To recap my first and second blog: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats is a musical adaptation of T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, a collection of children’s poems. When Lloyd Webber requested the Eliot estate to turn these poems into a musical, he got consent under the condition he would only use the original text for his lyrics. Which he then did (with some slight alterations which I will get back to in later episodes of this blog series). Yet in order to construct some kind of accompanying narrative to this otherwise plot-less sequence of poems-set-to-music, he and his colleagues also added a few extra songs. The musical’s opening song “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats” is one of these. An already confusing opening to an even more confusing plot…
We continue our Literary Musical Guide to Cats right where we left off: “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats”
Wait… there’s more to be said about this?! Oh yes there is.
Think about it: charming as this song is, most of its lyrics don’t seem to make that much sense. Although at first impression the song appears to be nothing more than an introduction telling you that you are watching a musical about cats who sing songs (for themselves?), closer examination of what is actually being sung raises an infinite amount of questions. And the following one in particular:
What the fuck is a Jellicle Cat?!
I mean, this song even ends asking “What’s a Jellicle Cat?”, and, strangely enough, it’s never really explained. Neither in the stage version, nor in Eliot’s poems. You could argue that “The song of the Jellicles” (which is an original poem from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats and is sung in the musical with no alterations made in its lyrics whatsoever), featured somewhere halfway in both book and musical, provides some sort of explanation, but to me it comes off a bit short. It tells you that Jellicle Cats are short, round, black and white cats who are active at night time, but that’s where it stops. Are they some kind of family or clan? Are they a cult? And what does the name or word “Jellicle” even mean?
Fortunately there’s such a thing as the internet nowadays. As it turns out, “Jellicle” is a strange contorted contraction of the words ‘dear little’. Just as the “Pollicle” in “Pollicle Dogs” is a contorted contraction of ‘poor little’.1 These words originally came from a little niece of the poet when she tried to say the actual phrases.2
Further online research told me that the words “Jellicle” and “Pollicle” first appeared in a letter Eliot wrote to his godson Thomas Faber to congratulate him with his fourth birthday. Apparently the poem featured in this letter, inviting all Jellicle Cats and Pollicle Dogs to little Thomas’s birthday, set things in motion for all the Old Possum’s poems.3
Wikipedia states that the Jellicle Cats are a tribe.4 Where they got that bit of information from is a question in itself, but… okay… it probably makes sense? Yet I keep wondering if this is what Eliot intended when writing these poems…
And that’s where the problems really begin: there is, in fact, a big difference in what Elliot’s “Song of the Jellicles” and Cats’ “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats” tell you about Jellicle Cats actually are.
In Eliot’s poems, the Jellicle Cats, who by the way are only referred to as being “Jellicle” in “Song of the Jellicles” and nowhere else in his poems, appear to be nothing more than ‘dear little cats’. Dear little “roly-poly” (l. 11) black and white cats who are quiet during the day and active at night when they have their “ball”, probably here signifying nothing more than simple playtime.
And sure: the underlying theme of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats as a whole is that the cats mentioned in its poems can be a lot like people in what they do and how they act. As is also pointed out in its closing poem “The Ad-dressing of Cats”:
[…] cats are much like you and me
And other people whom we find
Possessed of various types of mind. (l. 6-8)
A commonly found interpretation of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats is thus that Eliot’s cats represent people from all layers of society, most of whom we encounter on a day to day basis. If not face to face, then through media.
Since I will be discussing this subject of representation to great length in a lot of my following blogs, I will not go in to this further here. What I do want to stress however is that Eliot’s (Jellicle) cats are not in any way explicitly special or outstanding. They’re simply there, living their lives, and Eliot tells about them in verse.
Now let’s take another look at the lyrics of “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats”:
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?
When you fall on your head, do you land on your feet?
Are you tense when you sense there’s a storm in the air?
Can you find your way blind when you’re lost in the street?
We start off simple enough as these are all characteristics you can attribute to your everyday cat. Although they are born blind, they have eyes that can adapt in dark surroundings. They have a puzzlingly magnificent sense of direction, can manage to turn themselves around when they fall down in order to land on their feet, and sense weather changes. And most of all: they’re arrogant creatures that view their owners as personal staff, as any cat person can tell you.
Yet the lyrics continue:
Do you know how to go to the Heaviside Layer?
