“No way, this is a total bomb.” “RIP to the dignity of real cats everywhere.” Those two remarks could have been taken from the sniggered comments around Theatreland and in the press ahead of the premiere of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Cats at the New London Theatre on May 11, 1981.
In actual fact, they were made this year, two of the many thousands of derisory comments made on social media after the trailer for Tom Hooper’s movie version of Cats dropped a couple of months ago.
As I read them, I wondered if we were seeing history repeat itself. Cats’ journey from derision to global success is one that holds legendary theatre status.
Last week I was reminded of those negative and bewildered reactions before the opening of the original production when BBC Radio 4 broadcast an episode of its long-running show The Reunion about Cats.
The programme discussed how the creative team behind Cats had found it challenging to raise the money – to such an extent that Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh even offered the cast the opportunity to invest, though none of those interviewed took up that offer.
The programme also featured an early interview with Mackintosh after the opening in which he referred to how ungracious a number of people within London’s theatre community had been towards both Lloyd Webber and himself as they struggled to secure the necessary investment.
Cats followed Lloyd Webber’s earlier success with Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, but was coming off the back of Jeeves, his first musical without Tim Rice, that had been a notable West End flop.
In an industry that loves to try to second-guess itself, some had started to question if it had been the partnership of Lloyd Webber and Rice that was intrinsic to the composers’ success.
In writing Cats, Lloyd Webber was working from a set of poems by TS Eliot. During The Reunion broadcast, Nunn suggested that the musical only really took shape when the estate revealed the existence of an unpublished Eliot cat poem about a dishevelled outcast character called Grizabella the Glamour Cat. The poem was left unpublished as Eliot had felt it too upsetting for children.
Without that discovery, Cats may have been a very different musical – especially as Grizabella sings its most successful number, Memory.
Cats achievements may, in no small part, be attributed to a key point John Napier made about its early delivery and transfer to Broadway where the creative team then “kind of glossed the cherry”, but he questioned if it was its early rawness that made the show successful.
This is an important observation with musical development. Paige reiterated the point about London to Broadway transfers, saying: “You can see a production in this country and it has that slightly off, raw kind of quality to it, and you can go and see exactly the same production in America and it has this slickness to it, but it doesn’t necessarily have quite the heart that we have here.”
Cats was possibly the last British musical to achieve this fully. Its success heralded the advent of a decade of British blockbuster domination with budgets becoming comparable to Broadway.
However, it also heralded works on both sides of the Atlantic trying – and failing – to emulate Cats’ success, often pouring in money but forgetting the heart, which left many feeling the works were saccharine and formulaic.
The stakes for this movie are massively high, just as they were for the opening of the stage musical after it was virtually written off before it had even started
Cats’ path to success gave it a unique status and originality of ideas that succeeded through a roughness in delivery because of its circumstances and from the company and creative’s camaraderie in getting it on. That may have helped make it revolutionary and secure its legacy but that sort of thing cannot be manufactured.
Despite musical theatre’s advancement, today’s corporate world of the West End and Broadway – with escalating costs and the swiftness of appraisals on social media – means the success of that off-the-wall commercial musical concept 38 years ago may now be impossible to achieve.
The Cats movie trailer and its resulting reaction across social media reflects that. One of the most interesting things about those reactions has been how many of the respondents had clearly never heard of the musical. As a result, they were left horrified and bewildered by the images they saw of actors such as Ian McKellen, Taylor Swift, Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson and Judi Dench donning their feline outfits to sing and dance.
It is easy to assume that a musical that has been around for more than three decades must be firmly in the public’s consciousness but clearly for many it is not. This is what makes the film’s forthcoming release a parallel that mirrors the original stage musical’s premiere, as viewers of its trailer grappled to get their heads around it.
However, be under no illusion: the stakes for this movie are massively high, just as they were for the opening of the stage musical after it was virtually written off before it had even started.
Ultimately, fans of the stage musical may prove to be the film’s harshest critics, while movie-goers discovering it for the first time may hold an altogether different viewpoint. These newcomers might then even become intrigued enough to see it live, thus giving the stage show a further renaissance.
So despite these early negative responses to the trailer, as the journey of Cats has already shown us, it would probably be a mistake to start writing any of its lives off just yet.
Richard Jordan is a producer and regular columnist for The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/richard-jordan