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'Cats' finally uses up its ninth life

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Forever is a long time.

"Cats" didn't quite make it.

But the musical whose ads boasted "Now and forever" came closer than any Broadway show ever has.

Today the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical based on T.S. Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" closes after 18 years at New York's Winter Garden Theatre.

In 1997, "Cats" surpassed "A Chorus Line" to become the longest-running show in Broadway history. This evening's invitation-only performance will be the New York production's 7,485th. On Broadway alone, "Cats" has grossed more than $400 million and been seen by more than 10 million people.

Touring companies of "Cats" played Baltimore seven times - a record number of visits for a touring production in this city, though the show played other towns, such as Atlanta and Memphis, at least a dozen times. The fourth and final national company ended its 12 1/2 -year tour on Dec. 19, 1999, two years after setting the record as America's longest-running touring show.

But longevity isn't the only measure of the show's success. Over the years "Cats" became part of common parlance. References popped up in other Broadway shows, including John Guare's "Six Degrees of Separation," Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" and Wendy Wasserstein's "The Sisters Rosensweig," as well as on TV sitcoms. (In "Caroline in the City," the lead character's best friend was supposed to be an actress in "Cats"; the musical outlived the sitcom.)

"Cats" was not merely a joke, however. It was a trendsetter in a number of respects, paving the way for a bevy of British megamusicals (albeit of varying artistic merit), relying on music and dance to relate the plot, and allowing the action to expand off the stage and throughout the theater.

Not too shabby for a show originally regarded as a considerable risk on both sides of the Atlantic. In Britain, where "Cats" got its start, it was widely believed that America had a lock on musical theater, and especially dance-based productions. Lloyd Webber mortgaged his house to help pay for the British production.

A hit - or a miss?

After the musical was a hit in London - where it is still running - there was concern that it was too British to make it over here (regardless of Eliot's American background). "There was all kinds of gossip about the show - that it was British, that the underlying poems were British in nature, that American people had no familiarity with them and that this wouldn't work in America," the late producer Bernard Jacobs said in 1987, when "Cats" first played Baltimore.

Lloyd Webber originally envisioned the show as a small-scale concert piece. A fan of "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" since childhood, the composer, who had collaborated with lyricist Tim Rice on his three previous hit shows, was partly attracted by the challenge of setting existing poems to music.

In 1980, several of these were performed at Lloyd Webber's annual arts festival at his British country home. The performance was attended by Eliot's widow, Valerie, who presented Lloyd Webber with some of her late husband's unpublished material. Included among this was the poem "Grizabella the Glamour Cat," which had been deemed too dark to be part of the published anthology.

"The moment I saw the pieces I felt that I really did have the bare bones of a theatrical evening because one of the most thrilling things is that there was a sketch by Eliot himself for how the evening could go," Lloyd Webber told me in 1981.

That interview, more than a year before "Cats" came to this country, was my introduction to a show I would eventually see - and review - more times than most Shakespeare plays. At the end of the interview, the excited young composer played a tape recording of Barbra Streisand singing "Memory" with a full orchestra. The song became Lloyd Webber's greatest hit, recorded by everyone from Judy Collins to Liberace, and inescapable on Muzak.

Months before the musical opened on Broadway, I stood in line at the Winter Garden to buy tickets, like so many others whose curiosity was whetted by "Cats." The Broadway show was an eye-opener. It wasn't so much the music; Lloyd Webber had set Eliot's whimsical verses to a tuneful, if occasionally derivative, score. It was the way the music flowed. The thin story, about an outcast cat, Grizabella, who ascends to cat heaven and wins another life, was told almost entirely through song and choreographer Gillian Lynne's acrobatic dances.

Appealed to all

The production was ingeniously conceived by director Trevor Nunn, whom Lloyd Webber temporarily lured away from his post as head of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Essentially a catalog of cats with a loose theme about redemption and rebirth, the show transcended age and language. It was as accessible to children as it was to scads of tourists of all nationalities.

Then there was the set. In a production where no one had star billing, the set was the star. The staging devised by Nunn and designer John Napier transformed the Winter Garden into a giant junk heap in which props ranging from a wrecked car to discarded food containers were seen from a cat's perspective. The set may have been a garbage dump, but the grandiose scale and special effects ushered in an era of spectacles.

The next time I saw "Cats" was the 1984 Washington premiere. The diverse audience at the gala opening offered a good idea of the show's wide appeal. Among those in the theater that night were Sens. Eugene McCarthy and Jesse Helms, artist Jamie Wyeth, running back John Riggins and the ambassadors of Egypt, Austria and Japan. (In Japan, the musical toured in a giant tent decorated with the cat eyes that are the show's logo. The cat-eyes logo also adorned the black trucks that transported the show across America's highways. For nearly two decades, this was a cat that rarely napped.)

In Washington, the set was already beginning to shrink, a process that continued as "Cats" went from playing long, sit-down engagements in major cities to split-weeks in smaller towns. What began as an all-encompassing experience in London became slightly more concentrated on Broadway, followed by numerous more traditional proscenium mountings. Long-running shows frequently slim down as they continue to tour, and "Cats" handled this process better than most since a little wear and tear on the junk-heap set could only add to the aura. But the novelty began to wear thin, and in time some of the performers seemed more like conventional Broadway dancers than anthropomorphized cats.

Size, the new standard

Fitting as the original design may have been for "Cats," in the years that followed, theatergoers came to expect Broadway shows to be packaged as megamusicals and those expectations were fulfilled by shows like "The Phantom of the Opera," with its crashing chandelier, and "Miss Saigon," complete with a helicopter that lands on stage. It wasn't long before pyrotechnics began to overshadow such basic musical theater components as plot, score and substance.

Eighteen years later, the mega-trend has finally waned. "Miss Saigon" will be the next to shut down; the closing date is Dec. 31. Only Disney, with extravaganzas like "The Lion King" and "Beauty and the Beast," still carries the torch.

But "Cats" shouldn't be remembered merely for launching the bigger-is-better trend. It should be remembered for the risks it took. This was a show that dared to reconfigure traditional London and Broadway theaters into environmental settings; to sing and dance from start to finish, largely without dialogue; to defy the star system and emphasize ensemble acting; and, of course, to assume audiences would identify with a stage full of cats.

In short, it was a show that dared to experiment within the increasingly guarded ranks of commercial theater. That's what deserves to be celebrated as "Cats" takes its final Broadway bow.

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