Still the Cat's Meow

THE BALTIMORE SUN

America's only national tour of the hugely successful musical Cats - the 25th-anniversary edition - lands on its feet at the Hippodrome Theatre tonight for a run of eight performances. Though The Phantom of the Opera (also by composer Andrew Lloyd Webber) broke its record just last night to become the longest-running production in Broadway history, there's no denying the lion-sized paw prints Cats has left on the cultural landscape.

The story of a group of felines who congregate in a junkyard to choose one cat to be born again, Cats was unique, among other things, for its gigantic props, its use of song and dance in every scene, its less-than-labyrinthine plot, its expansion of the play into the aisles and its status as progenitor of such "megamusicals" as Les Miserables, Miss Saigon and The Lion King.

In case the scope and variety of the Cats phenomenon has somehow escaped your notice over the past quarter-century, here are a few tidbits to get your tail twitching.

Mathematical 'Cats'

7: Tony Awards Cats won after its first season on Broadway

50 million: Estimated number of people who have seen Cats worldwide

8: Times a national touring show of Cats has come to Baltimore

3.1 billion: Dollars Cats meant to the economy of New York City during its 18-year run

Quotable 'Cats'

"One of the most imaginative and eye-pleasing musicals of the century ... a mixture of delights and glitz ... Cats approaches purr-fection!"

-Los Angeles Times

"A lot of people thought it wouldn't be successful in America, [but] it turned out to be the single best investment in the history of Broadway theater."

- David Geffen, one of the original Broadway producers

"A joke about Cats is the equivalent now to a mother-in-law joke or a joke about chopped liver."

- Paul Rudnick, playwright

Still the cat's meow

We asked Sun readers for their memories of Cats. Here is a sampling of their responses:

It was 1981. Prior to visiting my sister in England, she sent me a clipping about a new show coming up: What did I think about a musical based on our favorite T.S. Eliot poems? It sounded strange, but Judi Dench was to be Grizabella (she was replaced by Elaine Paige) and the tickets were only 5 pounds each. "Go for it," I said, "it can't be that bad." And of course it was fantastic. I still have the program; the credits include "Bouncer, the theatre cat, is fed exclusively on Whiskas Supermeat."

Felicity Pocock, Baltimore

We fell in love with the music of Cats very early in the run. I recall taking our two children, Justin and Britt, to school and playing the cassette of the Broadway cast in the car on the way. By the time we took them to the Winter Garden Theatre in New York to see a performance, they had memorized the show. At intermission, it was a thrill to meet the cat "Deuteronomy," who remained on stage to meet theatergoers.

Then - who knew? Later, our daughter Britt would once again be on the stage of the Winter Garden, performing in her first Broadway show, Mamma Mia, directly from her senior year at NYU (she's now understudy for the lead role of Sophie). Who knows? Maybe Mamma Mia will surpass both Cats and Phantom of the Opera to be the longest-running show on Broadway.

Charles Shubow, Owings Mills

I moved from suburban Connecticut to Manhattan as a newlywed in 1983. My husband and I talked about going to a performance but, even then, a Broadway performance was pricey. We celebrated our first anniversary in a downtown restaurant and walked through the theater district. As we neared the Winter Garden Theater ... my husband whipped two tickets out of his pocket as an anniversary surprise. It was magical. We saw another performance years later when we lived in Honolulu, but it wasn't the same. Neither was the marriage. That's long over, but the wonderful memory of that night and that performance remains.

Donna Dudley, Harwood

Both of my parents are huge into Broadway theater. When I was 5 (back in 1983), they took me to New York to see my first show: Cats. They spared no expense as they planted the seeds of my cultural foundation - we had box seats at stage right.

Just as the show was beginning and the music started, all of the cats started crawling very slowly around the audience toward the stage. Mesmerized by this spectacle, I felt a tap on my shoulder. Thinking it was my mom, I turned around to see a cat performer right in my face! Not only that, it hissed at me! Needless to say, I was a bit scared. But after getting over the initial shock, I sat back, loved the performance, and have been seeing shows in New York ever since.

