25 days of cats

How Cats Changed Broadway (Now and) Forever

Theater was on life support. Then the big British imports started to arrive.

The 1982 cast. Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Photo by Getty
The 1982 cast. Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Photo by Getty

Andrew Lloyd Webber hates technical rehearsals. The slow pace, the stopping and starting as stagehands and designers fiddle with sound and lighting cues, and the inevitable breakdown of the set “redefine watching paint dry,” he writes in his charming memoir, Unmasked. He’s been known to get so frustrated that he’ll announce, “I’m pulling my score!” Sometimes he jumps into the orchestra pit, gathers up the sheet music and storms out of the theater. The moment always passes, but everybody who’s worked with him knows that, sooner or later, the “I’m pulling my score!” moment will come during tech.

And yet it’s to one of those rehearsals that Lloyd Webber owes an idea for a show that has made him the richest composer in the history of the theater. As Elaine Paige was attempting to sing “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” during tech for Evita in 1978, the Casa Rosada — the set with the balcony where Evita sings — broke down. Rather than pull his score, Lloyd Webber kept frustration at bay by reciting to himself the poem “Macavity the Mystery Cat” from one of his favorite childhood books, T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. Lloyd Webber thought it might be fun to set some of the poems to music, as William Walton had done with Edith Sitwell’s poems in Façade — An Entertainment, and over time his idea grew into a full-fledged musical. Cats has grossed nearly $3 billion worldwide. Its take-home tune, “Memory,” is the most lucrative song ever to come out of the musical theater. A friend of Lloyd Webber’s says that whenever the composer walks into a restaurant in Europe where an orchestra is playing, the conductor invariably strikes up the tune.

The latest incarnation of the juggernaut is Tom Hooper’s movie. Two trailers have dropped, with the CGI fur on the actors and the female cats’ human breasts causing all sorts of sniping and snickering on social media. But snipping and snickering are nothing new for Cats. Theater critics and other elites have long disdained it. John Guare made it the butt of a joke in Six Degrees of Separation, as did Tony Kushner in Angels in America. (Roy Cohn’s synopsis: “Cats! It’s about cats! Singing cats!”) But love it or loathe it, there’s no denying the profound impact Cats has had on the entertainment business. In London, where it opened in 1981, it lifted the West End out of a crippling recession. In New York, where it opened a year later, it is the musical that shook Broadway out of its financial doldrums and put it on the road to becoming the multibillion-dollar global entertainment engine it is today.

Lloyd Webber began work on Cats at an uncertain moment in his career. With lyricist Tim Rice he’d had two big hits, Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, but by 1980 their relationship was strained. As a mutual friend once said, Lloyd Webber was happiest when he was working; Rice was happiest when the work was done. So Lloyd Webber was looking for a lyricist. He solved the problem by finding a dead one. As it turned out, Eliot often wrote his poems while listening to popular tunes of the day. Lloyd Webber read “Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat,” and had a pretty good idea of the song Eliot was listening to at the time. (He won’t say what it was.) “But I had to keep myself from thinking that way,” Lloyd Webber once told me.

He was also looking for a producer after a falling out with Robert Stigwood, the producer of Superstar and Evita. The man he found, Cameron Mackintosh, would go on to become the most successful producer of his generation. But before Mackintosh could work with Lloyd Webber, he first had to get over the fact that he wanted to kill him.

Two years earlier, accepting the Society of West End Theater’s award for Best Musical for Evita, Lloyd Webber had been appalled at the shambolic ceremony, and said, “It’s a shame that Hal Prince isn’t around to direct this event.” The producer of the SWET ceremony was Mackintosh. Lloyd Webber had never heard of him, but word quickly reached him that Mackintosh was out for revenge. Lloyd Webber wasn’t worried: Mackintosh, he assumed, was “some 65-year-old Scotsman” who’d been hanging around the fringes for years. The London theater world lapped up news of the feud. Lloyd Webber made peace by inviting Mackintosh to lunch at the Savile Club. He was surprised to find that “the 65-year-old Scotsman” was a boyish, pudgy 32-year-old with a wicked sense of humor and a passion for musical theater that rivaled his own.

“We met at 12:30, and by 6 we were still having lunch,” Lloyd Webber told me for my book, Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway. Over three (possibly four) bottles of Burgundy, Lloyd Webber told Mackintosh about his idea for song cycle based on Eliot’s poems. They decided it should be a full musical, and by the time the last bottle was empty, Lloyd Webber had his new producer.

