Tales of Jellicle cats are back in a new production
On just one special night of the year, all Jellicle cats meet at the Jellicle Ball where Old Deuteronomy, their wise and benevolent leader, makes the Jellicle choice and announces which of them will go up to the Heaviside Layer – a kind of feline afterlife – and be reborn into a whole new Jellicle life.
Doesn't look, on first glance, like the recipe for one of the world's most enduringly popular musicals, does it? But, thanks to the combined talents of TS Eliot and Andrew Lloyd Webber, the curious structure of the former's charming poem cycle Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats has indeed been transformed into one of the longest-running shows in West End and Broadway history, which visits the Bristol Hippodrome for a fortnight from this Tuesday as part of a new tour for 2013.
Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats – on which the musical Cats is based – was written by Eliot during the 1930s and first published in 1939. The collection introduces a community of colourful felines, with comments on their individual characteristics and skills. Although Eliot generally intended his cat poems to be for children, they also attracted plenty of adult admirers.
Lloyd Webber was a fan of the collection since childhood and, after working on a musical for several years, Cats made its debut at the New London Theatre in 1981. The show's director was Trevor Nunn, known for his tenures as director with the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre. It won an Olivier Award for Best Musical and played almost 9,000 performances.
Including one of Lloyd Webber's most memorable musical scores, spectacular set design, extraordinary costumes and stunning choreography, Cats is a uniquely magical musical. It continues to be a worldwide musical phenomenon – one of the world's longest running musicals, seen by over 50 million people in over 300 cities.
Over the years, the UK production has attracted an impressive line-up of performers, including Elaine Paige as Grizabella, a former Glamour Cat who has lost her sparkle; dancer Wayne Sleep as Mungojerrie, the male half of a pair of notorious cat-burglars; Bonnie Langford as Rumpleteazer, Mungojerrie's female partner-in-crime; and Brian Blessed as the loveable patriarch Old Deuteronomy.
Other enduring favourites among the 40-strong feline cast include Bustopher Jones, the fat cat who sports a snappy tuxedo and spats; ; Mr Mistoffelees, a young black tom with magical powers which he never quite fully controls; and the flashy tomcat The Rum Tum Tugger.
Lloyd Webber's musical has some distinctive features. The show is told completely through music, with virtually no spoken dialogue between songs. Dance is a key element, with the ten-minute Jellicle Ball dance sequence a highlight. The set, consisting of an oversized junk yard, remains the same throughout the show without any scene changes.
"I enjoyed working on Cats as much as on any show on which I have worked," Lloyd Webber has said. "The verses in Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats are extraordinarily musical; they have rhythms that are very much their own, like the Rum Tum Tugger or Old Deuteronomy.
"And, although clearly they dictate to some degree the music that will accompany them, their irregular and exciting metre is challenging to a composer."
As three decades of performances across the globe can testify, Lloyd Webber was equal to that challenge. The combination of his musical know-how and Eliot's extraordinary imagination and humour make for one of the most unusual and loveable musicals you are likely to see.