CATS: Don’t Let the Memory Live Again

I spent much of the duration of the current Broadway revival of Cats pondering not what the felines prowling around on stage in front of me were doing but rather the Great White Way-wide implications of this production’s chosen tagline:

“Let the memory live again.”

Though clearly a not-so-subtle reference to its most popular song, the tagline seemed to perfectly capture the predominant approach that creative teams adopt when reviving classic shows on Broadway.

When faced with the task of bringing back old material for new audiences, these theatrical practitioners must strike the proper balance between updating the given material for contemporary audiences without forsaking what made the show a classic in the first place. Since a majority of these shows were obviously extremely successful when they premiered on Broadway – why else would commercial producers feel safe reviving them? – even the slightest of alterations can jeopardize the strange alchemy inherent to all artistic achievements. As such, most revivals play it safe and easy by opting to merely re-stage the original productions instead of re-imagining them for today.

And that’s why I was somewhat dreading paying Cats another visit, which the tagline appeared to promise would be very similar to my last visit. “Let the memory live again” sounds like a declaration that the revival’s main goal would be merely to rehash the musical’s adoring fans’ memories of the show. By promoting that this revival would let their memories literally live again on stage simply by re-staging them, I expected as I entered the Neil Simon Theatre that I was about to walk into nothing more than a time machine back to 1982, especially since most of the original creative team once again lent their talents for this revival.

Regardless of my personal opinion of this simultaneously much-beloved yet equally much-derided musical – which I’ll get to in a bit – I firmly believe revivals that merely let fans’ memories of the original productions live again on stage are a complete disservice both to the shows themselves and to the modern state of Broadway. Though I understand why creative teams approach reviving legendary musicals such as Cats by clinging to the adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” I always find such base and simplistic theatrical endeavors not only to be a waste of valuable resources but also contribute to Broadway’s less-than-stellar reputation amongst most young people as nothing more than a relic of a bygone era. If artists want to ensure the longevity of this unique art form, they must counteract anything that may propagate this damning reputation.

The most common justification for doing nothing more than un-inventively re-staging classic fare is the rationale that such revivals WILL actually introduce old warhorses to new audiences. What better way to convince young ‘uns of the wonders of live theatre than by presenting the best that the form has ever offered? And yet, the notion that these potential theatre lovers would be persuaded by simply digging up old work and presenting it to the kids of today without any real fundamental modifications is naïve at best, ignorant at worst.

Sure, there are of course timeless musicals with temporally-transcendent scores that successfully communicate universal messages relevant to every generation, but these factors alone do not justify reviving such musicals. Take the current Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof – its messages of perseverance and acceptance are obviously as relevant today as they were in 1964…and 1974…and 1984 and so on…but merely throwing the original production on stage does not communicate how specifically it’s relevant today. Modern audiences can make those abstract connections themselves, but they can just as easily do so by listening to one of the many cast albums or watching the movie or finding a recording of a past production. Though previous generations could claim that a major Broadway revival – and its subsequent tour – was the best way to introduce classic shows to new audiences, kids nowadays can be much more easily exposed to legendary shows of yore thanks to the increased size and popularity of regional theatres, global tours, and even school productions. Plus, the Internet has made practically the entire history of Broadway only one click away.

The boring ass Playbill, but shout-out to Scott Rudin for bringing back this classic design in an updated way. Who would’ve thought that revisiting an old idea in a new fashion actually works?!?!

Since archived material on and recordings of classic Broadway fare are now more accessible than ever, a 21st century revival should strive to say something new about the show being revived by implementing innovative changes to the original staging. By no means am I calling for the type of modern re-writes of Shakespeare’s plays that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival caught flak for recently commissioning. Rather, almost every great work of art contains a near-infinite number of layers to explore, even those that the original artists may not have intended. Artistic criticism nowadays – especially those of the scholarly variety – has almost become an exercise in determining how many different interpretations can be theorized regarding all of the potential meanings of a piece of art. As such, creative teams today definitely can and should shed new light on old material in their revivals.

To do so, every facet of their production needs to contribute to the new messages that they’re trying to communicate. As such, blindly relying on any element of the original staging will only serve to communicate messages that are decades or perhaps even centuries old. Revivals will of course always retain certain attributes of how a show has been popularly staged over the years, but they should only be preserved if the creative team understands how these characteristics help to say something new. For a revival to truly resonate with modern audiences, it needs to impart fresh ideas regarding the original material that make such audiences understand why it’s worth their time to revisit this old show right now.

And that’s the best way to introduce a new generation to old musicals like Cats. No one should expect staging techniques devised a long time ago to communicate a story to audiences of a different era to be able to just as successfully communicate that same story to audiences of today. Exposing contemporary audiences to such outdated modes of theatrical storytelling simply reaffirms many people’s preconceived notion that Broadway is nothing more than a vestige of the past. Revivals need to always have a clear idea of why and how their original material should be experienced anew today.

