Let’s take a stroll down Memory Lane to 1980s London. Conservative heartthrob Margaret Thatcher had become Prime Minister the year before, just as the city assumed its starring role in punk and new wave, two movements that would challenge nearly every facet of the status quo. It was, unquestionably, an era of changing currents.
Then a little musical called Cats was born. Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber based the show on T.S. Eliot’s collection of poems, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. It was the British composer's fourth full-length musical and his first that would lack the collaboration of Tim Rice, who’d been his lyricist and co-creator for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Evita. Cats was a different animal altogether.
It featured dancers and singers in legwarmers and scruffy headwear, prancing their lean bodies around a junk-strewn stage, behaving like, well, cats. The show’s paper-thin plot follows a certain tribe of cats called Jellicles, who on one night every year host the Jellicle Ball. This ceremony determines who ascends into a new life.
Throughout the evening, these cats share their stories in song, and the choreography demonstrates their alliances and loves and hates. Oh, yes, and there’s this massive ballad called “Memory” that’s thrown in the middle of it, which itself would go on to dominate radio airwaves in the 1980s. The show was unconventional. It was hugely stylized. It was a hit.
Actually, it was a megahit. It would stay on London’s West End for 21 years. It transferred to Broadway in October 1982—where it played for 18 more years, shattering box office records and going on to earn billions of dollars around the world.
For all that, though, both critics and fans weren’t sure then quite what to think. Whereas in London, the press mostly fawned over the show, the U.S. reviews were tepid. Even the 2016 Broadway revival offered this gem from the New York Times, with reviewer Charles Isherwood calling it "fundamentally the Cats you knew and loved when you were first bit by the musical-theater bug. Or it's the Cats you knew and snickered at when you first encountered it.”
But, like the animal so famous for its nine lives, Cats continues to live on.
“Everyone can relate to being in close knit relationships, as is the tribe,” says Keri René Fuller, who arrives with the Houston tour of the show as Grizabella, a cat once known for her glamour who’s now fallen on hard times. “Everyone can also relate to the feeling of not belonging, as does Grizabella. The story of redemption isn't as clear during the show as it is at the end of the production, and I believe that is what gives the audience such a visceral and emotional reaction.”
And regardless of whether you’ve seen the show or not, emphasizes Kim Craven, its associate choreographer, the dancing is a draw that anyone who loves musical theatre will find hard to pass up. Gillian Lynne did the show’s original choreography 38 years ago, and Andy Blankenbuehler, of Hamilton fame, updated it for the musical’s 2016 revival. Craven is charged with making sure both traditions—Lynne’s intentions and Blankenbuehler’s updates—stay fresh.
"The athleticism, the classical elegance of the show remains,” she says of the dancing. “This show is such a dance bomb!”
Fuller’s character not only gets to sing the show’s signature tune, “Memory,” she’s also something of a lynchpin around which the show revolves. Grizabella, known as “the glamour cat,” was once well-loved among the Jellicles and admired for her beauty. She chose to leave the tribe and now, at the end of her life, she’s alone and a bit battered, and she’s ostracized as she seeks redemption.
And that, says Craven, is worth exploring.
“The whole point of Cats is hopefully to recognize ourselves as humans in these characters,” she says. “Who do you enjoy socializing with? Who’s your pariah? The show is very much about how like us these cats really are.”
That, she believes is part of what makes the musical endure. In December, the movie version of the musical will hit theaters, introducing even more people to this behemoth.
“It’s very emotional to listen to that music and see that dancing,” says Craven. “There’s such rhythm and poetry to it, it’s so engaging. You just sort of let yourself get swept up in it.”
Certainly Fuller has. For her, playing Grizabella is a dream role, made all the more sweet because she didn’t know it was a dream of hers.
“I used to always watch the VHS of the London production, but never thought that Grizabella would be in my future,” she says. “Now that I have the honor of playing her eight times a week, I still have to pinch myself now and again. I consider myself beyond lucky.”
Thru Oct. 27. Tickets from $35. Broadway at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby St. 713-315-2400. More info and tickets at houston.broadway.com.