Erm, sorry… what? What’s a Heaviside Layer? Why would you go there and how do these cats know how to go there?
Can you ride on a broomstick to places far distant?
Familiar with candle, with book, and with bell?
So… Jellicle Cats are witch’s cats?
Were you Whittington’s friend? The Pied Piper’s assistant?
Dick Whittington5 was a 14th century Lord Mayor of London, and there’s a popular folktale about him in which he gained his fortune through his rat-catching cat. This, however, is nothing more than a story, since there is no actual evidence that Whittington ever owned a cat. And as far as I know, the Pied Piper6 didn’t have a cat. He didn’t need one since he had his magical flute to work with. So what is actually being said here? That they were involved in bringing fortune and influence to important historical figures? That they assisted wicked individuals who had magical powers? That they are part of folklore? …Or am I overanalysing this and does it state nothing more than the simple fact that they catch rats?!
Have you been an alumnus of heaven and hell?
…So they graduated there? Or are they like Jesus? Rising from death?7
Are you mean like a minx? Are you lean like a lynx?
Are you keen to be seen when you’re smelling a rat?
A minx is a flirtatious girl or woman who can get away with almost anything because she behaves in a seductive way while doing these inappropriate things8. Almost all of us probably know at least one person who frequently acts this way. Someone who is “mean like a minx” thus acts like a sly or backstabbing slut. Cats can be sneaky bastards who will seduce you with cuddles and purring before demanding their food. A popular theory even suggests that cats domesticated themselves for the benefit of food and shelter. So this is another cat feature, though not a very positive one. Lynxes are big cats, though I’m doubtful to call them lean. I rather see them as muscular or even bulky. ‘But hey, it rhymes and alliterates so who cares?’ they probably thought. And yes, another rat-reference. Because Jellicles like rats, I guess.
Were you there when the pharaohs commissioned the Sphinx?
If you were, and you are, you’re a Jellicle cat.
We know that cats were honoured Egyptian pets. So, yeah, there probably were cats around when the(/an?) Egyptian Pharao(s?) commissioned building the Sphinx of Giza. Yet it’s the next sentence that keeps puzzling me. What do they mean ‘were and are’? Summarising everything that was just mentioned, are they saying that Jellicle Cats are immortal?
We can dive through the air like a flying trapeze
We can turn double somersaults, bounce on a tire
We can run up a wall, we can swing through the trees
We can balance on bars, we can walk on a wire
And then we suddenly went from puzzling to common again, as these are simple cat attributes: they’re agile and flexible. But wait… there’s more:
Can you sing at the same time in more than one key?
Duets by Rossini and waltzes by Strauss?
And can you (as cats do) begin with a ‘C’?
That always triumphantly brings down the house?
I have to admit that I actually really like this little part. Aside from the fact that it tells you that cats make ‘singing-like noises’, it has some wit and musical in-jokes I quite appreciate. (Not to mention the high ‘C’ exhale, that’s simply brilliant!) “Duets by Rossini” is to all probability a reference to Rossini’s “Duetto buffo di due gatti”, a centuries old little joke that is still very popular in the opera world today.9 Listening to it gave me a headache, but lots of people seem to love it:
Although I could not find out which “waltzes by Strauss” are referred to here, my fellow Overthehorse contributor Lars suggested that it might be a reference to a Tom and Jerry cartoon from 1953 named “Johann Mouse”:
As “Johann Mouse” won the 25th Academy Awards for Best Animated Short Film10, I assume that it was quite popular, and therefore something that people might still remember in the early 1980’s. (Hell, I was born in 1983 and I can still remember the endless amounts of Tom and Jerry reruns that were broadcasted on television during my childhood!) This however, is just a theory, so I might be extremely wrong here. For all I know, the lyricist could also just have used the phrase “waltzes by Strauss” for the simple reason that it rhymes with “house”!
But, of course, the lyricists couldn’t resist taking these references about singing to a higher level:
Jellicle cats are queen of the nights
Singing at astronomical heights
Handling pieces from the ‘Messiah’
Hallelujah, angelical choir
Seriously, what is it with all the religion-references in this song? Also note here that “angelical” and ‘a Jellicle’ sound quite alike. Are they trying to convey here that the Jellicles are celestial? …Or that they themselves think that they are? The enormous shoe that is thrown on stage at this point during the song certainly suggests some form of human aversion against this notion. And it makes sense in a way, knowing that most real life cats certainly seem to think of themselves as elevated individuals. The fact that they willfully sing these lyrics again after the shoe is thrown certainly alludes to this. Coming to think of it: that’s actually really clever.