“Let the memory live again” is a direct affront to this ideal, which is why I wasn’t too keen on the idea of spending another 2+ hours with these same ‘ol pussies. You may think my hesitation was also due to the assumption that an artsy-fartsy type like myself couldn’t possibly enjoy such a seemingly mindless example of 80s-pop musical theatre, but truth be told I actually have fond memories of Cats! The only problem is that I can’t for the nine lives of me understand why any potential ticket buyers would fork over hundreds of dollars to experience a show that they’ve basically already seen. Even if their children haven’t yet been exposed to it, there are a vast number of cheaper options.

Sure, the live components certainly add a level of vitality that’s impossible to replicate in any other medium, especially since the technical design has improved upon past productions’ simply due to the advancements in the technology required to pull off over-the-top spectacle. The Neil Simon being transformed into a garbage dump that overflows off the stage and all around the audience certainly elicits excitement for those who prefer to be immersed in their theatre, and the dynamic light show that opens the production definitely sends shockwaves through the audience. But then the same Cats we all know and love/hate creep down the aisles, and almost nothing sets apart this production from all of the others that have come before it…

…but note how I italicized ‘almost.’ Serving as a reminder of the positive impact that modern changes can thrust upon classic material, the creative team brought in Andy Blankenbuehler – who won the Tony Award for Best Choreography for his work on Hamilton last season – to spruce up Gillian Lynne’s original choreography. Even though popular culture’s recollections of Cats tend to revolve around “Memory” and the rest of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s impressively varied yet impossible-to-get-out-of-your-head-even-if-you-want-them-to songs – largely due to the seemingly endless number of amateur and professional renditions we’ve all been treated to forcibly imprinting these tunes into our collective psyches – this production re-calibrates Cats back to what it really is at its core: first and foremost a dance show that happens to be set to a catchy musical theatre score. Andrew Lloyd Webber and the rest of the creative team’s untouched contributions now feel too familiar even to notice, whereas Blankenbuehler’s vibrant new work quite literally leaps off the stage in the capable paws of the uniformly game ensemble.

And yet, I honestly felt bad for them because they could’ve been given so much more to work with here. If it wasn’t for the fact that they actually sing the songs on stage, Cats could very easily be mistaken for a dance show rather than a proper musical. As the former – complete with long orchestral stretches without any vocals whatsoever – it actually works. BUT – and this is a big but – Cats has always pawed the line between being a shallow dance spectacular and a deeper musical, along with all of the substantive bells and whistles that come with the form, i.e. a fully developed story featuring fully developed characters.

Yes, the lead members of the ensemble play specific characters with specific names, all of whom contribute to the bare-bones story of these cats participating in the Jellicle Ball in which they one-by-one introduce themselves through song-and-dance performances in hopes of winning the Ball and thus being chosen to be allowed to reincarnate back into a healthier body…at least I think that’s what the show is about? If it sounds convoluted, that’s because Cats provides the bare minimum amount of specific details in an attempt to make the proceedings somewhat comprehensible while secretly hoping the big crowd-pleasing numbers will obscure its meaningful and meaning-based shortcomings.

The rub is that many crowds won’t be – and haven’t been since 1982 – pleased with this callous handling of such integral elements of musical theatre as story and character. Again, if this was strictly a dance musical, many wouldn’t have any problems. But since audiences have always caught whiffs of these elements in Cats, they’re left unsatisfied by their inferior treatment, I’d imagine none more so than many of the performers in the ensemble.

Even though all of their characters have actual names and one moment to shine, everyone except for Grizabella completely lacks an arc of any kind. They’re introduced in their one big scene, and then poof – they’re gone in the blink of one of those iconic cat’s eyes that adorn the poster, only to insignificantly return to be on the periphery of random scenes. Even Grizabella’s arc barely works because she comes and goes without any rhyme or reason; it’s hard to stick with a character when a show nonsensically ceases to focus on her for such long swaths of time. Only a highly nuanced performer can pull off the role, and unfortunately Leona Lewis’s hollow performance is so bereft of character-based emotional depth that she fails to communicate the only substantial through line in the entirety of Cats. 

The boring-ass marquee…where are the eyes?!

Defenders of the through line-less, abstruse nature of the show have long cited that it simply conforms to the source material upon which it’s based: Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by the notoriously confounding T.S. Eliot. Readers have long struggled with his writing, so why should audiences of a musical inspired by his work expect anything less? The downfall of this analogy, however, is captured in its very wording: readers vs. audiences.

