Curtain Call on Cats

September 8, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT
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The lights go down on "Cats." Elizabeth Farnsworth discusses the end of a Broadway musical era with Clive Barnes, theater critic for The New York Post.

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, “Cats” last meow, and to Elizabeth Farnsworth.

SINGERS: Oh there never was a cat so clever…

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: After 18 years, the longest- running show in the history of Broadway, the musical, “Cats,” is closing this weekend. The extravaganza from composer Andrew Lloyd Webber proved to have far more than nine lives. As of Sunday, the furry felines will have prowled that pop-art junkyard in nearly 7,500 performances. 10 million people have seen “Cats” in New York City, more than 40 million worldwide.


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The show got mixed reviews when it first opened in 1982 at the Winter Garden Theater in Manhattan. “New York Times” critic Frank Rich lamented the excesses and banalities of the show, but he also wrote, “it’s a wondrous spectacle, and that’s an enchanting place to be.” From the beginning, audiences, especially children, loved “Cats,” and it won seven Tony Awards in 1983, including Best Musical. The show is based on T.S. Eliot’s affectionate, light verse and prose about Cats and tells the story of old Deuteronomy of one cat to rise to heaven and be reborn. The Cats sing their life stories climaxing in the fate of glamour-puss Grizabella’s show stopping “Memory”

CAT SINGING: Touch me it’s so easy to leave me all alone with the memories of my days in the sun

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Grisabella, of course, is the chosen one and at the end she rises, dramatically, to heaven. The show’s success led to a flurry of epic-style mega- musicals such as “Les Miserables,” “Phantom of the Opera,” and “Miss Saigon.” They featured huge moving sets, enormous casts, grand costumes, and triumphant music. Though not everyone loved the new Broadway trend, “Cats” producer Cameron MacKintosh argued the shows were good for the theater.

CAMERON MacKINTOSH: That is where the future of theater is because we bring new people, new audiences to fall in love with theater in the proper scale in the country. And then hopefully in the next century, they’ll still come to Broadway. (Applause)

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: “Cats” has been a huge financial success with a total gross already of more than $2 billion.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: For more we turn to Clive Barnes. He’s the senior theater critic for the “New York Post.” Mr. Barnes, to what do you attribute the huge success of “Cats”?

CLIVE BARNES, New York Post: Well, I think that fundamentally it came at the right time. Everyone was puzzled on Broadway about what to do because it had lost its…it had lost its pulse. Once for years it had been the most popular thing in the theater, the musical. The hit pop music of the time was always from Broadway or from Hollywood, which was – you know — the distinction of the Broadway musical. But with the coming of rock music in about mid-50s, then frankly the musical lost its heart, lost its spirit. And as a result, what happened was that people needed to do something different. And what did happen were these enormous extravaganzas that depended on spectacle as much as on music and offered something that could only be given by the live theater. – couldn’t be given by television, couldn’t be given by movies.. And I think that “Cats” was the right show in the right place, and obviously it became the pacemaker for that kind of theater.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It was almost critic-proof, wasn’t it? Many critics, I think including you, didn’t really like it a lot when it came out but the audiences kept pouring in.

CLIVE BARNES: Yes, I think most of us thought it was going to be a hit and most of us recognized that it did have this one terrific song, “Memory.” But on the other hand, I think most critics did have reservations about it. But those reservations didn’t really matter. Some of the music, particularly “Memory” became a standard almost immediately. And the other thing was that it had a built-in children’s appeal, which, as time went on, was built upon by Cameron MackIntosh, who was a very, very shrewd entrepreneur. And also another interesting aspect of the whole “Cats” phenomenon is the fact that it was a new kind of marketing. You not only bought the show, but you bought the paraphernalia — the chachke, — you brought the CD; you bought the program, the special program, you bought little model cats and things like that. So it became a huge marketing project rather than a simple show. And also, most important of all, it became a landmark. It became a tourist attraction. It became something like the Eiffel Tower or the Empire State Building or Albert’s Square. It went beyond the simplicity of a musical to become an event. And also it was theater for people who didn’t really very much like theater but felt, you know, they’d like to take in a Broadway show.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you think that the very extravagant aspects of it, the final scene when Grisabella goes to heaven, that sort of thing, do you think people have come to expect that in theater now and has it made it hard for other types of theater?

CLIVE BARNES: I think they have come to expect it in musical theater, yes. I don’t think in other types of theater. I think what we’re seeing is two different kinds of audiences for the theater. We have two different kinds of audiences for music. So I think that definitely in musicals, I think the spectacular musical is probably going to stay with us for the time being anyway.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you mean two different kinds of audiences?

CLIVE BARNES: Well, I think that there are the people who go to “Cats” and the people who go to “Phantom of the Opera”. And I’m not knocking these shows because they all have considerable merit. I mean, there have been attempts to imitate them which have completely failed and flopped. So they have merit. But they’re not the kind of people who go see Arthur Miller or Edward Albee or Harold Painter or Tom Stoppard; they’re not probably even the people who go – well, they certainly aren’t the people who go to see Shakespeare or Ibsen. There is beginning to be a double audience for theater. And I think that it’s partly the development of the theater doing in the 20th century and the fact that so much of the theater has become elitist, rather like classical music, dance or anything else, really. It’s simply moved away from being a mass medium to being much smaller medium, and yet there is areas in which the masses are… demand to be heard and seen.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Clive Barnes, thanks for being with us.

CLIVE BARNES: Thank you.