Monday, June 29, 2020

CATS 2019

T.S. Eliot: “The great thing about cats is that they possess two qualities
to an extreme degree—dignity and comicality.”
Director Tom Hooper: "Hold my beer."

Cats was the first Broadway musical I ever saw. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s insanely popular Jellicles-in-a-Junkyard musical was crafted from T.S. Eliot’s 1939 collection of pussy-centric poems: Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, and premiered in London’s West End in 1981. It opened on Broadway 17 months later in October of 1982. The Hamilton of its day, tickets for Cats were extremely hard to come by, but I managed to get one for the matinee performance on the afternoon of January 26, 1983, during what was my very first visit to New York. It was a long-saved-for, whirlwind dancer’s holiday of taking classes (given by Anne Reinking!), seeing shows (Little Shop of Horrors, Extremities, Agnes of God, and ill-fated Doug Henning musical Merlin), and being utterly thrilled that the city still looked the way it did in All That Jazz (1979), Fame (1980), and The Fan (1981). 
The Man Who Loved Cat-Dancing
25-year-old me in the throes of serious Cat-mania

I’d been studying dance for a little over two years at this point, ever since Xanadu’s muse-kiss inspired me to drop out of film school and take up classes at L.A.’s Dupree Dance Academy. The earliest time I remember hearing about Cats was when the studio’s owner, having just returned from seeing the London production, enthusiastically spread the word around the studio that Cats was the ultimate dancer’s musical. Declaring it less a voice or acting show and more a two-hour-and-20-minute dance concert, he proclaimed it a must-see experience for anyone seriously studying dance. To my ears, his speech stopped just short of making it mandatory for students interested in staying on at the Academy to make the pilgrimage to New York to see it when it finally opened. 
By description, Cats’ plotless structure sounded a lot to me like a "kitties on a picket fence" version of A Chorus Line: characters introduce themselves to the audience in song; compete against one another towards the attainment of a prized goal; the show concluding with the character who has fallen furthest from grace being given an 11th-hour shot at redemption.

But unlike A Chorus Line’s minimalist stage production, Cats promised uncommon spectacle and an immersive experience born of a $2-million near-gutting of Broadway’s Winter Garden Theater to create an oversized junkyard that spilled from the proscenium-free stage and overtook every square foot of auditorium space up to the balcony.
Cathouse Wednesday
Taken just before attending the 2pm Matinee performance of Cats

Thinking back to seeing Cats on Broadway—then just four months into what would become a record-breaking 18-year-run at the same theater—it’s nearly impossible to separate my thoughts on the show itself from the collective memories of my first visit to New York. But, putting as objective and impartial a face on it as I can, I have to say…Cats was fan-fucking-tastic!
An astounding, never-seen-anything-like-it, sung-through dance concert of captivating beauty and playful, witty charm. (The troweled-on Heaviside layer of mysticism and absurdly misguided self-seriousness was something Cats only acquired later in its legacy run. A byproduct of winning seven Tony Awards and evolving into a “Now & Forever” merchandising industry.)
Between the show’s soaring orchestrations and that breathtaking oversized set, I must have spent the entire evening with my mouth agape and my eyes as big as New York bagels. Goosebump sensations attended every then-unanticipated twist and turn of theatrical magic; my orchestra aisle seat even affording the once-in-a-lifetime experience of nearly being smacked in the face by the Jellicle balls of a frolicsome feline as he climbed over my chair.
Cats came along at a time when--thanks to MTV, aerobics, and TV shows like Fame and Solid Gold, dance was making a post-disco, pop-culture comeback. One of the reasons Cats didn't look nearly as bizarre to me in 1983 as it so clearly was, is because the design of the 'cats' in the show captured the emerging look of '80s concert rock. Enormous, mane-like hairdos, spandex, legwarmers, exaggerated makeup; all were staples of music acts of the day. Indeed, Cats was often criticized for being little more than a stage-bound MTV music video.


My effusive enthusiasm for Cats survived the ‘80s, but began to wane in the new decade, a victim of over immersion (I played my London & Broadway cast Cats albums to death); oversaturation (“Memory” overload…you couldn’t escape that song); and diminished novelty (Thundercats, Zoobilee Zoo, and kids face-painting parties really helped drive that whole anthropomorphic cat thing into the ground). By the time a neutered version of Cats was preserved on video in 1998, I just couldn’t bear to look at another dancer in mime-mode, cupping their hands into paws and whimsically brushing at their invisible whiskers.