Eliot’s widow, Valerie, who had once been his secretary, fiercely protected his work. To convince her to give them the rights to Old Possum’s Book, Mackintosh and Lloyd Webber thought they needed somebody with literary credentials on their team. Mackintosh suggested director Trevor Nunn, the head of the Royal Shakespeare Company. His productions of Antony and Cleopatra, Macbeth (with Judi Dench and Ian McKellen), and The Life and Times of Nicholas Nickleby had won great acclaim. Nunn jumped at the chance to work in the commercial theater, though some of the RCS’ board members grumbled about his “moonlighting.”

Lloyd Webber met with Valerie Eliot at her apartment in Kensington. He was nervous, but she was gracious. She was adamant about one thing: Under no circumstances were her husband’s cats to be turned into cute and cuddly kittens. Eliot had, in fact, turned down an offer from Walt Disney to adapt Old Possum’s into an animated feature. Lloyd Webber, whose Superstar was a sexy rock musical, didn’t want fluffy balls of fur either. The cats he had in mind would be highly sexual. He asked Eliot if she’d ever heard of Hot Gossip, a popular television show featuring sexy dancers in risqué outfits. (One of them was Sarah Brightman.) Oh yes, she said. Her husband would have loved it.

“Stage one of ‘The Wooing of Valerie,’ as we came to call that meeting, was complete,” Lloyd Webber wrote in his memoir.

Lloyd Webber set a few of Eliot’s poems to music and debuted them at his Sydmonton Festival in 1980. (Sydmonton is Lloyd Webber’s vast estate outside of London. He bought it in 1973 and turned an old church on the property into a workshop theater, as you do when you’ve written Jesus Christ Superstar.) He shrewdly invited Eliot to the festival that year so she could see what he was doing with a show he was calling Practical Cats. The songs went over well, but something had been nagging at Lloyd Webber, Mackintosh and Nunn: There was no plot on which to hang the songs. As the show’s choreographer, Gillian Lynne, was demonstrating cat movements to guests on the lawn, Eliot gave Lloyd Webber an envelope full of her husband’s unpublished cat poems. She suggested he take a look at one about Grizabella the Glamour Cat, which T.S. Eliot thought was too depressing for children. The envelope also contained a letter Eliot had written suggesting a plot for the poems that culminated in the Jellicle Ball, with the cats (and some dogs) getting into a hot air balloon and flying over the Russell Hotel to the Heaviside Layer. Lloyd Webber and Nunn poured over the unpublished material and came up with the barebones of a story: The cat selected to travel to the Heaviside Layer and be reborn would be the bedraggled outcast, Grizabella. They made another decision: Eliminate the dogs.

That became a problem when Mackintosh tried to raise money for a show that, in 1980, was budgeted at nearly $2 million. Mackintosh approached a friend who’d invested in all of his previous shows (most of them flops). “Cameron, I love you,” the friend said. “But I’m not investing in this one. It will never work. England is a nation of dog lovers.” Lloyd Webber auditioned his songs for potential investors, but there weren’t many takers. “These cats are gloom, doom, and disaster,” one person said. “Leave them alone, boys.”

A major expense was John Napier’s set. He had designed the sets and costumes for Peter Shaffer’s Equus, creating stylized horse heads out of leather and cane covered in metal foil. Reading Eliot’s The Wasteland, Napier devised a rubbish dump where everything was scaled to the size of the cats. There were over-scale cans of Heinz Baked Beans, a big sneaker, a discarded washing machine, and the enormous trunk of a broken-down car. For the balloon that took the cats to the Heaviside Layer, Napier substituted a huge tire operated by a hydraulic lift. Resembling the spaceship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, it was the most expensive item in the budget.

The leg and arm warmers people wore around London in the 1980s inspired Napier’s cats costumes, which were also composed of skin-tight bodysuits, wigs and painted cat faces. Napier’s cats weren’t cuddly. They were “streetwise, funky, and punkish,” he told the BBC.

As the scope of Napier’s production grew, it was clear that no ordinary theater could house Practical Cats. Lloyd Webber, Nunn, and Mackintosh scoured London for an appropriate space. Lloyd Webber found it while he was the subject of the television show This Is Your Life. The program was taped in the New London Theater. The composer, who knows everything there is to know about theater architecture, noticed that it was big enough for his show. And then he remembered that it had been built with a giant turntable on the stage. He asked the house manager if the turntable still worked. After the taping, the house manager went to a control board and punched some buttons. The stage revolved. That sealed it. Nunn also wanted a chunk of the audience to be close to the cats, and that could be achieved by putting seats on the stage. The turntable could move the seats so theatergoers in the auditorium had clear sight lines. Practical Cats would be a proscenium show and a theater-in-the-round show at the same time.

