It’s a fan favorite and it’s back at the Orpheum Theater Memphis! Cats is the 4th longest running Broadway show, behind The Lion King, and is a sung musical comedy composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber. The musical opened at the Orpheum Theater on Webber’s birthday and continues to wow audiences with fun costumes, amazing dancing and acrobatics, and pretty meow music (get ready for lots of words about cats 😉
Based on the 1939 collection of poetry from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by TS Eliot, Cats tells the story of the Jellicle Tribe and the night they make the “jelly pick” in deciding which cat will ride at the Heaviside layer aka Kitty Heaven and will come back to a new life. Webber began working on the music in 1977, with the first presentation of the compositions taking place in 1980. Practical Cats, as it was known at the time, was presented as a song cycle at the Sydmonton Festival. TS Eliot’s widow, Valerie, was present and brought various unpublished poems by Eliot. Some of them were rejected from Eliot’s book because they were “too sad for children”, one of them being “Grizabella the Glamor Cat”. It was then that Webber decided to turn the songs into a full musical.
The show opened at the New London Theater in the West End in 1981 and premiered on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theater in 1982. It won numerous awards, including Best Musical at the Tony Awards in 1983. Since then, it has been translated. in 15 languages and has performed in over 30 countries. A feature film starring big names was released in 2019. Still, many people wonder what makes Cats such a popular show? My minds? The larger-than-life set and costume/makeup help bring the audience into a fantasy world, delivering them on a wacky adventure like only live theater can.
Orpheum Theater Group President and CEO Brett Batterson has his own theory about the show’s popularity.
“I think CATS entered the rarefied air of perennial entertainment hits like The Nutcracker and Disney’s The Lion King. These were shows that parents brought their kids to see. first time these young people experienced magic As these children grew up and had children of their own, these parents wanted their children to experience the same joy they had as young people in introducing them to these productions. the magic continues year after year.
Upon entering the theater, guests are treated to a canvas featuring the iconic cats logo. Everyone recognizes yellow cat eyes with a dancer inside. It is also because of this logo that the name of the show was changed. Producer Cameron Mackintosh asked advertising agency Dewynters to design a poster for the musical and a very minimalist design was presented: a pair of feline eyes with dancers as pupils. The entire creative team loved the design, but felt that the show’s title, Practical Cats, didn’t quite go with the design. Thus, the title of the show was shortened to Cats.
When the scrim is lifted, everything is in focus and the lighting looks like cat’s eyes blinking at the audience from the junkyard. The original set designers sought to create “an environment rather than a setting” and that is exactly what they did. Oversized props give the illusion that the actors on stage are the size of real cats.
Cats is truly an ensemble show, without leads. The music and choreography are done seamlessly and the ensemble works together to bring the magic to life. Behind me at this performance sat a family with two young children. They yelled the whole show to find out who their favorites were (the ‘pretty white cat’ and the ‘striped cat’ (I was confused as almost all of them had stripes but I was just glad the little ones were enjoying the live theater !)
The costumes and makeup are always to die for! John Napier, who designed both the sets AND the costumes, combined the characteristics of cats and humans in his designs based on allusions to Eliot’s poems. Although the base of the costume is pretty much the same (a leotard with furry patches and arm warmers/leg warmers to look like paws), it’s the makeup that’s used to bring out the cat’s unique personality. I think it’s these characteristics that also make the series appealing to all ages. The musical is an intense dance performance featuring many styles of music.
Cats is certainly no stranger to the Orpheum stage, having been there 18 times in the show’s history! It runs until the 27th, so don’t buy your tickets today!