Because Jellicles do and Jellicles can. At least, the male ones.
Cats was the first Broadway musical seen by this critic. At the young age of seven, on a family trip to New York, she was first introduced to the Jellicles. Immediately enthralled by the magic of a Broadway musical, she immediately bought the cast recording and the piano music and learned every word. And, she realized upon returning to the Jellicle junkyard, which has now taken up residency in the Neil Simon Theatre, 25 years later, she still knows all the words. But they now hold a very different meaning.
Cats has returned to Broadway, in a fur-trimmed frenzy that is remarkably reminiscent of its original production. The costumes and choreography, the latter of which was updated by Andy Blankenbuehler, could be mistaken for the original record-breaking run – perhaps because this revival is directed by the original director Trevor Nunn, and, of course, and the music and lyrics are the same. But the audience Cats is playing to has changed, and, one hopes, for the better. Because this musical, which was embraced with numerous awards and a lengthy run on Broadway, presents a disturbingly patriarchal atmosphere obsessed with youth and beauty and tainted with slut-shaming and misogyny.
Based on T.S. Eliot’s Old Pussum’s Book of Practical Cats, the musical first clawed its way to Broadway in 1982, following a run that began in the West End one year prior. It ran for 18 years, establishing itself as the fourth longest-running show in Broadway history before closing on September 10, 2000. Revisiting the musical 25 years after one’s first exposure to it, this critic has to wonder why it ran so long to begin with, and why a revival was deemed necessary. This says nothing about the ensemble of talented singers and dancers who are starring in this production; they give exuberantly energetic performances, breathing whatever life they can into the material given to them. But the material itself is extremely limited and limiting.
The Eliot estate stated that only the original poems be used as text for the musical, so Cats consists of one song after another, introducing the cats as a group and as individuals. The score is loosely tied together by the cats informing the audience – through song, of course – that the Jellicles assemble once a year to make what they call “the Jellicle choice”, in which one of their tribe is chosen to ascend to the Heaviside Layer and be born into a new life. This lack of narrative inspires almost no conflict or tension to drive the musical, which runs for two hours and 15 minutes, with an intermission. The only question the evening poses is which cat will be chosen, and, after Grizabella the Glamour Cat is introduced, the answer is very clear.
Along with providing the only tension of the evening, the character of Grizabella also inspires the most frustration with the musical, personifying in feline form the patriarchal themes of the production. Grizabella is one of only three female characters who perform their own songs throughout the night. One of the the two is Jennyanydots, The Old Gumbie Cat who, concerned with the mice’s manners, teaches them how to play music and crochet. Played by the remarkable tap-dancing actress Eloise Kropp, the musical number is delightfully presented, but it is worth noting that Jennyanydots is only performing domestic, stereotypically feminine actions. The only other female cat, other than Grizabella, who even has the opportunity to sing, is Rumpleteazer, who performs with her male partner in crime, Mungojerrie.
With the exception of the group numbers, the male cats receive all of the other songs in the musical, including the worshipful “Old Deuteronomy,” (Quintin Earl Darrington) about the group’s estimable leader, the proudly rebellious Rum Tum Tugger (Tyler Hanes, confidently sexual), Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat (an affable Jeremy Davis), Mr. Mistoffelees, the “original conjuring cat” (a delightful Ricky Ubeda) and the Mystery Cat Macavity (Daniel Gaymon, very sensual), who inspires the entire female ensemble to perform a writhing sexual dance number gyrating in pleasure at the thought of the elusive disappearing bad-boy feline.
And then there is Grizabella. A role made famous by the famous belting of Elaine Paige and Betty Buckley, Grizabella is a formerly beautiful cat now in a bedraggled state. When she enters the stage, tentatively approaching her fellow Jellicle cats, she is greeted with hisses of disgust as her peers back away from her. A song that describes her lamentable state posits, “And the postman sighed as he scratched his head/You really had thought she’d ought to be dead/And who would ever suppose that that/Was Grizabella, the Glamour Cat?” Apparently being less than beautiful is a tragedy equitable with death in the land of the Jellicles.
Performed by British pop star Leona Lewis, Grizabella is a dejected and forlorn feline. Dressed in a tight-fitting grey corset adorned with dirty, threadbare rags, Lewis’ performance contains an undeniable element of slut-shaming, and she is scorned by her fellow cats until Old Deuteronomy chooses her to be reborn in the Heaviside Layer. She is only deserving of attention and affection when a man deems her to be so and provides her with the opportunity to be young and beautiful again.
Cats was, and will most likely again, be the first musical that many young children see. While this critic is reluctant to ever reflect on any negativity of exposing children to the arts, one wonders if Cats a positive choice.
The need for a stronger representation of women on Broadway is hardly a new discussion in the theatre industry, and strong female characters are an essential element of that discussion – something Cats does not provide. What kind of message will a six-year-old take away from a show in which all the women do is sew, steal and long for a past in which they were young and beautiful? With the return of Cats also comes the upcoming closings of the remarkable musicals Matilda the Musical and the Tony-winning and history-making Fun Home, which both feature spirited young girls who dare to defy established rules and roles that are placed upon them.
Cats marks the third musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber running on Broadway at the moment, the other two being The Phantom of the Opera and School of Rock, both productions that are sadly lacking in their portrayal of complex, let alone strong, female characters – as did Webber’s Phantom sequel, the misogynistic and slut-shaming Love Never Dies. One hopes that the upcoming season will introduce some new characters who represent a different – and new – kind of woman onstage.