It is less than a month since the movie adaptation of Cats opened in the UK. Getting the original West End stage musical on in 1981 was a story of triumph over adversity, and four decades later it is seen as a groundbreaking work that pushed the form forward.
The film – which received one of the worst critical maulings in recent cinema history – is unlikely to be thought of similarly.
I’d expected a Marmite reaction to the film, but was still taken aback by the extremely negative response of the reviews. After reading several, I had gone along expecting the worst – however, I left the cinema having quite enjoyed it.
Was the Cats movie doomed from the start? In 1981, Andrew Lloyd Webber was the golden boy of musicals, making the art form in Britain cool in a way it had never been before. But today, liking his work is often seen as a guilty pleasure or, more unfairly, met with derision.
Were Lloyd Webber a US musical composer with a similarly successful track record, I cannot imagine the same level of disrespect being shown, especially from Americans.
Watching the movie, I was left wondering if it may well have worked better as an animated feature – as Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment had wanted to do, with a new book by Tom Stoppard – particularly as a decent stage-to-screen version was made for television in 1998.
The TV version filmed in a theatre features a cast mostly drawn from alumni of the stage production, including John Partridge – one of the greatest Rum Tum Tuggers of all time – Ken Page, Broadway’s original Old Deuteronomy, and Elaine Paige as Grizabella, reprising the role she immortalised in the original West End production.
Over Christmas, BBC Radio 2’s First Cast brought the original company and creative members from the stage show to discuss the process of making it. Throughout the broadcast, they emphasised how its creation, and arguably its success, was an ensemble effort.
As a musical, Cats evolved through challenging rehearsals and nightly changing previews. Everyone working on that production shared the journey. Today, the more corporate face of commercial theatre makes such community spirit and risk-taking seem like fantasy.
During the production’s development, the original company recognised it was part of something thrilling happening in musical theatre. The actors who have stepped into these roles in productions around the world, understandably, see themselves as custodians of this musical’s continuing legacy, something that also comes across strongly in the TV version.
In contrast, the movie drops a bunch of big stars into the now-established brand but without the same collaborative stage journey. It’s a like a wealthy football club buying the best players, without spending time making them into a team. With an ensemble work such as Cats, it is absolutely crucial that the actors gel.
The film glaringly shows that lack of an ensemble spirit. This may have been inevitable based on the unique way Cats was first created, but is possibly the movie’s fundamental problem, and why it fails to hang together. It also risks leaving audiences unfamiliar with the stage show baffled that this is a bizarre set of songs loosely threaded around a weak book – as the viral reaction to its trailer had already served to demonstrate.
On stage, the live energy of the company bursts out at you in a way that the movie cannot capture. As a film it loses pace, even if the set numbers are well sung and watchable.
The critical assassination of the movie may lead to cult status. However, it’s certainly no Absolute Beginners or Showgirls, and much better than Joel Schumacher’s terrible 2004 musical-to-movie version of The Phantom of the Opera, making any such notoriety undeserved.
Ironically, for all the excitement back in 1981 over the revolutionary set and costume designs by John Napier to create the world of Cats, the film’s technology is among its biggest criticisms.
The CGI rendering of the stars as cats was derided, with complaints about the fur and the set design’s proportions. However, these are merely part of a high-tech evolution of the same concept that the original stage production sought to achieve and for which it was highly praised.
When it comes to computer imagery on film, anything’s possible but maybe that’s a problem in this film’s particular case, and best highlighted in the number featuring Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat.
In the theatre, a train is made during this number out of bits of rubbish using magical stagecraft that delights audiences. In the film, this scene is replaced with an entertaining high-tech tap routine on a railway line across the Thames.
It’s visually impressive and clearly expensive, but the film underestimates the nostalgia many hold for this musical, whose stagecraft created powerful and sophisticated onstage moments that its audiences cherished.
Cats’ arrival on the big screen may be 20 years too late and perhaps should have stuck with the original concept of being an animated feature.
However, as a movie, Cats, like the original stage production, still tries to do something ambitious and different with the musical form. It does not necessarily always succeed, but it certainly does not deserve the gleeful evisceration it has received.
Richard Jordan is a producer and regular columnist for The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/richard-jordan