Cats Becomes B'way's Long-run Champ June 19

News   Cats Becomes B'way's Long-run Champ June 19 To quote Cats: "Do I actually see with my own very eyes a man who's not heard of a Jellicle Cat?"
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To quote Cats: "Do I actually see with my own very eyes a man who's not heard of a Jellicle Cat?"

Hardly.

And what exactly is a jellicle cat? In theatrical terms, it translates into a cash cow.

Though Cats, Broadway's longest-running musical opened to mixed reviews October 7, 1982 and its slogan, "Now and Forever," seemed a bit presumptuous even a decade into its run, the show -- one of New York's most popular tourist attractions -- has gone on to offically become the longest-running musical in Broadway history.

For its record-breaking 6,138th performance on Thursday, June 19, 1997, the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical based on the poems of T.S. Eliot, hundreds of Cats alumni from the last 15 years will attend the special 6 PM performance at New York's Winter Garden Theatre. For the post-performance celebration, Broadway, between 50th and 51st Streets will be closed to traffic. At approximately 9 PM the entire cast, fully costumed, will emerge from the theatre with the audience for a salute to Sir Andrew (since elevated to the peerage by his Queen for contributions to musical theatre) and the creative team. Kleig lights will sweep the sky heralding the milestone along with bursts of confetti, pyrotechnic displays, and champagne (perhaps the Phantom of the Opera premium label).

Remembering the 1983 hoopla surrounding A Chorus Line breaking the (then) long-run record, it's interesting to note that the celebration of the Cats championship is comparatively muted. Could that be because one day in the not so distant future there seems to be a good likelihood that Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera will be seeking their places in Broadway history?

Or could it be because ACL is still considered one of the great American musicals, conceived and executed by a theatrical genius, the late Michael Bennett; and that Cats is perceived to be the first of the megamusicals in the British invasion (it is actually second; remember Evita)?

Lloyd Webber has become one of the most popular theatre composers in the world. His is that rare composer name above the title that can generate excitement at the boxoffice and phone charge lines.

In the face of its initial reception, what's kept Cats purring? Massive publicity and, though the show has its share of detractors, continued positive word-of mouth.

For baby-boomer parents wishing to introduce their children to Broadway, there wasn't much alternative between the closing of the original Annie and the opening of Beauty and the Beast. For international visitors, Cats is one of those shows that can be followed without understanding every lyric.

Lloyd Webber, especially during his association with Cameron Mackintosh, became a whiz at marketing, which has become an important tool of keeping a show open.

Lloyd Webber was a fan of Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats poems since childhood, and had dreamed of putting them to music and onstage for years.

For countless children, Cats was their first theatrical experience, so it's appropriate that the production is addressing kids in the hoopla of their record breaking event.

For four performances, June 16-19, there'll be pre-show open houses and a promotion called "Kids Get In Free," of course, with the purchase of a full-price ticket by an adult. [Through the years, the production and its producers have donated in excess of 50,000 tickets to New York City public school students and children's organizations such as the Make A Wish Foundation and Big Brothers/Big Sisters.] At the open houses, kids can meet cast members, indulge in free face-painting, and, for those interested in a theatre future either in the show on Broadway or in numerous touring companies, demonstrations on how to become a cat (make-up techniques, movement, costuming).

For his proposed musical, Lloyd Webber set several of the poems to music. When Valerie Eliot, widow of the poet, heard them, she met with Lloyd Webber and told him that Eliot often sang while writing his poems.

"I wasn't at all surprised," said Lloyd Webber. "Eliot's rhyming is instinctively that of a lyricist. There's one verse I'd swear he wrote to a piece of popular 1930's classical music."

Even with the blessing of Mrs. Eliot, Lloyd Webber found the odds of mounting his musical stacked against him. "Of all my shows," Webber said, "Cats was the hardest to capitalize. It was the first time my Really Useful company was involved in producing and we couldn't raise the money for the London production."

He said that many reasons were given. He was working with a deceased poet; his director, Trevor Nunn, was expert at Shakespeare but untried with musicals; etc. "I knew I was attempting something that had never been attempted before," he explained, "but I had great faith in it. So much so that I mortgaged my home."

You may recall that, in 1982, Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita had been major successes. Yes, but other entities controlled the finances. Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, then not much more than a short oratorio, had been performed but hadn't become a major hit.

 

Looking back, Lloyd Webber surely has no regrets. It was one gamble that paid off big. Worldwide, Cats has grossed $2.2 billion and played to more than 50 million people in 42 productions. So, in spite of some short-term difficulties encountered this year by Lloyd Webber with Sunset Boulevard and the aborted Whistle Down the Wind, don't cry for him, Broadway. Cats prowls on.

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