Cats: A Literary Musical Guide

Cats: A Literary Musical Guide
Let’s talk about T.S. Eliot.

You know, THE T.S. Eliot. Best poet ever; editor and director of renowned publishing house Faber and Faber; editor of the short lived but highly esteemed literary magazine Criterion; 1948 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature; essayist; significant contributor to the field of literary criticism; and inspirator of many many artists.

Never heard of him some of you say?

Well, perhaps you’ve heard of this:

No, this was not ‘written by Andrew Lloyd Webber’! Although you’re certainly right that he had a lot to do with it. This musical was, in fact, his idea. And he did write the music for it, fair enough. But that’s where Mr. Lloyd Webber’s contribution mostly stops.

Cats… I have to admit that, as a 14-year old, I was a huge fan. I played my video tape of the 1998 made-for-television-film over and over again up to the point where it had a long white squiggly line running through the screen every time I watched it. I loved almost everything about it: the language, the music, the costumes, and the dancing. But there was one thing that always bothered me: its plot. Or rather, the apparent lack thereof.

Because, seriously, what’s happening? What’s being told during and in between the singing and the dancing? And what possible message(s) are we supposed to gain from this musical? In fact: are we supposed to get anything out of this at all?

When I was young I always assumed it was simply me who was lacking insight into something that was yet too difficult to grasp. However, some years (and a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in English Literature) later it dawned on me: it’s not me who isn’t getting it; it’s them!

The reason why Cats has such a strange plot is actually quite straightforward: it’s based on T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.

Why is it straightforward, you might ask? Well, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats is a collection of poems that Eliot wrote for his godchildren in the 1930’s. He sent these poems to them as little ‘newsletters’. His publishing house Faber and Faber then published them in 1939.1 This collection of poems written for children has no plot. It’s simply a collection of poems about ‘practical cats’. Good poems that each bear their own little subject, but just that. Apart from the fact that they’re all about cats, they aren’t part of a greater narrative structure that runs from beginning to end.

So why adapt it into a musical? Andrew Lloyd Webber grew up with these poems and has fond childhood memories of his mother reading them to him. He kept them for years and had already written music to accompany them at the early age of fifteen2 because he “always thought that there was something about them that was very musical”3

And I can’t say I disagree with him. Watch and listen to this reading of “Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat” for example. It’s so packed with metrical rhythm that, in a way, when reading it out loud it’s almost as if it is sung already:

At the point in his career when he decided to turn Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats into an actual West End production, Lloyd Webber had already proved that he was quite apt at adapting literature into musical successes, as Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ Superstar were both adapted from the Bible. Adapting a collection of poems, however, is a completely different thing, especially when they don’t have a running narrative tying them together.

Yet, things got even more complicated. When he approached the Eliot estate, and T.S. Eliot’s widow Valerie Eliot in particular, in 1980 with the request to turn this volume of poetry into a musical, he got consent under the condition that he would only use the original poems as text.4

And he (and colleagues) did just so. With some slight alterations (we’re mostly talking here about turning “he”s and “she”s into “I”s and vice versa) and some less slight additions in the form of a few extra songs to construct some kind of plot-ish thing.

This ‘plot’ was worked out by director Trevor Nun while the musical was already in development.5 The result of this was that many of the musical’s actors were quite confused about what they were actually doing, since the musical had no identified plot during most of its rehearsals.6 I guess that they weren’t the only ones confused about what’s actually going on…

See, the thing is, though I admire that they managed to construct some slight sort of narrative thing throughout the play at all, seeing how little there was to begin with and how many limitations they had, here’s my problem: IT DOESN’T MAKE ANY SENSE!!! Especially not when keeping Eliot’s work in mind when looking at it. It’s not that they didn’t take the effort to read his work, they clearly did, but they simply do not seem to ‘get it’. Resulting in a strange mash-up of Eliot’s poetry being sung with entirely different and rather dubious messages attached to them, if any at all.

So, what is Cats actually about? That’s a question I’m determined to answer to the fullest extent of my intellectual capacities in this blog series. In the upcoming episodes I will therefore discuss everything I could possibly cover (after an enormous amount of (internet)research): its songs and their (historical) background, the way these songs are represented on stage, the various manners in which they can be interpreted, and the (possible) reasons why the musical turned out the way it is, confusing plot and all.

Why dedicate an entire blog series to such a thing? Because there’s actually quite a lot to tell and discuss. Andrew Lloyd Webber and many others did put a lot of work into this musical and it clearly shows. But whether their efforts compliment their source material in any way is debatable, which, surprisingly, nobody seems to have done to this extent.

And aside from that: isn’t it kind of bitter yet fascinating that the best known work of, in my opinion, the greatest poet ever is not his grand poetry but a children’s book acted out by singing and dancing furries? And that most people who watch the show don’t even know he wrote most of it?

If you’re like me and you’ve watched the show (or parts of it) wondering what the fuck was going on half of the time. If you’re interested in poetry, literature, and/or drama, or just in musicals in particular. If you’ve ever wondered why a nonsensical musical with dancing cats has been such a success (and still is such a big success today). If you’re curious whether Andrew Lloyd Webber’s decision to turn a book of poems into a musical was either a lazy way to cash in or a personal dedication to a writer in whose work lie so many fond childhood memories. Or if you’re simply here because you’re lost on the World Wide Web and are in need of entertainment…

You’ve found the right place! So please carry on to my next chapter.

The cat just got out of the bag….


Gesprek tussen de meeuw en de psychiater
Paper Towns
Poëzie is een daad
Gabrielle Pinkster

Gabrielle Pinkster

Gabrielle Pinkster (a.k.a. The Reading Dutchwoman) studied English Language and Culture at the University of Groningen and specialised in early 20th century literature and poetry. Like most (former) students of literature she is ‘currently working on her novel’.
Gabrielle Pinkster
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  1. Wikipedia 

  2. Wikipedia 

  3. As quoted from the Arena documentary T.S. Eliot

  4. Wikipedia 

  5. The BBC documentary The Story of Musicals 

  6. Wikipedia