Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Cats is based on T.S. Eliot’s 1939 collection of poems called Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. There’s hardly any dialogue, the scenery never changes, and all the characters are cats—adult actors dressed up in elaborate feline costumes. Despite the poor picture just painted, Cats is actually one of the greatest musicals of all-time.
Weber premiered the music to Cats at a concert in 1980. This concert was attended by Valerie Eliot, wife of T.S. Eliot. She liked what she heard and gave the go-ahead for A.L.W. to turn the music into a stage play. The estate of Eliot was less enthusiastic. While they allowed Weber to use Eliot’s words, they insisted that no other script be used. Their demand eventually caused confusion during rehearsals as many of the actors had no idea what was going on.
Now, most of numbers in Cats are about—yes, you guessed it—cats, but the overarching plot is a group of cats called “Jellicles” who have gathered to learn which one of them will get to go to the “Heaviside Layer.” Some of the cats you’ll get to know include Run Tum Tugger, Grizabella, Bustopher Jones, Old Deuteronomy, Gus, Skimbleshanks, Macavity, and Mr. Mistoffelees. The production also includes arguably musical theater’s greatest song, “Memory.” It was not written by Eliot. Lyrics to “Memory” were penned by Trevor Nunn.
Cats tickets were first collected in London in May of 1981. The show ran until May of 2002 or 8,949 performances. In America, Cats debuted on Broadway on Oct. 7, 1982 at the Winter Garden Theatre. It closed Sept. 10, 2000 after 7,485 performances. For a time, Cats was the longest-running show on both sides of the Atlantic. As of the end of 2013, Cats is the fourth-longest running West End show and the second longest-running Broadway show. The production also won the Laurence Olivier Award (1981) and the Tony Award (1983) for Best New Musical.