Jump ahead to Christmas, 2019. All of Los Angles is covered, from bus shelter to highrise, with signs and billboards heralding the release of “The Most Joyous Event of the Holiday” and “The must-see film event of the year” – a $100 million, all-star, big-screen version of Cats. Had the time finally arrived where I was ready to give Cats another try in a different medium? Could an obscenely expensive movie version restore me, like a male Grizabella, to the Cats-fancier I once was?
Dame Judi Dench as Old Deuteronomy
Idris Elba as Macavity the Mystery Cat
Taylor Swift as Bombalurina
Sir Ian McKellen as Gus the Theater Cat

"CATS - 2019"  or  "Jellicle rhymes with Hellicle"
On stage, Cats didn’t really require a plot. It was essentially a cat-sized British Music Hall variety revue featuring a tribe of felines deigning to grant us humans a song-and-dance tour of their secret, nocturnal world. In fact, I’m convinced that a large part of Cats’ phenomenal success is owed to it being one of those shows that can be enjoyed with little or no attention paid to what is happening. All spectacle, song, and movement, folks the world over were able to bring their parents and grandparents to Cats, let them doze off occasionally, and no one had to worry about that pesky business of losing the narrative thread. It may have challenged your sense of reason, but at no time did Cats place any demands on your concentration.
Cats' plot-free structure recalls that other story-free musical about a tribe (of hippies), the 1968 Broadway phenomenon HAIR; so much so that Webber's show could easily have been subtitled HAIR-ball.  (OK, I’m sorry about that.)
But I bring it up because the1978 film adaptation of Hair solved its plotless problem by inventing a naïve outsider character to serve as the audience surrogate (John Savage), and have him fall in with a tribe of New York hippies whose lives we learn about through song. Cats: The Movie borrows the same device. 
Set in London in the 1930s, Cats: The Movie (which I'll be calling it hereon out) has an abandoned housecat named Victoria taken in by a tribe of alley cats calling themselves Jellicles. She arrives on a special night, the night of the Jellicle Ball. An event in which cats dance and compete (in the vaguest ways imaginable) for a chance to ascend to the Heaviside Layer where they’ll be reborn into a new life (we never really find out what the Heaviside Layer is, but I'll lay bets it's something like the "Carousel" in Logan’s Run).
Francesca Hayward as Victoria
Her role as the tribe newbie in Cats serves the same 'stranger in a strange land' narrative purpose
as John Savage's transplanted Oklahoman Claude Hooper Bukowski in the film version of HAIR

