The show suffered a massive degree of overexposure in its heyday, which caused it not to be taken seriously for a time, but currently the public is gradually warming up to it again, and it seems to be regaining its status as a staple classic of musical theater. Yes, the show has flaws, but those flaws are utterly overwhelmed by its many assets and positive qualities.
First of all, there’s the T.S. Eliot poetry that makes up the lyrics. Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats is essentially minor work by a great poet, but Eliot is Eliot, and the poems are full of wit and genuine charm. Granted, Webber’s adaptation of the lyrics occasionally neuters some of their cleverness…‘But first your memory I’ll jog, and say a cat is not a dog’ just sounds inane without Elliot’s subsequent spiel about how cats are better than dogs, and ‘not long ago, this phenomenal cat/produced seven kittens right out of a hat’ loses all its hilarious meaning here…but a certain measure of that was inevitable in adapting whimsical poetry to music, so I don’t hold it against Webber.
In fact, I’m actually quite impressed with how Webber managed to find so much musical variety in the simple and repetitive meters of Elliot’s verse. Take, for example, “Growltiger’s Last Stand”, in which a single melody becomes a dark and stormy sea chanty, a lyrical ballad, an eerie, Far East-inflected theme, an opera parody, and finally a glowering, triumphant march. The show in general has some of Webber’s greatest music, from the joyous opening, “Jellicle Songs For Jellicle Cats”, to the quietly heartbreaking “Gus: The Theater Cat”, to the slinky, sinister villain song “Macavity: The Mystery Cat”, to the exuberantly catchy chorus of “Mr. Mistoffelees”, to the ecstatic choral finale, “The Ad-Dressing of Cats”.
The show also proves that Webber can write dance music on the level of classical ballet; his early attempt at the genre, Variations, was, apart from one or two pretty tunes, rather dull as a listening experience, but the infectious yet surprisingly complex “The Jellicle Ball” is some of the greatest dance music ever heard on Broadway. In fact, there is only one dud in the entire score, “The Awful Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles”, and it wasn’t really Webber’s fault…the poem used here, while amusing on paper, is just too repetitive and simplistic to work as a song no matter who was writing the music.
“Old Deuteronomy” is one of Webber’s loveliest melodies, and speaking of great melodies, there is of course the legendary hit song “Memory”, whose massive overexposure has still not dimmed its ravishing, unforgettable melody and evocative, haunting lyric (which does a fine job of capturing the sound of Eliot’s adult poems, and as a result actually features the best lyrics in the show).
In spite of the great music, many people (including Stephen Sondheim) have accused the show of being merely empty spectacle, and while it’s true that visual spectacle is a large part of the show’s appeal, it’s artful visual spectacle, not just some gratuitous display of expensive special effects like a summer blockbuster movie. Gillian Lynn’s utterly unique choreography ranks with the work of the greatest Broadway choreographers such as Robbins, Bennett and Fosse…it perfectly captures the grace with which real cats actually move, and is an essential component of the show’s rich atmosphere. The evocatively desolate junkyard set and the impressive and extremely distinctive costuming look of the show also contribute to creating a unique experience not found in any other show.
Granted, there is only the most paper-thin of plot throughlines to serve as an excuse for the show’s string of musical numbers, but the Revue has been a legitimate musical-theater format since the genre’s inception, and between the poetry, the music, the choreography, the sumptuous visuals and the rich atmosphere, Cats offers more than enough compensations for its lack of story substance.