But there was a catch. The New London had not had a hit show in years, so its owners had converted it into a TV studio and conference center, and they were making a tidy packet renting it out. If Practical Cats failed, it would be out in the alley within days and the theater could go back to being a TV studio. But if the show ran a few months or even, with any luck, a year, the owners would then have to reconfigure the theater again and restart their lucrative booking business. That was too risky. So Lloyd Webber struck a deal: If the show closed within two years he’d pay a penalty of £200,000 — yet another expense on top of an increasingly expensive show that was still desperate for investors. Lloyd Webber decided to go all in. He didn’t have that kind of cash, he later wrote in his memoir, so he mortgaged Sydmonton. He violated, in a big way, Mel Brooks’s fundamental rule of show business: Never put your own money in.

With Gillian Lynne developing cat choreography, Practical Cats was going to be something new for the West End — a dance show. “Which is another reason people thought we were stark raving mad,” Lloyd Webber once told me. “At the time, we didn’t do dance musicals.” Those came from New York, most notably Michael Bennett’s A Chorus Line. In Britain, Nunn and Lynn assembled a cast of dancers, including some from the ballet world, one or two from Jesus Christ Superstar and, from Hot Gossip, Sarah Brightman. Nunn mentioned the show to his friend Judi Dench. “Oh, I’d love to be a cat,” she said. But she wasn’t a dancer. There was one cat, however, that didn’t dance — Grizabella, central to the show’s slender plot. Dench signed up.

Rehearsing in London, 1981. Photo: Mirrorpix

Since pretty much everything about Practical Cats was going to be something the West End had never seen, it needed a logo and poster to match. DeWynters, an ad agency, presented several images, one of which was a pair of yellow cat’s eyes with dancers in them. The eyes were set against a black background. Below them was the title: Practical Cats. But the two words threw off the balance. Nunn crossed out “practical.” The show was now called, simply, Cats.

As rehearsals got underway, Nunn realized something was missing — an 11 o’clock number for Grizabella. What we need, he told Lloyd Webber, was the equivalent of a “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.” As it happened, Lloyd Webber had one in his trunk of discarded songs. In the 1970s, he’d made a stab at an opera about the rivalry between Puccini and Leoncavallo, who had dueling La Bohèmes running at the same time. Lloyd Webber didn’t get very far with the idea, but he did compose a haunting Puccini-esque tune. It was so evocative of Puccini that Lloyd Webber worried it might be by Puccini. He played it for his father, an accomplished musician and a Puccini expert. “Does this sound like anything?” he asked. “It sounds like $1 million,” his father said. “You’ve done a very clever pastiche, but it’s not by Puccini.” Lloyd Webber played the tune for Nunn and the cast. “Remember the date,” Nunn said. “Remember the time. We’ve heard a piece of music that’s going to go to number one.”

The song didn’t have a lyric, so Nunn and Lloyd Webber went back to Eliot’s poems to find something suitable. They came across “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” and were struck by phrases such as “the street lamp sputtered,” the border of her dress “is torn and stained with sand,” and “the moon has lost her memory.” Nunn said he’d try to cobble together a lyric. Lloyd Webber also asked Don Black, with whom he’d written Tell Me on a Sunday, to have a go as well. Lloyd Webber thought his tune was strong enough to be recorded and released as an instrumental single before the show opened. His friend Gary Moore, a heavy-metal guitar player, recorded it. The single went nowhere, but one night while driving home Elaine Paige, the original Evita in the West End, heard it on the BBC. She thought it was gorgeous. As she was fumbling for her keys to open the front door, a mangy black cat appeared out of nowhere. That was strange: She’d just heard a song from Lloyd Webber’s new musical about cats and now one was at her doorstep. The next day she got a call from Lloyd Webber. Disaster had struck his show. Judi Dench had torn her Achilles tendon and would be sidelined for at last a month, probably longer. Previews were to begin in a week. “We’re in trouble,” Lloyd Webber said. He asked if she’d consider playing the part of Grizabella.

“She only has one song,” he said.

“It wouldn’t be the song I heard on the radio last night by any chance, would it?” she asked.

“That’s it!” Lloyd Webber said.

Paige was in.