Milos Forman was successful in adapting the film version of Hair in a manner both cinematic and true to the spirit of a show many had thought too dated for contemporary relevance. Alas, in bringing Cats to the screen, director Tom Hooper (Les Misérables) stumbles right out of the gate. I’m not aware of how many viable options exist for bringing Cats to the big screen (cartoon animation, stop-motion), but surely at the bottom of such a brief list had to be the idea of making it look like a musical version of The Island of Dr. Moreau crossed with the world’s most expensive PornHub “furries” video.
Some ideas present audiences with such a hefty obstacle to overcome—like saddling The Wiz (1978) with a 33-year-old Dorothy, or casting Mame (1974) with a leading lady who can neither sing nor dance—that no matter how successful other aspects of a production may be, the film never recovers. Such is the case with the decision to make Cats: The Movie with live actors transformed by the “magic” of DFT: digital fur technology.
Robert Fairchild as Munkustrap
Laurie Davidson as Magical Mr. Mistoffeles
I'm not sure anything could prepare me for the kind of keenly-detailed, hyper-realistic anthropomorphic abominations dreamed up by the digital mad scientists behind Cats: The Movie-- furred creatures with too-tiny heads (a result of having their ears moved to the top of their skulls), human hands and feet, and cat faces with lips and human teeth. But this weird conceit might have worked had the film confined its perspective solely to the cats and their cat world and never showed us a human being. Of course, the very first thing Cats: The Movie does IS show us the hands, legs, and feet of a human being (the woman seen tossing the sack-bound Victoria into the junk heap) leaving us to thereafter ponder a world in which cats and their owners share the very same physical characteristics. The mind blows a fuse.
The appearance of the cats is so disturbing, I don't think I heard a single word of the film's first number "Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats"; my mind was turning somersaults trying to make sense of all that was being thrown at me. It was like watching the ending of Hereditary while listening to Andrew Lloyd Webber music on headphones.
A fantasy full of hellscape imagery, Cats: The Movie is one of the ugliest films I've ever seen.
And I've seen a naked, tattooed Rod Steiger in The Illustrated Man
Despite my history with Cats, I didn’t come to the film as some kind of purist hoping for a to-the-letter replication of the stage production. Indeed, after having seen the trailer, my expectations for Cats: The Movie were exceedingly low. But I reasoned that surely, given  ALL that money spent and ALL that high-caliber talent assembled, at the very least I would come away with a memory of the music (which I’ve always liked), the dancing (which is plentiful in the film, when the merry-go-round on crack camerawork and ADD editing allow you to actually see it), and a “goosebump moment” or two. 
Well, despite my best efforts to suspend disbelief and allow myself to surrender to Tom Hooper’s vision; two significant elements sabotaged me at every turn: 1) the grossly unappealing, hard-to-look-at digital design of the cats themselves, and  2) the lazy inattention to a consistent size-scale for the cats. In one scene those Jellicles are as tall as doorknobs, the next, scarcely larger than a stemware glass.
Jason Derulo as Rum Tum Tugger
I don’t play video games and I rarely watch superhero films, so the CGI-heavy look of Cats: The Movie—which, in the wide-angle dance sequences create a Colorforms® effect that makes the cats look as though they’re hovering above and in front of their surroundings—never really set right with me. The close-ups are even worse, for the film's digital cat technology is never more blood-curdling than when it's doing its job well. I found myself averting my eyes at the sight of a whiskered Sir Ian McKellen lapping milk out of a saucer, and, mood-killer though it be, I had to watch Grizabella's big number--beautifully sung, by the way---through the fingers covering my eyes...seriously, who the hell thought it was a good idea to have snot cascading like Niagara out of Jennifer Hudson’s human-nose-on-a-cat’s-face throughout her entire frigging song?
Jennifer Hudson as Grizabella the Glamour Cat
Cats are said to have 3 names. If she were my cat, I'd name her Mavis McMucus

Ultimately, watching the film became something of a spine-tingler; every time I found myself relaxing, something would come along to gross me out (James Corden coughing up a furball, for example) or make me curse whatever drugs these people were on to even conceive of such lunacy.
One has to dig up a copy of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, especially one containing the illustrations of Edward Gorey or Nicolas Bentley, to get a sense of the charming wit and self-aware silliness of Eliot’s original cat poems written for his godchildren. You see fleeting glimpses of it in the corners of Cats: The Movie—for example, during “The Ad-dressing of Cats” (which Judi Dench knocks out of the park) there’s a lovely moment after Deuteronomy declares “A cat is not a dog!” and the cats surrounding her exchange glances like children lovingly humoring an elder parent who might be losing it. But those few and far-between hints of playfulness are largely obscured by eyesore production values and a ponderous solemnity that feels tonally at odds with the movie’s in-your-face bizarreness. 
Rumpleteazer (Naoimh Morgan) & Mungojerrie (Danny Collins)
Prepare to be discomfited if you find yourself thinking one of the cats looks hot.
Mungojerrie's got bod.

But I really shouldn’t complain about the film's self-serious tone when Cats: The Movie’s idea of silly fun are those twin atrocities: Jennyanydots and Bustopher Jones. As written, both characters are delightful (Jennyanydots perhaps less so because she's clearly cracked), but as cast, they are simply ghastly. The thunderingly unfunny Rebel Wilson gives us endless pratfalls, David Cronenberg-levels of body horror (her skin comes off!), and Kafkaesque mice and cockroaches with human faces (the latter we get to see her devour moments after they’ve been introduced to us). If it sounds hellish, trust me, it's nothing compared to the visual experience.
With barely time to catch one’s breath, we’re confronted with the equally dire James Corden in an eye-assault number loaded with more pratfalls, spitting, and hits to the groin. All in support of the comic premise that the mere sight of an overweight cat eating is inherently hilarious. Both numbers are such irredeemably crass clusterfucks, they make John Waters movies look like Pixar productions. 
Rebel Wilson as Jennyanydots
James Corden as Bustopher Jones

