the cats routinely break the fourth wall and prowl the aisles. (A friend of mine recalls his 6-year-old self being frozen in terror by a human-size cat yanking on his ear.) The movie's felines, by contrast, will be cavorting on roofs, tearing up pillows, dancing across dining tables and, at one point, joining in a mass cat salute.
Some cats will be more equal than others
The Jellicle guru is Old Deuteronomy, a traditionally male role essayed here by Dench. In the stage show, Munkustrap (Robbie Fairchild) was a useful master of ceremonies for the proceedings, but Lloyd Webber has said that the movie will be seen through the eyes of Victoria, the White Cat (Francesca Hayward). That represents something of a promotion for this character, who will also be getting her own brand-new Oscar-bait Lloyd Webber song, with lyrics by one T. Swift.
Also watch for:
• Rum Tum Tugger, usually an Elvis impersonator, due for a welcome hip-hop/R&B updating at the hands of Jason Derulo.
• Macavity, the Napoleon of Crime, who, onstage, plays a relatively minor role in his own number. Odds are that on-screen, the top-billed Idris Elba will get more action.
• Gus the Theatre Cat, a Centrum Silver actor who drags on about his days on the Victorian stage. Let us hope Ian McKellen can pump some juice into him.
• Bustopher Jones, a tuxedoed, white-spatted dandy who will be channelling the pathologically crowd-pleasing spirit of James Corden.
• Grizabella the Glamour Cat is the de facto protagonist because, well, she's the only one something happens to. A former prosti-kitty, she once "haunted many a low resort" and is now a social pariah among the snotty Jellicles. Her destiny is to totter into the spotlight at evening's climax and sing That Song. Which reminds me …
For the love of all that's holy, it's not called Memories
I don't care what your great-aunt Celia says, or the woman who cuts your hair or the man you're married to. It's Memory.
(We might pause to note what a strangely tenacious error this has become for such an oft-recorded tune. Nobody insists on saying White Christmases or Several More Bite the Dust.)
Speaking of singular: Even if you're seeing Cats for the first time and, unlikelier, hearing Memory for the first time, it will still be the one song you take away. That's because Lloyd Webber cunningly plants the seeds for it at the end of Act 1 and brings it to raging life at the end of Act 2. The devil is in the key change. Grizabella croons the first form in B flat, allows the bridge to be briefly co-opted by some younger cat, then comes roaring back in D flat. The effect of that minor third is, well, major: "Touch me! It's so ea-sy to leave me!" Listen to Betty Buckley (who won a Tony for the original Broadway production), and you'd swear the theatre's roof was being ripped off.
The song's range and degree of difficulty have made it a rite of passage for generations of belters, so it's pleasing to hear it filtered through Jennifer Hudson's lustrous pipes in the movie trailer. What's less pleasing is Grizabella's fancy-feast makeover, which, in the words of one wag, gives her the look of an anchorwoman for Cat News Network. Where is the burnt-out babe with the Miss Havisham locks? And, hey, does Memory still work if the singer has hair on her chest? Which leads us to …
The CGI thing
More than most shows, Cats demands not just a suspension of disbelief but a fairly complete surrender. In the live theatre, this means accepting that the hot, sinewy humans in front of you are cats. In the movie theatre, it will mean accepting that the cat-human hybrids in front of you are … well, what? (As a friend put it, turning the characters of Cats into actual cats is a bit like doing Swan Lake with actual swan bills.) Stage stylisation doesn't always translate to the more naturalistic confines of the screen, so we can only hope that the movie's pixelated creatures will cohere into something recognisably something before kitty-cat heaven calls them home.
It might help to recall that from its inception, Cats has been a divisive show, the kind that pretty much braves your scorn. In this regard, it shares a certain kinship with its subjects. "Fifty per cent of the world loves cats," Lloyd Webber once said, "and 50 per cent of the world hates them, and I'm very happy to only play to 50 per cent of the world." Whether you're still in Lloyd Webber's half of the world after December 26 is entirely up to you.
Written by: Louis Bayard
Photographs by: Sara Krulwich
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES