The star-studded line-up of the highly-anticipated Cats movie is becoming shinier by the day. Within the past couple of weeks alone, it has been announced that Judi Dench and Idris Elba will join the previously slated Taylor Swift, Jennifer Hudson, James Corden and Ian McKellen in this adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic musical, which sets TS Elliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats to a pop-rock score. Movie musicals are all the rage at the moment, with Mamma Mia 2 and A Star is Born excelling at the box office in 2018 alone. It seems as if adapting a popular stage show is a sure-fire success. However, the decision to adapt Cats seems altogether baffling, as musical theatre has changed drastically since its premiere and fans are no longer interested in actors dressed as cats rolling around and uttering nonsense words.
fans are no longer interested in actors dressed as cats rolling around and uttering nonsense words
When Cats opened in London’s West End in 1981, it was ground-breaking with contemporary dancers dressed in skin-tight cat-suits. It was a far-cry from what had come before. With dance at its core, the show is visually stunning and, as a result, the original production of Cats ran for 21 years. The main issue which many contemporary theatre fans take with Cats, however, is that it has no discernible plot. Based on an anthology of poems, it would make more sense as a song cycle, rather than a full-blown musical and yet, a sort of vague storyline has been crowbarred in rendering the musical a laughing-stock (in some regards). The basic storyline of Cats is as follows: every year, all cats attend a party known as ‘The Jellicle Ball’ and over the course of the evening, each cat presents his or herself as a candidate to ascend to the ‘Heaviside Layer’, which is presumably the greatest honour bestowed on a member of cat society. Eventually, after a completely unobtrusive kidnapping, the leader of the cats, ‘Old Deuteronomy’, chooses ‘Grizabella’, a jaded glamour-cat, who then effectively dies. It’s weird, confusing, and sort of irrelevant.
In addition to the absence of coherent story, Cats is entirely sung-through, and has no dialogue whatsoever. When adapting musicals for film, this often poses considerable issues, as a sung-through stage show, broken by an interval, is a very different medium to a two and a half hour movie. The 2012 adaptation of the sung-through juggernaut Les Misérables is strong in many regards, but the scene changes often feel clunky and unnatural, as there is a complete change of setting that just would not be possible onstage. In contrast to this, the 2005 film adaptation of Rent swapped some of the shorter, more conversational songs for dialogue, and as a result feels much more natural on the big-screen. When it comes to Cats, and its lack of plot, there is no space for dialogue, which does not bode well for drawing in an audience of new musical fans.
there is no space for dialogue, which does not bode well for drawing in an audience of new musical fans
It cannot be denied that Cats had an immense following, both in London and New York, but in the years since its closure, the musical theatre landscape has altered drastically. Vibrant dancing and flawless vocal performances are no longer sufficient to satisfy the increasingly youthful fans. Instead, new musicals such as Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen, and the new British craze Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, feature characters which are intrinsically relatable, and allow audiences to form some sort of emotional connection with their plots. Maybe there was a time when people were able to connect to the Jellicle Cats on a spiritual level, but it seems as if that time has long-since passed. In testament to this, the 2016 Broadway revival, which attempted to update some of the characters and songs to better appeal to a modern audience, closed after just six months.
Movie musicals are celebrated by both existing theatre fans, and relative newcomers, and yet the decision to adapt Cats is bizarre. It will no doubt succeed at the box office, and it will be interesting to see how the cats are brought to life on screen, but for the most part this adaptation has come far too late.