By Peter Royston
(Center Stage Magazine, Summer 2001)

Are you blind when you're born? Can you see in the dark?
Dare you look at a king? Would you sit on his throne?
Can you say of your bite that it's worse than your bark?
Are you Cock of the Walk when you're walking alone?

From CATS, lyrics by T.S. Eliot, additional material by Trevor Nunn and Richard Stilgoe

You know the feeling. Maybe you see a cat on a windowsill and ask yourself, "I wonder what he's thinking?" Who hasn't thought about the strange rituals animals perform at night, when no human is awake to see? The story of CATS, the world-wide musical sensation, begins with this feeling of wonder, this sense of another world just beyond human experience.

Maybe it was this sense that inspired T.S. Eliot to write a series of little poems for his godchildren about the secret lives of cats. For the rest of the world, Eliot was the writer of such bleak modern poems as "The Waste Land," and "The Hollow Men," but for his godchildren, and for children around the world when the poems were collected in 1939, he was "Old Possum," affectionate narrator of "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats." One child who heard and loved Old Possum's tales was a boy named Andrew Lloyd Webber.

In 1977, after becoming a composer and stunning the world with the musicals Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, Lloyd Webber again turned to Eliot's poems. He felt Old Possum's quirky words and intricate rhymes would be perfect for his next musical, and began to write a series of songs, each about a different cat in Eliot's tribe.

From the Swing sound of The Old Gumbie Cat to the rock of The Rum Tum Tugger, Lloyd Webber used a variety of styles to give each cat its own musical signature. But the songs lacked a story line until Valerie Eliot, the poet's widow, presented Lloyd Webber with her husband's unpublished poem "Grizabella the Glamour Cat." The story of Grizabella, the grizzled old cat recalling former glory and finally ascending to Cat Heaven or the "Heaviside Layer" became the connective tissue to this new musical called CATS.

Director Trevor Nunn insisted that the show be in "cat scale," that audiences feel as if they were getting a glimpse into a secret world. He told Newsweek, "We had to create an environment where, in a sense, the audience was there on cat sufferance." Choreographer Gillian Lynne wanted CATS' cats to be as realistic as possible. She told the Fort Lauderdale News/Sun-Sentinel, "I watched my own cat minutely, watched the way it moved, stretched, used its eyes..."

CATS was finally complete when Nunn supplied the lyrics to the song "Memory," basing the words on T.S. Eliot's poem "Rhapsody on a Windy Night." The song, of course, became the show's signature piece, and has gone on to become one of the crowning songs in musical history.

CATS finally opened in London on May 11, 1981, and has been growling, meowing and singing on stages around the world ever since. In 1997, it became the longest running musical in Broadway history. But despite its triumphs, CATS still owes it success to that simple sense of wonder, the type of imagination Andrew Lloyd Webber finds in the theatre. He told the New York Times, "The whole point of doing something in theatre is to give the audience an experience they couldn't get from any other medium. If you aren't giving them that you aren't really giving them anything."

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