Patrick Delaney, Baltimore

Some years ago, my husband and I and another couple went to New York to see Cats. As we were settling in our seats, well before the show began, a family of four entered the row in front of us, father, mother and two teenage sons, one maybe 13, the other maybe 16. Looking at the open set, appropriately rendered as a back-alley junk yard - trash cans, old tires, sagging fence boards, etc. - the mother said to the older boy, "John, this looks just like your room."

Ruth Lawson Walsh, Baltimore

I saw Cats at the Winter Garden Theater on Dec. 4, 1986, seat M104. It was the day after my 17th birthday and I was in New York City on my senior-class trip from the Institute of Notre Dame. I was thrilled to be seeing Cats. I had borrowed the tapes from the library and knew the songs by heart. We girls had sticker shock at the price of the tickets ($45); at a time when a movie was $4.50 this was a lot of money.

We had fabulous seats, just a few rows from the front. The actors were so close, and incredibly talented. The performers, the music, the dancing, the sets - everything was larger than life. At intermission, Old Deuteronomy, played by Clent Bowers, sat on the stage perfectly still. The audience tried to get Old Deuteronomy to break character, but he never did.

After the show we waited at the stage door for the actors. They were very nice to us. I had my picture taken with one actor and got autographs from others. I still have the photograph and the program. I have seen many shows in many different cities since that December night, but Cats always brings a smile to my face.

Beth O'Connell, Abingdon

I love Cats, because I am a cat lover! I first saw it back in the 1980s when it first went on tour at the National Theatre in Washington. Since then, I've seen it just about every time it's played in Baltimore. My ultimate thrill was in the year 2000 when it was closing. My husband took me to New York to see it at the Winter Garden Theater. It was a thrilling experience! The song "Memory" is my all-time favorite song. I get chills whenever I hear it! I hope Cats continues to go on tour forever!

Yvonne Christie, Towson

Trivial 'Cats'

QUESTIONS

1. The fur of what animal is used to make the cast's wigs?

2. The show centers on a group of felines called "Jellicle Cats." Where did the term come from?

3. What now-famous phrase was used to promote other plays during Cats' Broadway run?

4. On what text was the musical book based?

5. What is the supposed weight of the portliest Jellicle cat?

6. How long was the show's London run?

7. What item has most often been used to encase the dancers' body microphones?

8. Who was first cast as Grizabella, the cat who ascends to feline heaven?

9. Name five other plays that have made reference to Cats.

10. What was, and remains, the play's motto?

ANSWERS

1. The yak, whose hair is exceptionally coarse, durable and resistant to water and sweat. (Only Grizabella's wig is made of human hair.)

2. To American-born poet T.S. Eliot, the phrase "dear little cat," spoken with an English accent, sounded like "jellicle cat."

3. "I laughed, I cried, it was better than Cats!"

4. Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, a collection of light verse for children written by Eliot in 1939.

5. Bustopher Jones, according to the play, tips the scales at 25 pounds.

6. 8,949 performances between 1981 and 2001.

7. Cats has used more than 90,000 condoms, which safeguard the mikes against moisture and electrical shorts.

8. Elaine Paige was the first Grizabella in London, but Judi Dench was the first actress cast. She injured her Achilles tendon in rehearsals and never appeared.

9. Jeffrey, by Paul Rudnick; Six Degrees of Separation, John Guare; Angels in America, Tony Kushner; The Sisters Rosensweig, Wendy Wasserstein; Forbidden Broadway, Gerard Alessandrini

10. "Now and forever."

If you go Cats, 8 tonight through Saturday, 6:30 p.m. Sunday; matinees 2 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m. Sunday at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St. $24-$59; tickets available at the box office (443-703-2406) or via Ticketmaster (410-547-SEAT). Online: france-merrickpac.com

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