It’s easy to assume that the following lines are therefore more possibly self-acclaimed Jellicle devotion. They might be, yet they also might be not:
The mystical divinity of unashamed felinity
Round the cathedral rang ‘Vivat’
Life to the everlasting cat!
As I explained in my previous blog, this excerpt is one of the few parts of this song that does sound a bit Eliot-esque in some way. Having that said, this doesn’t mean that the content of this excerpt necessarily corresponds with the content of Eliot’s original poems from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. It might if “[l]ife to the everlasting cat” is not taken for its literal meaning and simply suggests nothing more than simple praise for cats, wishing (or stating) that they (as in: the animals) will forever be around. But in the scope of the rest of this song’s lyrics (and the musical’s ‘plot’ that follows it, as I will explain further in later blogs) referring to ‘having been and still being alive’, I doubt whether that’s how it’s intended. Meaning that, again, Jellicle Cats are referred to as immortal beings. Not only that: their “unashamed felinity”, which I in this case would interpret as something as ‘insolent cat-being’, is something that is mystically divine. And that is praised “[r]ound the cathedral”. Note here: not in the cathedral. Though this might simply allude to the cathedrals bells being rung for them in praise, and thus that the Jellicle Cats are being praised from within the cathedral as well, it might also suggest that the cats are being praised outside the church, as some form of older deity leading back to more ancient religions or cults.
Feline, fearless, faithful and true
To others who do
“What” indeed… What do they mean? I have absolutely no fucking idea what they’re singing about here.
Aside from being immortal, Jellicle Cats turn out to have many other characteristics as well. As the next lyrics summarise:
Practical cats, dramatical cats
Pragmatical cats, fanatical cats
Oratorical cats, Delphicoracle cats
Skeptical cats, Dispeptical cats
Romantical cats, Pedantical cats
Critical cats, parasitical cats
Allegorical cats, metaphorical cats
Statistical cats and mystical cats
Political cats, hypocritical cats
Clerical cats, hysterical cats
Cynical cats, rabbinical cats
You might say that, as is the case with Eliot’s cats from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, these lines simply indicate that, like there are various kinds of people, there are also various kinds of Jellicle Cats. Thus again, representing people from all layers of society, as the word “metaphorical” also suggests. But, again, there’s more to these cats, as they are also “oratorical” and “delphiphorical”, meaning that they can predict the future.
Are these suggested powers of clairvoyance in any way explained or acted upon in the songs that follow this introduction? Nope. But it sure rhymes and alliterates nicely…
To round up my interpretation of this song’s lyrics, my conclusion is as follows: whereas the cats from T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats appear to be mostly simple everyday cats who have certain characteristics that you can also attribute to certain people, the Jellicle Cats in Cats’ “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats” are all but common. They are (self-acclaimed?) important cats who not only are immortal(?) and supposedly worthy of divine praise, but who also often venture on the mysterious and magical side, or are even magical themselves. Which is, of course, a great excuse for all the glitters and smoke this musical blasts on stage oh so many times.
It therefore appears that despite the fact that Mr. Lloyd Webber and colleagues vowed to stay close to their source material when it came to the lyrics, they did take a lot of liberties when it came to how they conveyed those lyrics onto the stage. Probably using this introductory song as a vehicle to do so.
This is also very apparent when looking at the manner in which the Jellicle Cats are portrayed. Even though they are being described as small black and white cats in Eliot’s “Song of the Jellicles”, the cats that we see on stage have all sorts of colours and postures (though mostly the posture of an athletic ballet dancer of course). I get the reason to do so: if all cats would look alike on stage, the audience would have difficulty keeping them apart and get confused as a result. And to be honest, there’s enough to be confused about already, as I just explained.
So… we’ve reached the end of Cats’ introductory opening song… Or have we? No, not really as it turns out, because T.S. Eliot had also written his own introduction to the poems in Old Possums Book of Practical Cats and that, of course, also had to be included in the musical.
So how did they handle that?
More about this in my next blog…
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For those of you who want to insert here that cats have nine lives: I will come back to this in a later blog. This notion, however, is never really mentioned in the musical. ↩