To quote T.S. Eliot: "Do I see with my eyes a man who's never seen a jellicle cat?" In New York, around the country, and in many foreign capitals, the answer is No! Because Broadway's longest-running musical and one of its premier tourist attractions opened to mixed reviews on October 7, 1982, its slogan, "Now and Forever," seemed a bit presumptuous. But thanks to massive publicity and strong word-of-mouth, Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical, based on T.S. Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats,"has exceeded its mythical nine lives. With the September 28 matinee, Cats plays its 5,000th performance. It'll be a joyous occasion as Lloyd Webber has as his guests 1,000 children representing five New York charities. Sir Andrew (since knighted by the Queen of England) will present each with catnap sacks of goodies. The following week, Lloyd Webber's blockbuster hit will celebrate its 12th birthday and begin its 13th year --becoming the third longest-running musical in Broadway history. Not bad for a show that could have put the composer/producer into hock.

Lloyd Webber was a fan of Eliot's poems since childhood and had dreamed of putting them on the musical stage. After mega-successes with Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita (Joseph had been performed but hadn't become a major hit yet), he wrote several songs. When Valerie Eliot, widow of the poet, heard them, she reported that Eliot often sang while writing his poems. "Eliot's rhyming is instinctively that of a lyricist," said Sir Andrew. "There's one verse I'd swear he wrote to a piece of popular 1930's classical music."

Lloyd Webber found the odds very much against him. "In fact," he said, "of all my shows, Cats was the hardest to capitalize. It was the first time my Really Useful company was involved in producing, and we couldn't raise the money for the London production." Many reasons were given. He was working with a deceased poet; his director, Trevor Nunn, was expert at Shakespeare but untried with musicals, etc. "I knew I was attempting something that had never been attempted before." He believed in the project so strongly, he mortgaged his home.

Looking back, Lloyd Webber has no regrets but is thankful his gamble became a success. It had a lot of inspiration. The Cats set is part of theatrical lore. Designer John Napier came up with the idea while driving past an abandoned lot late one night. "I saw car bodies, tires, tin cans, all sorts of rubbish," he recalled. "I wondered what it would look like from a cat's eye." Napier built over 2,000 oversized props, including a dismantled billboard, a rusting auto hulk, and tire. He surrounded these with larger than life objects: a bicycle, broken dishes and phonograph records, toothpaste tubes, and posters. What was envisioned as a children's entertainment evolved into much more, with Mrs. Eliot's contribution of unpublished material about Grizabella, Cats' most famous or infamous feline. Her husband had edited it out of the poems for fear the cat's social afflictions might scare children. Nunn, needing a show stopper, shaped the material in the song "Memory," one of the most performed melodies in musicdom.

Cats opened to a huge box office and went on to win seven 1983 Tony Awards, including Best Musical. The original cast album, one of the best-selling in theater history, is on Geffen.

Trivia: Don't get the wrong idea if you delve into the bin outside the Winter Garden. Cats, the first Broadway show to experiment with condoms (for technical use), has disposed of over 40,000 -- they're used to protect body microphone receivers from perspiration. Maintenance crews have scraped in excess of 170 pounds of gum from seats and flooring. With its significant 5,000th performance, the giant boot has fallen into the junkyard at the top of Act One 5,000 times.

It doesn't appear Sir Andrew is in danger of losing his estates or Sunset Boulevard: Cats' world-wide gross (more than 15 productions) is in excess of $2 billion (the estimated Broadway gross is more than $250 million). The huge tire to the Heaviside Layer has traveled over 95 miles.

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Key Subjects: 
Cats, T.S. Eliot
Writer: 
Ellis Nassour
Writer Bio: 
Ellis Nassour contributes entertainment features here and abroad. He is the author of "Rock Opera: the Creation of Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline," and an associate editor and a contributing writer (film, music, theater) to Oxford University Press' American National Biography (1999).
Date: 
1995
Subtitle: 
Now And Forever Takes On New Meaning