The Cats set is part of theatrical lore. Designer John Napier came up with the idea while driving past an abandoned lot late one night. "I saw car bodies, tires, tin cans, all sorts of rubbish," he recalled. "I wondered what it would look like from a cat's eye."
Napier built more than 2,000 oversized props, including a dismantled billboard, a rusting auto hulk, and tire. He surrounded these with larger than life objects: a bicycle, broken dishes and phonograph records, toothpaste tubes, and posters.
What was envisioned as a children's entertainment, evolved into much more with Valerie Eliot's contribution of unpublished material about Grizabella, Cats's most famous or infamous feline. Eliot had edited the Grizabella through line out of the poems for fear that cat's "social afflictions," as Eliot put it, might scare children.
But director Trevor Nunn was in need of a show-stopper and, given the material, he shaped it into the story known the world around of the former glamour cat fallen on hard times. Most people have forgotten he also wrote the lyrics to Cats's most famous or infamous song, "Memory."
"I felt the need for a stirring 11 o'clock number," he recalled. "I joked to Andrew, 'You don't have your Puccini aria!' and he argued against the need for one. Then he went home, stayed up all night, and wrote one. The next morning Andrew played 'Memory.' I said to everybody, 'What's the date? What's the time? Remember it because you've just heard a phenomenal smash hit.'" Three writers tried to set words to Lloyd Webber's music, but failed. "So," said Nunn, "out of desperation, I decided to give it a go. I re-read Eliot's poems and wrote the lyrics to what became one of the most popular show tunes ever."
Cats in spite of poor to mixed reviews became an instant hit and went on to win seven 1983 Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Amazingly, the stand-out aspect of the show, the choreography by Gillian Lynne (her amazing contributions to all aspects of the musical are often overlooked -- though Lloyd Webber and Nunn have often given her worthy tributes), though nominated, didn't win. Double amazingly, she lost to Tommy Tune and Thommie Walsh's choreography for My One and Only.
Nunn originally envisioned Cats as an intimate production. He wanted the audience to see the stage from the cats's perspective but didn't want, as he put it in a 1991 interview with the writer, "some cozy Puss 'n' Boots thing. It's about real cats -- smelly, aggressive, and cruel."
Lloyd Webber and co-producer Cameron Mackintosh liked the idea but raised the stakes by increasing the scale of the production.
Former cast members recall vividly the grueling rehearsals and intricate choreography, injuries, actors and dancers coming, and, as massive cuts were made, going. "The Ballad of Billy McCaw," an English music hall number, was eliminated for Broadway from the "Growltiger's Last Stand" sequence and replaced with a stunning Italian aria for Growltiger and Griddlebone, "In Quella Tepida Notte." Through the years many have noted an eerie familiarity to the music. They have probably listened to the almost note-for-note inspiration for it in the Puccini opera The Girl of the Golden West. Eventually, the aria went into the West End and all Cats productions.
In the end, the New York Cats cost in excess of $5 million, four times as much as the London production.
For the Broadway opening, the Shubert Organization, owners of the Winter Garden Theatre, gutted the theatre to make way for Napier's vision of the junkyard. The commitment of (the late) Bernard Jacobs, then president of the Shubert Organization, was so strong they even tore through the roof of the historic Winter Garden to accommodate the finale effect of Grizabella's trip to the Heaviside Layer (does anyone know what that is?).
As everyone knows, cats are most promiscuous, but if you happen to get a glance at the trashbin outside the Winter Garden, don't get the wrong idea when you see sheaves and sheaves of condoms. Cats, the first Broadway show to experiment with condoms (for technical use), has disposed of nearly 49,000 -- they're used to protect body microphone receivers from perspiration.
More Cats Trivia
* had a total economic impact (according to an independent survey) of $3.12 billion on the city of New York;
* been the largest single generator of theatrical jobs in Broadway history;
* more than 2,500 larger-than-life props built into its set;
* a "magical" tire (controlled by hydraulics) that has travelled 114 miles in its trips to the mysterious, regenerative Heaviside Layer;
* an original New York cast album (2 discs) that has sold in excess of two million copies;
* made Andrew Lloyd Webber one of the richest theatrical composers in the history of theatre.