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Jellicle cats, onstage and onscreen
Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images, Universal Pictures, Graphic: Rebecca Fassola

Three months into my freshman year of theater school, I found myself fake-laughing my way through a raucous parody of Cats—a show I had never actually seen, but one that was apparently being hilariously skewered based on the reactions of everyone around me. As a lifelong musical theater fan, Cats was my most embarrassing pop culture blindspot. So when I noticed a national tour was coming through Chicago, I pounced at the chance to ensure my first experience with the musical wasn’t the digital-fur-fueled monstrosity Tom Hooper is serving up this Christmas. I had hoped that finally seeing Cats would help me understand the cultural phenomenon. Instead, I came to discover there is no understanding Cats. There is only experiencing Cats.

To say Cats has no plot oversells just how little any of it makes any sense. As part of a wave of late 1970s and early 1980s song cycles and concept albums, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber (the composer behind Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, and later Phantom Of The Opera) adapted some goofy, cat-themed children’s poems from T.S. Eliot’s 1939 anthology, Old Possum’s Book Of Practical Cats. Lloyd Webber and producer Cameron Mackintosh enlisted director Trevor Nunn, choreographer Gillian Lynne, and costume designer John Napier—all veterans of the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company—to give the show some kind of narrative spine. The creative team inadvertently wound up inventing a whole new genre of big-budget blockbuster musicals designed to appeal families and tourists.

The tour I saw largely recreated the aesthetics of the original 1981 production, complete with skintight body suits, furry leg warmers, and some uncomfortably sensual cat choreography. My one wish for the evening came true within the first 30 seconds of the overture, as a member of the audience-interacting Cats ensemble stationed herself right by our seats for the opening number. The rest of the night was a rush of inexplicable theatrical storytelling that sometimes left me wide-eyed in shock and sometimes lulled me into a trance. While my experience with drugs is admittedly limited, I can’t imagine there’s any high as trippy as seeing Cats from the seventh row.

Cats is a sung-through musical that does away with the idea that stories need things like protagonists, comprehensible world-building, or rising and falling action. The show opens with an ode to “Jellicle cats” in which the ensemble pauses halfway through to neg the audience for not knowing what a Jellicle cat is—despite the fact that it’s a term Eliot made up to lampoon the slurred speech of drunken aristocrats. The Jellicle cats are a mix of house pets and strays, and they gather once a year under the “Jellicle moon” for the “Jellicle Ball” in which immortal “Jellicle leader” Old Deuteronomy (usually played by a man but played by Judi Dench in the movie) makes a “Jellicle choice” and picks one cat to travel to the “Heaviside Layer” (a real-life atmospheric phenomenon that is also apparently the cat version of heaven). The chosen cat is then reborn into a new “Jellicle life.” (Cats is very big on using “Jellicle” as a modifier.)

The rest of the show consists of cats introducing themselves for two and a half hours. Ostensibly, they’re pitching themselves to Old Deuteronomy, though he doesn’t make his big entrance until about 40 minutes in, so Jennyanydots and Bustopher Jones really screw themselves over by going first. There’s also the impending threat of criminal cat Macavity, who finally arrives in act two and does a whole lot of nothing. The closest thing the show has to a throughline concerns Grizabella, a faded “glamour cat” who’s now cruelly ostracized because she’s old and ugly. She pops up throughout the show to suffer tragically before (spoiler alert) singing the 11 o’clock number, “Memory,” after which she’s chosen to be reborn, riding a giant flaming tire to heaven. (“Giant” relative to the cats’ dimensions, dwarfed, like their movie counterparts, by oversized scenery and props.)

But even the description above oversells the amount of plot in Cats: It’s essentially just a bunch of upbeat novelty songs strung together. And the subjects of those songs aren’t the main cast; they pretty much just enter for their big numbers, then exit. Meanwhile, the dance ensemble that’s onstage for the entire show never introduce themselves at all. They do have specific costuming and names, though, so true Cats aficionados can tell their Pouncivals from their Munkustraps.

A lot of the featured cats have the same deal, which is doing naughty cat things in a slinky way. That’s true of tom cat Rum Tum Tugger, partners in crime Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer, and the infamous Macavity, who will be breathlessly celebrated by Taylor Swift’s Bombalurina in the film. Cats is ostensibly a family-friendly show, but when it’s not going all-out on the feline whimsy, there’s an ominous, gritty undertone to its junkyard-set story.

From what I can tell from the Cats trailer—which has about 50% more plot than the show itself—the film version is using a member of the cat dance ensemble named Victoria (ballerina Francesca Hayward) as the entry point into the Jellicle Ball. Onstage, however, Cats just kind of washes over you until it suddenly ends with a somber ballad that congratulates the audience on the fact that we’ve now learned how to address a cat. “A cat is not a dog,” the cats repeat solemnly, before explaining that the best way to befriend a cat is to give it space and bribe it with food—which is pretty solid advice that is also in no way what I had taken from the performance I saw up to that point.

I’m not sure how many of my fellow audience members were there sincerely vs. ironically (I’m honestly not even sure if I was there sincerely or ironically), but they were undoubtedly enthusiastic. By the time Mr. Mistoffelees the magical “conjuring cat” descended from the ceiling in a light-up vest and did about 27 fouettés in a row, I was fully convinced that Cats was the greatest piece of theater I’d ever seen. Grizabella belted the “Memory” key change with such power that I instinctively grabbed my friend’s hand when it happened. A man sitting a few rows away earnestly shouted, “Brava!” at the end of the number, and the crowd quickly leaped to its feet for a standing ovation during a curtain call.

And that’s the thing about Cats. What makes it weird isn’t the show itself. It’s that this bizarre, formless, strangely sexual, vaguely unsettling concept musical became one of the most popular shows in theater history. The Broadway production ran for 18 years, while the West End version stuck around for 21. Cats won seven Tonys, has been translated into 15 different languages, and has reportedly grossed over $2 billion worldwide. (It was a lucky break for Lloyd Webber, who couldn’t find investors for his bonkers idea and wound up taking out a second mortgage to fund the musical himself.)

Since seeing Cats live, I’ve listened to the original Broadway cast album and watched the 1998 video recording, and neither fully capture the experience of witnessing the mystifying show alongside a bunch of rapturous fellow theatergoers. Cats is a dance concert as much as it is a musical, and watching the unbelievable athleticism of the cast unfold right before your eyes is genuinely thrilling. (Hamilton choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler restaged some of the numbers for the tour I saw and choreographed the film as well.) That—coupled with the fact that I woke up the next morning with about eight different songs stuck in my head—helped me understand the enduring appeal of Cats, even if I still can’t quite explain Cats.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt both delivered excellent Cats parodies this year, the latter of which imagined its own hilarious alternate history of how and why Cats came to be. But the best summation of Cats comes from famed musical theater director Hal Prince. Thoroughly stumped by his first listen to the Cats score, Prince asked Lloyd Webber if the whole thing was meant to be an allegorical exploration of the English politics of Queen Victoria, William Gladstone, and Benjamin Disraeli. As Prince recounts it, “He looked at me like I’d lost my mind, and after the longest pause said, ‘Hal, this is just about cats.’”

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About the author

Caroline Siede

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. Her interests include superhero movies, feminist theory, and Jane Austen novels.