As the company raced to get the show ready for its first preview, Paige spent most of her time learning the song, which was now called “Memory.” The lyrics still weren’t jelling. Lloyd Webber asked Tim Rice for something, so Paige was singing a bit of this from Eliot, a bit of that from Nunn, a phrase or two from Don Black and new verses from Rice, who happened to be her lover.

The final dress rehearsals were, by all accounts, disasters. The lighting wasn’t finished, Napier was still fiddling with the costumes, a few dancers were nursing injuries, Paige was struggling with “Memory,” numbers seemed to go on forever. And the show still wasn’t fully capitalized. Mackintosh offered Paige a chance to invest. No way, she said.

After one particularly catastrophic rehearsal Mackintosh and Lloyd Webber went in search of a bar that was still open. They decided to cut their losses and close the show. Nunn joined them. They told him the news. He rolled his eyes and then, according to Lloyd Webber, patiently outlined what he hoped to accomplish at tomorrow’s rehearsal.

Lloyd Webber and Mackintosh could not bear to sit through the first public performance of Cats in the spring of 1981. They planned to wish the cast good luck, listen to the overture and then, disaster staring them in the face, take refuge in the nearest bar, their careers in ruin. As Lloyd Webber wrote, “How long that overture seemed! Cameron and I clutched each other as the final big cat theme thundered out and waited for the debacle. Instead there was a massive round of applause.”

Cats played that first preview with no money in the till. But as word of mouth spread through London, ticket sales spiked. Anthony Pye-Jeary, a DeWynters executive, saw all those theatergoers milling around the lobby at intermission and had an idea. T-shirts with the Cats logo had been made for the cast and crew. There were plenty left. Why not set up a little stall in the lobby and sell them? “It was extraordinary,” Pye-Jeary said. “People were just throwing money at me.” Mackintosh and Lloyd Webber stood at the top of a staircase in the New London and counted the number of theatergoers waiting in line to buy the T-shirt. Lloyd Webber’s wife looked at them and saw pound signs in their eyes. (The only T-shirt that outsold Cats in the 1980s was the Hard Rock Café’s.)

Paige was still struggling with the cobbled-together lyric of “Memory.” The audience response was good, but not over-the-top. Nunn thought Rice’s lyrics were too depressing. Fine, said Rice. If you don’t like them, don’t use them. Nunn came up with a lyric that he thought might work. The night Paige sang it she stopped the show. (Since then, “Memory” has added considerably to Nunn’s bank account. Rice and Black get nothing. And that’s why they call him “Clever Trevor.”)

By the time the mixed reviews came out, Cats was a sensation. Bernard B. Jacobs, the powerful head of the Shubert Organization in New York, caught an early preview with his wife Betty and their grandson. They found the show baffling, but the next day their grandson asked if he could see it again. There were no seats available, so he sat on the aisle steps of the New London and was enchanted all over again. “If the young ones like it,” Jacobs told his wife, “There must be something to it.”

Every producer and theater owner in New York wanted a piece of Cats on Broadway. David Merrick offered to give Mackintosh and Lloyd Webber his smash hit 42nd Street for London if they’d give him Cats for  New York. In the end, though, they went with the Shuberts, who in short order became the lead producers (laying off some of their investment to David Geffen). Lloyd Webber and Mackintosh felt sidelined, but the truth was they didn’t know their way around Broadway, which the Shuberts had dominated since the 1920s. Lloyd Webber and Mackintosh explored other spaces besides the usual venues, including the decrepit New Amsterdam Theater on 42nd Street, where a porn movie ran while they poked around backstage. The Shuberts allowed them their little adventures and then steered them to the Shubert-owned Winter Garden on Broadway. There was no way the Shuberts were going to let Cats play in a theater they didn’t control.

Lloyd Webber on the roof of his New York apartment building with the score of Cats, October 1982. Photo: Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images

But Mackintosh, Lloyd Webber, and Nunn were not powerless. They insisted that interior of the Winter Garden be painted black, even though the Shuberts had just spent $1 million restoring it. The Shuberts spent another $1.5 million on black paint as well as structural changes to accommodate Napier’s floating tire. “This show had better work,” Jacobs said one day as he was going through the numbers. “We’re laying out a lot of money here.”

