Everything you need to know about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 'Cats'
Cats is one of the most famous pieces of theatre in recent history and is often credited as the world’s first megamusical. In addition to running for 21 years on the West End and 18 years on Broadway, the show has been translated into at least 19 languages and has mounted over 85 major global productions. Though feline-centric, the story has become a timeless smash hit thanks to the incredibly human stories it tells.
Wondering how Cats got its start and how it gained worldwide popularity? Learn more about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats below.
What is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats about?
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats is based on T. S. Eliot’s book of poems Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. The sung-through musical is inspired by the structure of the book and unfolds as a series of vignettes.
Cats is centered around the Jellicle Cats, a group of highly individual junkyard felines. The show takes place the night the Jellicle Cats must make the Jellicle Choice and decide who among them is the worthiest to ascend into the Heaviside Layer. Each cat must present their own story to their fellow Jellicle Cats and their leader, Old Deuteronomy, to plead their case.
As each cat tells their story through song and dance, the already difficult decision becomes nearly impossible. And as the world of the Jellicle Cats unfurls before the audience, characters and conflicts are revealed that may prevent a Jellicle Choice from being made at all. Who is the most deserving, and will they ever make it to the Heaviside Layer?
When did Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats Premiere?
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats premiered on 11 May, 1981 at the New London Theatre. Before opening night, the show saw several variations before becoming the smash-hit musical that we know today. The earliest drafts of the musical were written with the sole intention of strengthening Webber’s skills as a composer. Using one of his favorite books from childhood, T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, Webber wrote the music as a challenge to craft original melodies for previously penned poems.
These songs evolved from an exercise into a song cycle called Practical Cats. Webber and producer Cameron Mackintosh premiered this work at the Sydmonton Festival in 1980 to glowing reviews. Among the audience members was T. S. Eliot’s wife and literary executor, Valerie, who brought several of her late husband’s unpublished cat poems to the performance to share with Webber. Among them was Grizabella the Glamour Cat, whose heartbreaking story inspired Webber to convert Practical Cats from a collection of songs into a full-scale musical.
With the Royal Shakespeare Company’s reigning artistic director Trevor Nunn at the helm, Practical Cats adopted a shorter title and transformed from 15 poems set to music into the musical we know today. Cats began previews on 30 April, 1981 and, after a delayed opening night, opened on 11 May, 1981 at the New London Theatre.
Characters in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats
The plot of Cats is derived from getting to know each of the unique cats on stage. Though they are feline, all the characters grapple with human emotions and conflicts. Find out more about some of the most prominent characters below.
- Old Deuteronomy: The well-loved and powerful leader of the Jellicle Cats.
- Munkustrap: The show’s central narrator and Old Deuteronomy’s right-hand-cat.
- Grizabella, The Glamour Cat: A once-glamorous cat who has fallen from esteem and now longs for the acceptance of the other Jellicle Cats.
- Macavity, The Mystery Cat: A notorious feline criminal who strikes fear in the hearts of the other Jellicle Cats.
- The Magical Mr. Mistofelees: A magician tomcat known for his “conjuring turn” — choreographed in most major productions as 24 uninterrupted fouette turns.
- Mungojerrie and Rumpleteaser: a mischievous duo of cat burglars.
- Rum Tum Tugger: A self-obsessed Jellicle Cat who loves to be the center of attention.
Other characters in Cats include Victoria, Jennyanydots, Gus, Bombalurina, Bustopher Jones, Skimbleshanks, and Demeter.
Songs in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats
As a sung-through show, Cats has an extensive score. The soundtrack is filled with fantastical solos and ensemble dance numbers, as well as the UK 1981 chart topper “Memory” made famous by Elaine Paige. Sung by Grizabella to address the other Jellicle Cats, “Memory” serves as the show’s emotional climax.
"Overture" – Orchestra
"Prologue: Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats" – The Company
"The Naming of Cats" – The Company
"The Invitation to the Jellicle Ball" – Victoria, Munkustrap, Company
"The Old Gumbie Cat" – Jennyanydots, Munkustrap, Bombalurina, Jellylorum, Demeter, Company
"The Rum Tum Tugger" – Rum Tum Tugger, Bombalurina and Company
"Grizabella: The Glamour Cat" – Grizabella, Demeter, Bombalurina, Company
"Bustopher Jones: The Cat About Town" – Bustopher, Jennyanydots, Bombalurina, Jellylorum, Company
"Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer" – Mungojerrie, Rumpleteazer, Company
"Old Deuteronomy" – Munkustrap, Rum Tum Tugger, Old Deuteronomy, Company
"The Awefull Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles" – Munkustrap, Rumpus Cat and Company
"The Jellicle Ball" – The Company
"Grizabella: The Glamour Cat" (reprise) – Jellylorum and Sillabub
"Memory (Prelude)" – Grizabella
"The Moments of Happiness" – Old Deuteronomy, Sillabub, Company
"Gus: The Theatre Cat" – Asparagus, Jellylorum
"Growltiger's Last Stand" (including "The Ballad of Billy M'Caw") – Growltiger, Griddlebone, Genghis, Company
"Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat" – Skimbleshanks and Company
"Macavity: The Mystery Cat" – Demeter, Bombalurina, and Company
"Mr. Mistoffelees" – Mr. Mistoffelees, Rum Tum Tugger, and Company
"Memory" – Grizabella, Sillabub
"The Journey to the Heaviside Layer" – The Company
"The Ad-Dressing of Cats" – Old Deuteronomy and Company
What awards has Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats won?
