Monday, 18 January 2016

Cats - A Rather Extra-ordinary Production


I was going to open by saying that I am quite particular with regards to the musicals that I end up going to see, but when I come to think about it I am generally particular about most things (with the exception of pubs - there are very few pubs, and restaurants, that I wouldn't visit at least once). I guess I don't want to waste my time reading a book that is of no interest to me, or spending the money to go and see a play (or a movie) that I suspect that I am not going to like. Mind you, I guess that means that I am not opening myself up to new opportunities, but once again there is the time, and the money, factor (and the theatre is actually quite expensive - at least here in Melbourne).

As for musicals, I can quite easily list the number that I have seen (which is not much) and the number that I want to see is quite a lot shorter. In fact now that I've seen Cats that list has dwindled to practically nothing (though I am sure if something of interest is playing then I might go along - I had a quick look at what's on in London at the moment and other than Phantom of Opera, and Ms Saigon, there doesn't seem to be anything that really grabs my attention).

Anyway, since Cats is no longer playing at the West End I wasn't sure how long it would be until I was able to see it, that is until advertisements began to appear around Melbourne for a very limited season. Fortunately that limited season finished the week after I returned from Adelaide, which meant that I snatched up a ticket for one of the Friday night sessions (and once again it wasn't cheap).

A Friday Night Out

The show didn't begin until 8:00 pm, which meant I had some time to go and have some dinner and visit a couple of bars (though I have found that exploring bars on a Friday night can be a little tricky since they tend to all be packed to the brim). However, come 8:00 pm (or a little before) I made my way to the Regent Theatre, which had a steady stream of people pouring in through the doors. To me it seems as if theatre is not dead, and the number of young people coming along is also quite encouraging.

Mind you, the Melbourne scene is nowhere near as great as the London scene, but that probably has a lot to do with the fact that while we are a major city, we don't have the population, or the huge influx of tourists, that can support a scene similar to London. Melbourne only has three major theatres (The Princess Theatre, Her Majesty's Theatre, and The Regent Theatre) and shows tend to come along for limited seasons. Okay, Les Miserables and Wicked both had a pretty long showing, however that tends to be the exception as opposed to the rule (and here I was thinking that the only time I could see Wicked again was when I returned to London - and I actually travelled all the way to London just to see Les Mis, which I have to say was probably the most expensive theatre ticket that I have ever purchased).


In a way it is a shame that I'm unlikely to see Les Mis (or Wicked) again, because I would like to write a blog post about them, however the next time I head to London (which is hopefully going to be this year) I would prefer to experience something that I haven't experienced three times already (yep, I've seem both Wicked and Les Mis three times each, and while it is tempting to go and see Les Mis for a forth time, since it is a much better musical than Wicked, I probably won't). Anyway, I can always watch the movie sometime (and there is nothing stopping me from writing a post on Wicked anyway - I have seen it three times.

As for other musicals in Melbourne, I guess it depends on what ends up coming along. To be honest I am really not interested in seeing a musical version of Ghost, and when I discovered that they had turned King Kong into a musical I simply shook my head in disbelief. A part of me felt that they must be getting really desperate for ideas to create a musical (maybe they should consider Die Hard - the musical; or The Terminator - The Musical).


The Jellicle Cats

It actually took me a little while to get used to the production. I guess a part of me, who has only seen musicals which have a very definite plot, was expecting something much the same from Cats. However I have to say that Cats isn't like any of the other musicals that I have seen to date - in fact I would probably describe it more as a stage show than an actual musical. What I mean is that the musicals that I have seen tend to have quite a defined story where the actors will either sing all of the lines, or randomly burst out in song. Okay, Cat's does have a story, but to me it seems to sit in the background and the actual production is what comes to the fore. The reason I say that is because there was a lot more dancing - in fact it is the only musical that I have seen where the actors actually dance. In fact you even have the actors doing somersaults and cartwheels across the stage.


The play is based upon a children's poem by T.S. Elliot called The Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (I believe if you look hard enough you might be able to find a version on the internet). At first the musical baffled me somewhat because, as I have suggested, I was expecting there to be more of a story. Sure, there was one in the background, however it seemed to focus much more on the songs, and the production. Thus for the first quarter I have to admit that I didn't really like it, until I started to get into the songs (and also being quite intrigued at seeing these actors crawling all over the stage dressed up as cats). However, when I discovered that the musical is actually based on a poem it all started to make sense - it is no so much the story that is important, but how the story is constructed.

