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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Andrew Lloyd Webber: Cats


ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER: CATS (1981)

1) Overture; 2) Prologue: Jellicle Songs For Jellicle Cats; 3) The Naming Of Cats; 4) The Invitation To The Jellicle Ball; 5) The Old Gumbie Cat; 6) The Rum Tum Tugger; 7) Grizabella: The Glamour Cat; 8) Bustopher Jones; 9) Mungojerrie And Rumpelteazer; 10) Old Deuteronomy; 11) The Jelllicle Ball; 12) Grizabella; 13) The Moments Of Happiness; 14) Gus: The Theatre Cat; 15) Growltiger's Last Stand; 16) Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat; 17) Ma­ca­vi­ty; 18) Mr. Mistoffelees; 19) Memory; 20) The Journey To The Heaviside Layer; 21) The Ad-Dressing Of Cats.

This review is for the Original London Cast of Cats, which, predictably, is a little less Broad­wayish than the Original Broadway Cast, although the two are only separated by one year, and the difference is not particularly striking. As usual, there are dozens of subsequent versions as well, including a relatively tolerable movie (musically tolerable — the idea of enjoying people jump around in stupid cat make-up has, for some reason, never appealed to me at all), but review­ing all of them would be quite a chore, considering that I have no deep love for the original.

It is a bit ironic, of course, that Sir Andrew would go completely song-and-dance on a piece of work drawn from the art of T. S. Eliot. But then, the original Old Possum's Book Of Practical Cats could hardly be called a «peak of intellectualism» all by itself. And if we take Cats in the on­ly reasonable way it could be taken — as a «show for the entire family, with emphasis on the kids» — then it has to be agreed that Webber did manage to find a perfectly appropriate musical vibe to fit the funny feline adventures as narrated by Old Possum.

Cats are lightweight, kitschy, and occasionally corny; and ʽMemoryʼ has been overplayed to such a terrible death that, like the Beatles' ʽYesterdayʼ, it is one of those songs today that one may find almost im­possible to enjoy on a gut level. Still (okay, here goes), ʽMemoryʼ is a great song, even despite being covered by Barry Manilow and Celine Dion, and there is quite a bit of excellent music to be found on the rest of the album as well.

The big colorful advantage of Old Possum's Book is that it introduces such an enormous variety of characters, exploring all sides of cat psychology; and, respecting that, Webber took the right decision to represent each of these characters with a different musical style — which makes Cats into his most eclectic oeuvre of all time. Let us see. There is some old time flapper jazz (ʽThe Old Gumbie Catʼ); some playful R&B (ʽThe Rum Tum Tuggerʼ); a bit of mock-Wagnerian opera (ʽGri­za­bellaʼ); some folk-pop (ʽBustopher Jonesʼ); nods to «classic» Rogers & Hammerstein and the like (ʽOld Deuteronomyʼ); kiddie sing-alongs from Sesame Street (ʽSkimbleshanksʼ); spy mo­vie muzak (ʽMacavityʼ); big, brawny glam-pop (ʽMr. Mistoffeleesʼ); and even a lengthy multi-part suite (ʽGrowltiger's Last Standʼ) that could, for almost ten minutes, evoke a progressive rock feeling in whoever would be willing to properly assess its complexity.

The bad news is that the atmosphere of it all way too often seems either «cutesy» or downright «silly». The two and a half minute long ʽOvertureʼ, mostly built on pianos and synthesized horns and strings, is inspiring and occasionally even tense, but as the ʽPrologueʼ leads you on into the world of merrily dancing predators singing "jellicle songs for jellicle cats", you might begin to wonder whether you have just been politely asked to surrender a significant part of your brain, and if yes, then what are your actual gains from surrendering it.

Clearly, nobody should be afraid of a little silliness from a grown-up person, but when that silli­ness takes on the form of a major stage musical, that may be a little over the top. Fortunately, as on most of Webber's «original casts», the singers never tend to overdramatize (the only part that I could never really stand was Paul Nicholas as ʽThe Rum Tum Tuggerʼ, but that may be not so much his fault as an inborn element of incoherence between the music and the vocal part).

Unfortunately, the whimsy nature of the show makes it hard to be genuinely moved by its darker or more complex moments: basically, everything connected with the character of Grizabella (who was not a character in Eliot's book, but existed as a sketch, eventually removed by the author due to the «excessive sadness» of her persona), and the choral hymn conclusion of ʽThe Ad-Dressing Of Catsʼ. Along with diversity, they add confusion, and the sequencing requires getting used to. It is hardly a surprise that ʽMemoryʼ, sung by the Grizabella character (Elaine Page in this original version), took on a life of its own — not just because it is the best song on the album (it may or may not be), but also because it feels quite out of tune with it, and works well when disconnected from the amusing cat melange.

But overall, Cats is fun. It should be taken for what it is: a lightweight stage musical to give the people a good time. It is a high-class musical, set, after all, to much higher quality lyrics than Tim Rice could ever provide, and written in a broad, ambitious manner — even if the actual music, once you have eliminated all the endless reprisals and analyzed all the remaining themes and mo­tives, may perhaps be judged as a triumph of form over substance (Webber's «debts» to classical and other composers, e. g. to Puccini for ʽMemoryʼ, are well on record, nor did he ever deny those debts altogether himself). So why should anyone be cringing?

Only for one reason — because Cats completes and stabilizes Webber's transition into the world of second-hand fluff. JCS granted the man immortality, Evita could still be perceived as a seri­ous musical work tackling sharp subjects, and even Tell Me On A Sunday, behind its exaggera­ted simplicity and minimalism, was hiding loads of social bitterness. Cats, on the other hand, at the same time pull out all musical stops and have no «big meaning» whatsoever. They were, and still are, a commercial triumph, but they pretty much crashed Webber's reputation in «serious» circles, or, at least, initiated that crash, completed five years later with Phantom Of The Opera. In a different context, they could be just a light comedic divertissement for the man (as Jeeves was in the mid-1970s): as it happened, he somewhat got stuck in «light» mode for the rest of his life. Thumbs up anyway — but do not even think of coming close to this kind of music if JCS and Evita are your ideal projection of Andrew Lloyd Webber, and you'd like it to stay that way.


Check "Cats" (CD) on Amazon

3 comments:

  1. By saying this one from Mr Eliot not a peak you mean because it's in rhyme and in rhyme it's easier than when no rhyme? But then they out there mostly do thoser things no rhyme at all so maybe for them in rhyme is even more difficult. Wow, I really don't know.

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  2. Alex, why do you post as "Anonymous"?

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  3. My friend adores cats (the animal), so I reminded her of the existence of this musical, thinking she would like it. I checked it out myself, I found a version on youtube complete with make-up, song and dance, but somehow that's extremely unappealing. Cats aren't supposed to be that scary.

    In any case, I'm really curious what you think of Elaine Paige as a performer. I've compared a few songs from the original Evita with Elaine's later interpretations (and she plays in more famous musicals too) and I thought that she was okay, but nothing more: just a conventional, technically gifted singer with little to add to the part.

    At least I thought she was better than this Patti LuPone person, who also did some Evita in her day. I have to say it's interesting how songs can differ in quality only depending on the vocalists. It's slightly odd to me that more 'professional' broadway performers would give out worse performances, but I suppose that's the problem with their (or my) standards.

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