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Point-Counterpoint: Is Cats a Good Musical?

Two critics debate the world's most popular feline follies.

Actors dance in the 2016 Broadway revival of Cats.
(© David Gordon)

Are you a cat person? What about a Cats person? It's possible to be one without the other. Based on a poem by T.S. Eliot, Andrew Lloyd Webber's mega-musical about singing, dancing "Jellicle" cats has always been the subject of fierce disagreement: Is it a spectacle par excellence or a mockery of everything the book musical is supposed to be? Critic Hayley Levitt thinks people are entirely too catty about the show, but critic Zachary Stewart refuses to comply (getting critics to agree is like herding cats). As the long-awaited film adaptation draws near, the pair met to debate the merits and demerits of Cats in our latest Point-Counterpoint:

Critics Zachary Stewart and Hayley Levitt sit down to discuss Cats with Jason and Marie (center), two actual cats.
(© Seth Walters)

Zachary Stewart: Hi, Hayley! Why do you think Cats is a good musical?

Hayley Levitt: I mean, it ran for 18 years on Broadway and was appealing enough to convince Ian McKellan, Idris Elba, Dame Judi Dench, and Taylor Swift to all sign on to the same movie. So I think the burden of proof is on you to tell me why it's not a good musical.

Zach: Let's get an indisputable fact out of the way: Cats is one of the most popular musicals of all time, grossing over $3 billion in worldwide ticket sales since its 1981 debut. Much of this has to do with the ability of the Really Useful Group (composer Andrew Lloyd Webber's production company) to take Cats to the people. Growing up in Ohio, the musical regularly slinked back into my local touring venue like a tomcat looking for cream. It has endeared itself to millions of heartland Broadway fans not just for its whimsical cat costumes and acrobatic choreography, but by virtue of just being there — and often being there first in the case of young theatergoers. So yes, Cats is an impressive spectacle and a financial juggernaut, but neither of those things makes it a good musical.

Hayley: Cats has obviously been the butt of a lot of jokes. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt even dedicated an entire episode to its mythology. But all of the complaints that I've heard are encapsulated in Tony Kushner's summary in Angels in America: "Cats! It's about cats! Singing cats!" We criticize Cats because it's about nothing. That's exactly right. What part of the title did you not understand? I don't remember Andrew Lloyd Webber making any promises he didn't keep.

Zach: I actually sense something a lot more sinister in that thematic void: From its first hypnotic synth riffs to its levitating tire, Cats seems intent on lulling its audience into a mindless stupor. It asks nothing of us but docile attention. I suspect that if George Orwell had included any mention of theater in 1984, it would have looked a lot like Cats (and the cultlike chanting about cat names does nothing to quell my suspicion). As we revisit another Kushner play (A Bright Room Called Day), we ought to ask ourselves if the arrival of pacifying stage entertainment like Cats had anything to do with Kushner drawing a parallel between Reagan's America and Weimar Germany.

Hayley: Of all the things that could potentially lead to our demise right now, I think Cats is at the bottom of the hamper. First of all, I don't think Cats is any more pacifying than frothy musicals like Hello, Dolly! or 42nd Street (you could even glean some subtext about the evils of social ostracism from Grizabella's messianic storyline). Second of all, there's no rule saying that musical theater has to have literary substance. Before book musicals became popular (a shift people often attribute to Oklahoma!), we had shiny revues like the Ziegfeld Follies and song-and-dance farces like Anything Goes. Cats isn't hypnotizing us into political obedience. It's just entertaining us. Maybe if Cats was the only musical the government allowed on Broadway, we'd have reason to worry. But for now I think we can rest easy.

"As a cat, I find the appropriation of my culture by Broadway to be highly problemeowtic," says Jason.
(© Seth Walters)

Zach: But you do admit that Cats represents something of a backslide for the book musical, which saw its Golden Age commence with the integration of story, music, and dance in Oklahoma! That 1943 musical is now experiencing a revelatory revival on Broadway. I was disappointed that that creatives declined to significantly reimagine Cats for its 2016 Broadway revival. It looked and sounded much as it has for the last 35 years. Could it be that there just isn't as much twine to unravel?

Hayley: To paraphrase Forrest Gump, Cats is as Cats does. I don't think it's a backslide for the book musical, because it never claimed to be a book musical. Although it would be unfair of me to not acknowledge that it did win the Tony for Best Book in 1983 (it was the '80s, everyone was flying high on something). Still, it's never going to be a property that you can reimagine a million different ways because it was made to be one thing, and it clearly does that one thing very well. You can't tell me the dancing in Cats isn't always exceptional — or that there isn't at least one earworm in that score you enjoy. Catchy tunes are hard to come by on Broadway these days, and Cats has a mountain of them. That should count for something.

Zach: Earworms are like tapeworms: Difficult to extract, and by no means enjoyable. And while you are right to point out that Cats clawed its way to the top of the Tonys in 1983, the New York Drama Critics' Circle pointedly declined to award it Best Musical, giving it instead to Little Shop of Horrors (another classic musical currently in revival). In hindsight, I think it was the right call, don't you?

Marie asks, "Why would anyone want to watch Juilliard grads in spandex cat costumes when they can watch me?"
(© Seth Walters)

Hayley: Considering that this all went down seven years before I was born, I will politely abstain from answering that question. What I will say about both shows, however, is that there aren't any other musicals like them. Some shows have attempted to knock off elements of Little Shop (I'd say Be More Chill is in that category), but no one has even tried to make a 21st-century Cats. It's not every day you do something so outrageous that you corner an entire market. Andrew Lloyd Webber made a dance pastiche of poetry cats who fight for a spot on a trash tire that will lift them into kitty cat heaven. That's original stuff.

Zach: That audacity is perhaps matched only by his 1984 musical about trains, Starlight Express, which I always felt missed the opportunity for a Skimbleshanks crossover. So do you think the movie will recapture the magic of the stage show?

Hayley: We'll have to wait till December to find out. But if that trailer gave us any hint, I think the movie is going to lean hard into magical whimsy, which, aside from the dancing, is one of the musical's main (and language-barrier-less) attractions. In the spirit of our newest Bombalurina, Taylor Swift, I think we all just need to calm down and let Cats be Cats.

Zach: Based on the trailer alone, I can offer this endorsement: If you're looking for a family movie this holiday season that will leave your child with lasting nightmares, try Cats because Jellicles can and Jellicles do!

If you are looking to ethically adopt a cat of your own, Jason and Marie highly recommend Angellicle Cats Rescue.