Sure, there is a main character - the cat Grizbella - who begins the play being scorned by the other cats since she had left the fold to go and explore the world at large. However, I was a little baffled because there was a suggestion that these cats lived together in a tribe - the Jellicle tribe. However, once again we must look back to the source - this is based on a poem for children (though Webber, with the assistance of T.S. Elliot's widow, went beyond the original poem, and the entire musical was constructed by various poems written by T.S. Elliot, even if they weren't part of the original collection). In these poems the world that we know tends to be left behind, and the curtain is pulled back on a world that many of us would be privileged to see. In the case of Cats we are allowed to look upon a ceremony that is performed once a year where the tribe comes together for the Jellicle Ball to elect one cat to ascend to the Heviside Layer where they will be born anew (if it sounds like nonsense, that is because, once again, it is based on a children's story).


As I have suggested, there is a story, but many of the songs involve us being introduced to various members of the tribe. In fact most of the songs deal with individual members. It begins with the naming of the cats, where we are told that the cats have three names, however instead of going into detail I'll just play a clip that I found on Youtube:


The Old Possum's Book

As I am getting into the habit of these days, I grabbed a copy of the program (though I almost forgot, and a part of my felt that it was way over priced - $20.00 for about four pages of interesting discussion, and a bunch of glossy pictures of people dressed up as cats). What was interesting was the piece by Andrew Lloyd Webber on how the musical came about. I have already mentioned that it is based on a collection of poems by T.S. Elliot, and while the original poem was The Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, he also collected a number of other poems which went into the final product.

However what was also interesting was the risk that he took when the play was produced. At first I thought it must have been an American production, that is until I read Webber's piece and discovered that it was first released in the West End (and as a friend of mine said, on the day she was born). The thing he explained was that while London had been producing musicals for ages, they hadn't yet managed to master the art of combining them with dance - which is what Cats had proposed to do. Apparently Judi Dench was originally slated for the role of Grizbella (and that caught me as a surprise because I simply cannot imagine Judi Dench playing such a young role, but then again I guess I am only acquainted with her later, Hollywood roles). The opening night also had a bomb scare, which resulted in the entire theatre being cleared, but as they say, that is all now history as it turned out the musical was a roaring success.

The interesting thing that I picked up when speaking to others after seeing the musical was how it had changed from the original. Of course I have never had the opportunity of seeing the original, so I am not at all sure (and certainly wasn't expecting) there were any changes. However apparently there is, and one friend suggested that they had to refrain themselves from laughing throughout the show. Mind you, as I have indicated, I wasn't aware (and it certainly wasn't billed) that it had been updated and modernised - as far as I am aware this is the same Cats that graced the West End and Broadway for so many years.

The Heviside Layer

In a way you could say that the musical is about a wanderer who returns to the fold, and despite the fact that she is initially rejected by her clan, she is not only eventually welcomed back, but also given the opportunity to be reborn. This story isn't surprising coming from the pen of T.S. Elliot, though the original poem didn't have Grizbella as a character (in fact she was in another poem that he had written but not published). Grizbella, when she returns (and it is suggested that she has been away for a while, even though the cats only come together once a year for this ball), is initially scorned by her peers and is left alone on stage remembering the time when she was part of the clan. Yet it is strange that she doesn't actually do anything to be welcomed back into the fold, she is just finally accepted, and is then selected from the other cats to be reborn.



It sounds in part like the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), the Biblical story in which the son takes his inheritance and then leaves his family to go and live it up. However, after squandering everything, he then returns to be welcomed by his father as if he had never left. Mind you, while the prodigal son is initially rejected by his brother (and the story never tells us whether the brother eventually accepts him back into the family), he is immediately welcomed back by the father. This is not the case with Grizbella - she is rejected, and remains rejected until the end when she is the one who receives the honour of being born anew.

I guess, it is in part a story about redemption, and renewal, a story that strikes at the heart of many of us who have suffered broken relationships. Yet to many of us these broken relationships are in the end beyond repairs. Like Grizbella, we are shunned by our peers, and find ourselves on the outside, alone. We don't exactly know what Grizbella did to land up in that situation, but she is eventually given that second chance, to return to the fold as a new person, and cleansed of her past. This may not necessarily be what happens to us when we suffer a breakdown in our relationships, however I do note that it is not necessarily the tribe that welcomes her back, but Old Deuteronomy, the defacto leader of the tribe (or should I suggest the wise old man). In a way Old Deuteronomy is like the father in the prodigal son - he is the one who welcomes her back, and gives her that renewed life among her peers, a renewed and restored life that maybe many of us need to seek out as well.


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Cats - A Rather Extra-ordinary Production by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me.
This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If use wish to use the creative commons part for commercial purposes, please contact me directly.

 
"Koty musical" by Effie - Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Commons
"CatsOriginalLondonCast" by Felina's Jellicle World. Via Wikipedia

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