At its premiere, Cats was unlike any musical that had come before. As such, the show was met with a wide range of reviews. While many praised its creative staging, effective choreography, and heartwarming story, some thought it to be an overwhelming show of spectacle.
Standing box office records and awards are a testament to how much audiences love the show, even after 40 years. In 1981, reviewer Robert Cushman of The Observer wrote, “Cats isn't perfect. Don't miss it."
- Best New Musical (1981)
- Outstanding Achievement in a Musical - Choreography by Dame Gillian Lynne (1981)
- Best Musical (1983)
- Best Book of a Musical - T. S. Eliot (1983)
- Best Original Score - Andrew Lloyd Webber and T. S. Eliot (1983)
- Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical - Betty Buckley as Grizabella (1983)
- Best Direction of a Musical - Trevor Nunn (1983)
- Best Costume Design - John Napier (1983)
- Best Lighting Design - David Hersey (1983)
- Best Cast Show Album - Original Broadway Cast Recording (1984)
Major productions of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats has been performed in 19 languages in over countries. It is the fourth-longest running West End musical, with 8,949 performances. It is also the fourth-longest running show in Broadway history with 15 previews and 7,485 performances. It is estimated that Cats has played to over one billion global audience members since its 1981 premiere.
The most prominent productions are listed below.
- Original West End Production: The Original West End production in 1981 was the first full-scale performance of the musical we know today. It was directed by Trevor Nunn, designed by John Napier, and choreographed by Dame Gillian Lynne. It is one of the longest running shows in West End history, and took home two Olivier awards.
- Original Broadway Production: Cats debuted on Broadway on 7 October, 1982 at the Winter Garden Theatre. At the conclusion of its 18 year run, this single production had created more theatrical jobs than any other production in history. It also is one of the longest running musicals in Broadway history.
- 2016 Broadway Revival: Opening at the Neil Simon Theatre on 31 July, 2016, the production reunited original director and designer Trevor Nunn and John Napier. It also featured the choreography of Andy Blankenbeuhler (the original choreographer of Bring It On: The Musical and the global hit Hamilton).
- Hamburg: The 15-year run, opening in 1986, is often cited as the catalyst for Germany’s shift away from repertory-based theatre and towards more commercial productions.
- Japan: A brand new theatre was built to house this production in Tokyo, which debuted in 1983 and caused a “musical boom” across Japan. As of 2019, this production has played over 10,000 performances.
Celebrities who have performed in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats
Cats, as a true showcase for triple-threat performers, has featured quite a few star-studded casts since its inception.
- Dame Judi Dench - Though she famously tore her Achilles tendon during rehearsals for the original West End production and was unable to perform as Grizabella, Dench took over the traditionally male role of Old Deuteronomy in the 2019 film.
- Elaine Paige - After originating the role of Grizabella on the West End, Paige’s recording of “Memory” topped UK charts in 1981.
- Taylor Swift - Swift played the saucy Bombalurina and wrote an original song with Andrew Lloyd Webber for the 2019 film.
- Idris Elba - Elba tapped into his evil side to play the fearsome Macavity in the 2019 film.
- Betty Buckley - Buckley won a Tony Award for her performance as Grizabella in the Original Broadway Cast.
- James Corden - Corden, adding another musical-movie adaptation to his resume, donned a CGI tophat as the 2019 film’s Bustopher Jones.
- Ian McKellen - Calling on his own background on stage, Ian McKellan joined Tom Hooper’s 2019 film as Gus the Theater Cat.
- Leona Lewis - Following the many famous actresses who had played the role before, Lewis had some very large paws to fill as Grizabella in the 2016 Broadway Revival.
- Rebel Wilson - the 2019 film featured Wilson’s impeccable comedic styling as Jennyanydots.
- Jennifer Hudson - Speaking to her time on set as the 2019 film, Hudson says of her character Grizabella, “You wonder for her, you want to know her story—you feel for her.”
- Robbie Fairchild - Fairchild, a true triple-threat, showed his chops in the 2019 film as Munkustrap
Onscreen adaptations of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats
There are two dramatically different film adaptations of Cats. Both were released in English and had tremendously talented casts.
The original screen adaptation was a filmed version of the stage production. It was released directly to video in 1998. Although the creative team of the film made significant cuts for time the film featured stars from notable stage productions, such as Elaine Paige.
The 2019 film was directed by Tom Hooper and was received with mixed reviews. The computer generated graphics used to turn stars like Sir Ian McKellen and Taylor Swift into their feline characters looked so life-like, some audience members found the visuals of the film eerie and disturbing.
There was rumoured to be an animated film in development during the mid-1990’s with Stephen Spielberg producing; the project was scrapped when the animation studio closed.
Fun facts about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats
- In the original costume design by John Napier, each actor’s unitard was hand painted with patterns that corresponded directly to their character. Due to the show’s dancing, most costumes experienced heavy wear-and-tear and had to be rebuilt every few months.
- The creative team decided to shorten the production’s name from Practical Cats to Cats after they saw the iconic poster for the first time. They decided the minimalist poster called for a simpler name.
- Marlene Danielle of the original Broadway cast performed in the show for its entire 18-year run.
- The original West End production closed on its 21st anniversary and the final performance was broadcast live for the public in Covent Garden.
- There are 16 different cast album recordings.
- The concept of the Heaviside Layer was added to the musical based on a fragment of unpublished T. S. Eliot poetry. In physics, the Heaviside Layer is a part of Earth’s upper atmosphere that has the ability to reflect radio waves, lending itself to the concept of new life and reincarnation prevalent throughout the show.