As the coronavirus pandemic continues to black out our live theaters and shut in most of our population, entertainment writers such as myself are compelled to come up with new subjects for columns by reflecting upon some of the big issues of our time.
How, for example, did one of the most popular stage musicals of our lifetime become the worst movie of last year?
“Cats,” with music composed by Andrew Lloyd Weber and lyrics based on T.S. Elliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” opened on London’s West End in 1981, expanded to Broadway in 1982 and went on to become one of the longest-running shows in the history of both theater districts — while accumulating a gross of over $4 billion worldwide.
The movie version — released in December, directed, produced and written by Tom Hopper — not only managed to lose money at the box office but was also almost universally panned by critics, earning a pitiful 20% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
It also dominated the notorious Razzie Awards for the worst films, being nominated for nine and awarded six (dis)honors, including worst picture, director and screenplay.
By comparison, the staged production in 1983 was nominated for 11 auspicious Tony Awards, winning seven — including Best Musical, Best Book, Best Score and Best Direction.
Now that both the 2019 cinematic release and video of the 1998 West End stage production are streamable, I decided to check them both out.
As I watched the new film, initially I saw little wrong. The production was very much as I remembered it when it first appeared many years ago in Chicago — the elaborate costumes, the fantastic makeup, the amazing backdrops; even the performances seemed somewhat satisfying.
But as I continued watching, I became increasingly aware that something was not right. When I began viewing the West End version, I knew what it was.
“Cats” the play was televised exactly as presented onstage, while “Cats” the movie was filmed on a soundstage, utilizing all the latest cinematic techniques like CGI and special effects to create new enhanced scenes.
Suddenly, I was watching a whole new musical. Unlike the staged version, which restricted the action to the theater scene of a back alley filled with oversized junk, the movie went into multiple sites with scores of new characters — cats, mice cockroaches — scurrying about, up and down stairs, on beds, in living rooms, on couches and kitchen tables, everywhere the cinematographer’s imagination could take him, including street scenes with flashing neon lights.
Architect Mies Van der Rohe famously said “less is more.” With this film, so full of complicated and distracting material, more was way too much.
Frankly, I quickly grew dissatisfied with all the new routines and returned to the sweet but simple production I had grown used to.
From the opening magnificent overture, the staged “Cats” was heads and shoulders above the movie. The orchestration was rich and full, enticing you into appreciative anticipation.
And what an opening it was! “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats,” performed by a remarkable troupe of a chorus and choreographed array of dancing cats displaying their synchronized moves caught by an overhead camera which gave you a view of the entire stage.
And you are suddenly aware that this is, for the most part, a live presentation, not a studio where it will be interrupted for a second, third or even 10th take. This is it! And it is exhilarating.
You continue to watch number after number — “The Naming of Cats” and “The Invitation to the Jellicle Ball,” the annual event where one of their number will be selected to move on to the Heaviside Layer to embark on a new life.
One by one, you are introduced to those vying to be chosen, displaying in song their reasons — the flashy, needy Rum Tum Tugger, the villainous disappearing criminal Macavity, Skimbleshanks the railway cat, the magical Mr. Mistoffelees, the mischievous pair of troublemakers Rumpleteaser and Mungojerries, and many others.
And as you meet them, you begin to realize that cats, like humans, come with many personalities with hearts and souls. Both of these ingredients were sadly missing from the movie.
Another fault with the film lies in the casting, direction and costuming, which saw Dame Judi Dench miscast as Old Deuteronomy, a role normally played by a male, as the majestic, commanding patriarch (now matriarch) cat.
The brilliant actress’s performance was further compromised by digitally outfitting her in ridiculous, fluffy, puffy yellow fur, causing her to wander aimlessly about the show with a silly smile on her face.
And Sir Ian McKellan’s very broad and strong portrayal of “Gus,” the aging theatrical cat, would have done better to have studied the late John Mills’ sensitive and wistful performance in the staged version.
Singer Jennifer Hudson seemed an excellent choice to sing the show’s signature piece, “Memory” — that is, until I watched and heard Elaine Paige do her rendition as Grizabella in the staged production.
Hudson is an excellent singer, but she couldn’t match the pathos and profound performance of Paige in her ragged gown, with tearful makeup streaming down her cheeks.
If you have to pick between the two, I highly recommended streaming the 1998 televised West End version, available for streaming on BroadwayHD, iTunes, Google Play and Amazon Prime.