Grizabella's story arc, which represents Cats' underlying message (bet you're surprised to know there is one!): that everybody just wants to be accepted for who they are, each of us is unique and we should celebrate our differences, all while recognizing our shared humanity (or, unashamed felinity) and common dignity—is emphasized further in Cats: The Movie by the invention of Victoria and her forgettable Oscar-bait new song. It's a nice message for what is essentially a story for children. Even I (after subjecting myself to Cats: The Movie a second time to write this essay) felt my pugnaciously set jaw unclench when the unceasingly overwrought Grizabella finally smiles, and when Victoria finds her new family. 
And another theater and dance major finds her new gay bestie.
From the start, I just took it for granted that Mr. Mistoffeles was a sensitive gay cat, and everybody applauding the mastery of his magical powers at the end was a metaphor for his coming out of the closet. The film, however, kept thrusting the implausible pairing of Victoria and Mistoffeles at us, when all I wanted was for her to end up with the hunkier Munkustrap 

So that I might end things on an upbeat note here, let me just say that there were a few things about Cats: The Movie that I liked, very much indeed.
I'm a verified cornball, so I found it a thrill to hear Andrew Lloyd’s Webber’s gorgeous score again after so many years, doubly thrilling to find I still knew all the words. Despite their familiarity, certain songs and musical passages  (especially during the Jellicle Ball, when Hooper could be trusted to let the music take over and not break the rhythm with cutaways) sustained their ability to move me and give me waterworks (calling to mind the line from Noel Coward’s Private Lives: “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is”).
The dancing in the Jellicle Ball sequence is superb and marvelously staged; Jason Derulo, though ill-served by that terrible song, makes for a welcome, James Brownish Rum Tum Tugger; and Taylor Swift has fun playing Nancy to Idris Elba's Bill Sykes. But the one number to give me that much sought-after "goosebump moment" was "Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat." It’s terrific. And for once music, the dancing, and CGI all come together to create a moment of only-possible-in-the-movies magic.
It has always been my favorite song from the show anyway, its earworm rhymes and peppy rhythms reminding me of a children's chant, but for my taste, it’s the only musical sequence to strike a tone of playfulness and fantasy that is thoroughly exhilarating. Helping out in no small part is the fact that it's a tap number, so a measurable element of weight factors into it (the magic of dance has always been the dancer's triumph over gravity. The overuse of special effects and CGI in movies always places dancers in a zero-gravity limbo rendering it unimpressive). 
Steven McRae as Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat
Secondly, it helps to an immeasurable degree that Skimble has pants on. Outfitted with tap shoes, suspender britches, and conductor’s whistle; when his cap is on, The Railway Cat looks less like an anthropomorphic nightmare and more like a shirtless, abundantly hirsute ginger fellow with a handlebar mustache, tattoo sleeves...and a tail.

The1962 Judy Garland-Robert Goulet animated musical Gay Purr-ee
So while I didn’t enjoy Cats: The Musical very much and think the show would have been better served as an animated feature, as both a movie fan and musical theater geek, I also hold the opinion that a lousy screen adaptation of a Broadway musical is still better than no screen adaptation at all. And as was my experience with the much-pilloried 1977 movie version of A Little Night Music, maybe folks who’ve never seen Cats onstage will feel differently about the film than I did.

I don't know if Tom Hooper made the Must-See Film Event of the Year, but I'll tell you this, Tom Hooper’s Cats turned out to be precisely the movie 2020 deserves.
A suitably repurposed ad for the 1969 thriller Eye of the Cat

BONUS MATERIAL
If you're like me, after seeing Cats: The Movie you'll be ready to kill the first person who ever dares utter the word "Jellicle" in your presence. But for the record, according to Andrew Lloyd Webber, Jellicle cat is "dear little cat" (as Pollicle Dog is "poor little dog") as misheard by T.S. Eliot when he was a child.
On Friday, May 15, 2020, Andrew Lloyd Webber provided a livestream commentary for the YouTube airing of the 1998 straight-to-video production of Cats featuring the British touring company. Benefitting The Actors Fund and dedicated to the recent death of his cat Mika, the commentary was notable to me for: the constant (hilarious) digs and potshots Webber made at Tom Hooper's film; getting choked-up watching the finale number; and the brief visit by Oddy (pictured), another member of Webber's cat family.
 Tom Hooper can take solace in the fact that finding the proper scale for
humanoid cats has always been a problem. In this 1986 anti-smoking PSA
Andrew Lloyd Webber's felines are as small as mice.

I Tawt I Taw a Putty Tat!
Cats is bookended by the image of a cat's face (winking at the film's start)

peeking out through the clouds over London

Copyright © Ken Anderson 2009 - 2020