The cost of producing Cats in New York was (minus the renovation) $4.5 million. It was the most expensive musical in the history of Broadway. The Shuberts priced the top tickets at $45 — absurdly low by the standard of today’s $400 Moulin Rouge tickets, but obscenely high in 1982. And yet the public snapped them up. Albert Poland, a young producer, visited Jacobs one afternoon to discuss ticket pricing on an Off Broadway show he was producing with the Shuberts called Little Shop of Horrors. The Shuberts wanted to raise prices even though Poland’s show was making $4,000 a week. “You will destroy Off Broadway with your greed,” Poland said. Jacobs showed Poland the accounting statement for the first week of previews of Cats at the Winter Garden. The operating profit was $186,000 (nearly $600,000 today). Poland almost fainted. No show had ever made that much money in a single week.

By the time Cats opened at the Winter Garden on October 7, 1982, it had a record-breaking advance sale of $6.2 million. Predictably, the reviews were mixed. The British creators sensed some resentment that they, and not Stephen Sondheim or Hal Prince or Michael Bennett, had come up with what looked to be the most successful Broadway musical of all time. Michael Feingold, in the Village Voice, wrote, “To sit through [the show] is to realize that something has just peed on your pants leg.” Frank Rich, in the New York Times, said the show was full of banalities and catnap stretches of boredom, but praised its “theatrical magic” and accurately predicted it would “lurk around Broadway for a long time to come.”

The $6.2 million advance sale swelled to $10 million, and eventually to $20 million. Cats was a sure bet to win the Tony for Best Musical in 1983, but one competitor for Best Book thought he had a shot: The writer Peter Stone, reasoning that he had the edge on the dead T.S. Eliot, thought he’d pick up the Tony for My One and Only, a confection of songs by George and Ira Gershwin directed by Tommy Tune. “And the winner for Best Book of a Musical is …” Stone stood up. “T.S. Eliot — Cats!” Stone sat down. “I should have known,” Stone told me many years later. “I saw Valerie Eliot at the theater. The Shuberts would never have flown her over if they didn’t think Cats would win.”

Cats arrived on Broadway just as the American musical was beginning to lose some of its best talent. Jerome Robbins, director and choreographer of West Side Story and Gypsy, had decamped to the New York City Ballet. Gower Champion died the day before the opening of 42nd Street in 1980. The partnership of Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince, which had given Broadway Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, and Sweeney Todd, broke up after the failure of Merrily We Roll Along in 1981. Prince’s next three shows were flops. Sondheim wrote the brilliant Sunday in the Park With George, but it never came close to a weekly operating profit of $186,000. Bob Fosse dropped dead of a heart attack in Washington, D.C., in 1987 while on his way to the opening of a revival of Sweet Charity. Michael Bennett, the creator of A Chorus Line and Dreamgirls, died of AIDS on July 2, 1987. AIDS would wipe out a generation of aspiring directors and choreographers who, had they lived, might have become the next Jerome Robbins or Bob Fosse or Michael Bennett.

Lloyd Webber and Mackintosh filled the void they left with highly commercial shows that broke box-office records around the world. In 1986, Mackintosh produced Les Misérables. Lloyd Webber wrote The Phantom of the Opera, which he co-produced with Mackintosh on Broadway in 1988, and which is still there 31 years later. Mackintosh capped off the era of the big British musical with Miss Saigon in 1991.

Those shows grossed billions of dollars and catapulted Broadway from a backwater of the entertainment business to the mainstream of popular culture. In the early ’90s Michael Eisner, head of the Walt Disney Company, ran into Lloyd Webber at an event in North Carolina. He began “probing me about the theater business,” Lloyd Webber said. Eisner was astounded to learn how much money Cats and Phantom were making. He decided to bring Beauty and the Beast to Broadway, followed by The Lion King, which with a worldwide gross of nearly $9 billion is the most successful entertainment property of all time.

Even the backlash against Lloyd Webber and Mackintosh’s reign changed the musical theater. A struggling songwriter no one had ever heard of used to complain to anyone who would listen that a Broadway ruled by Cats and Phantom did not speak to his generation. His name was Jonathan Larson, and he responded by writing Rent.

So snicker and snipe all you want to at Cats, “Memory,” the movie trailer, the CGI fur, Taylor Swift’s perky kitty boobs. Broadway today, with its robust ticket sales, long-running hits, and worldwide stature, would not exist had Andrew Lloyd Webber not tamed his frustration at a technical rehearsal by putting some notes to T.S. Eliot’s line, “And when you reach the scene of crime Macavity’s not there!”

On Broadway in 2000. Photo: New York Daily News Archive/NY Daily News via Getty Images

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How Cats Changed Broadway (Now and) Forever