When someone reads T.S. Eliot, they can do so again and again and again, freely revisiting his words however many times required until they come up with a sufficient interpretation. Though musicals should never present everything that they have to offer on a silver platter to their audiences, they need to provide enough substance to engage people’s minds and keep them present while they’re sitting in the theatre. They can wrestle with lingering questions later by listening to a cast recording, but Broadway shows are too expensive for theatregoers to need to revisit them just to understand the basic story and character arcs.

And simply put, the audience isn’t given enough in Cats to make sense of the whole ordeal. At its best, the show could be a collection of entertaining vignettes interpreted as allegories for different facets of the human existence. For instance, all of the cats have such unique names because generic monikers would not have sufficiently captured each of their distinct identities, which is an interesting commentary on the false conformity forced upon humans by their unoriginal names. ‘What’s in a name’ has long been a focus of theatrical minds – hi, Arthur Miller! – and it’s a timeless subject that has so many layers to unpack.

But like every other fascinating concept that Cats touches upon, they’re simply suggested versus further explored. Instead of developing these themes and ideas from vignette to vignette to make some form of an overarching point over the course of the show’s duration that would turn it into a unified and connected whole, the creative team seemed fine simply sketching over them in the name of getting to the next pretty song-and-dance number as quickly as possible.

I guess in a way this revival of Cats did shed light on the show: it made me realize that the infamously polarized reactions the musical has always inspired may have been due to how poorly the original material balances spectacle and substance. Cats clearly wants to and easily could be more than it is, and often coming up just short is more irksome than missing the mark entirely.

What’s most frustrating is that this revival gave the original creative team – remember, most of whom also worked on this version – the perfect opportunity to respond to the criticisms that have long been lobbed at the musical, which will continue to be lobbed at this mostly carbon copy. Instead of paying them to transform audience’s perception of the show by re-thinking every aspect of the production, they’re basically depositing checks simply for remembering what they once did.

What if they had the guts to present a totally stripped down iteration of Cats, forsaking all of the mindless spectacle and instead re-focusing the proceedings on what can really communicate cogent ideas: the words of T.S. Eliot, the expressive music of Andrew Lloyd Webber, and the powerful movement of bodies in space of Andy Blankenbuehler, all lorded over by Trevor Nunn, one of the finest directors of his generation? It definitely would have been a commercial gamble, but THAT’S the Cats I want to see. And based on the widespread acclaim and sustained runs of such recent radical revivals as John Doyle’s The Color Purple and Ivo van Hove’s A View from the Bridge – both of which won last season’s Tony Awards for Best Revival of a Musical and Play, respectively, over more conventional fare such as Fiddler on the Roof (who would’ve thought a production of The Color Purple would run longer than Fiddler on the Roof?!) and Long Day’s Journey into Night – I think many others would be right there with me waiting to buy a ticket. Because as of right now, as its tagline would suggest, this revival does not provide a significantly compelling reason as to why Cats should’ve been let out of the bag again in 2016.

The most ironic aspect of the monotonous production history of Cats is that the show is actually ABOUT the revitalizing power of theatre. Think about the general concept: a bunch of cats participate in the Jellicle Ball – basically a glorified talent show – and the one that puts on the best performance gets chosen to come back to life in a new form. There’s even an entire number called “Gus the Theatre Cat,” which depicts an old star of the stage given new life by re-enacting in different ways his memories of his most glorious past performances. Though the tagline does come from the most famous verse of the most popular song in the show – “Memory” – that’s only the second of six verses, the rest of which can be summarized by this line later in the song: “I must think of a new life.”

If only the creative team had listened to their own show. Doing nothing but letting old memories live again will simply result in this revival largely being forgotten because it’s almost the exact same as every other prior production. Instead, if they had actually injected new life into this old warhorsecat, they could’ve brought new memories to life that would live as long as the old ones for years to come.

~~~OCTOBER 14, 2016 UPDATE~~~

According to this Playbill article, the Tony Awards Administration Committee has decided that this creative team will not be eligible to receive nominations for their work this year because “they were previously eligible for this work in the original 1982 production of the musical.” AKA they’re being penalized for basically doing nothing but recycling what they did in 1982. I don’t want to say I told you so…but I told you so.

Since this revival apparently isn’t selling like gangbusters, a lack of Tony nominations – and most probably wins – may actually negatively affect its financial success…and I honestly hope it does. As much as I never like to root against a show because they always employ a plethora of talented folks, this decision hurting the production’s bottom line may be one of the best ways to convince future revivals not to just mindlessly re-stage previous incarnations of the show. I commend the Tony Awards Administration Committee for making a choice that may inspire other theatre practitioners to approach their Broadway revivals with a little more artistic integrity in the coming years.

Because as Producer Roger De Bris taught us, who doesn’t dream of winning Tonys, Tonys, Tonys, Tonys, Tonys…

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