By Andrew Lloyd Webber

The Second Life of Cats

In December 2014, Andrew Lloyd Webber brought Cats back to London for what was planned as a short run. Singer Nicole Scherzinger took the role of Grizabella. The production was a huge success and re-affirmed the timeless appeal of the show, for a new generation. Here is what Andrew wrote at the time.

My first memory of TS Eliot‘s ‘Old Possum’s Book Of Practical Cats’ is of my mother reading the poems at bedtime when I was six. In the 1930s Eliot had written the poems for his godchildren and so I joined a long line of kids put to bed with these brilliant verses written for children but with a firm nod to their parents. I loved those poems and I often would read them again. They invariably made me happy.

“I loved those poems and
I often would read them again. They invariably made me happy.”

It was in 1978 that I first thought about setting the poems to music partly because I wanted to discover if I could write melodies to existing words.

Up to that time I had principally worked with Tim Rice. Although we collaborated on the structure of our shows, the music came first and Tim’s words came later.

So I tried my settings of four of the poems at my Sydomonton Festival. They went down well enough for me to think of developing the whole of Old Possum as a concert piece rather on the lines of Peter and the Wolf.

Because my instincts are primarily as a musical dramatist, I began playing around with a more theatrical order of the poems but at no time did I think of turning them into a full blown musical, although I vaguely toyed with the idea of a companion piece to ‘Variations’, my first solo hit that I wrote for my cellist brother Julian and rock band.

All this changed when my first complete draft was performed at Sydmonton in 1980. I had invited TS Eliot’s widow and she brought with her an unpublished poem ‘Grizabella The Glamour Cat‘. She told me: ” Tom said it was too sad to publish in a children’s book.”

“Something in me was already saying that I wasn’t dealing with a concert piece anymore.”

I well remember reading the short poem in front of her. My heart raced. Something in me was already saying that I wasn’t dealing with a concert piece anymore.

For the story of Grizabella brought a different and emotional heart to the anthology and that to me spelled theatre. I asked Valerie if there was anything else.

What Valerie unearthed next was the clincher. She produced a poem about dogs and cats and a letter from Tom that suggested this was to be the opening of some sort of entertainment which ended with the animals getting into a big balloon that took them “Up, up, up past the Russell Hotel, up, up, up, to the Heavyside Layer”. Also along the way there was to be some sort of Jellicle event. The poems speak of a Jellicle Ball. The concert piece was no more.

– THE LONDON DANCE SCENE –

In the late 1970s dance was exploding in Britain. The British hitherto were supposed to be incapable of modern dance. But seemingly out of the ether came Arlene Phillips’ groundbreaking, sexy and witty dance troupe Hot Gossip which caused that custodian of British TV morals Mary Whitehouse apoplexy. Wayne Sleep’s dance show Dash was attracting a young audience all over the country. The newly opened Pineapple Studios in Covent Garden was heaving with young wannabe dancers.

I had wanted to be a part of this for some time. I even sounded out Arlene Phillips about choreographing my album ‘Variations’ for Hot Gossip. Eventually ‘Variations’ became the dance half of ‘Song and Dance’.

I wondered if the cat poems could give me that opportunity. One of them is about a Jellicle Ball. Could this be my first chance to compose dance music for the theatre?

Then there was the unpublished poem. It was pure fun, “off duty” Eliot featuring a character called The Man In White Spats who was to guide us through Eliot’s fantasy world of poor little (Pollicle) dogs and dear little (Jellicle) cats. Masochists can hear me play and singly setting of the poem on a compilation album called ‘Now and Forever’.

After he wrote the letter, Eliot decided to make the anthology about cats alone. The only one of his dog poems to be featured was ‘The Battle Of The Pekes and the Pollicles’, presumably because the tense situation Eliot described was sorted out by The Great Rumpus Cat.

– GETTING IT OFF THE GROUND –

My first serious discussion about a stage musical of the poems was with Cameron Mackintosh. Cameron had produced several shows in the West End and some successful touring productions for the Arts Council. But he had not produced any big hits. I was coming to the end of a 10-year management contract with Robert Stigwood and I sensed there were more than a few raised eyebrows in that camp when they learned that I wanted to develop the idea of the cat poems as a musical with Cameron.

“If you want to liken a theatre project to pushing a boulder up a hill, Cats redefined the boulder.”

It was Cameron who suggested Gillian Lynne as choreographer and our initial discussions with her led us to Trevor Nunn who, as the head of the Royal Shakespeare Company, had recently worked with Gillie on a hugely acclaimed production of The Comedy Of Errors.

This led to me meeting another of Trevor’s collaborators, the designer John Napier who had tackled animals before with the play Equus. After a lot of questioning and doubt about our sanity and trusting in John’s belief that he could turn human beings into cats, we took the plunge. Trevor and I began shaping the material. Cats the Musical was born.

If you want to liken a theatre project to pushing a boulder up a hill, Cats redefined the boulder. This is how it appeared to the outside world.

Andrew Lloyd Webber without Tim Rice (my only other show without him Jeeves was a celebrated flop) was setting the words of a dead poet directed by the boss of the RSC who had never directed a musical. Worse there was to be a lot of dance at a time when it was axiomatic that only the Americans could do a dance show. There was no impresario like Stigwood. Cameron had never had a hit as a producer. The theatre we were to open in, the New London, was a graveyard where even Grease starring Richard Gere had been a flop. And to top it all, the West End Rialto sniggered, people were going to be dressed up as cats!

It was little wonder that I had to raise a second mortgage on my house. Investors were few and far between, until the first preview when mysteriously promised but unreceived money appeared from nowhere.

“Judy Dench, who Trevor had persuaded to play Grizabella, snapped her Achilles tendon during rehearsals.”

To further add to the certainty that the first preview would be a night of unparalleled bathos, Judy Dench, who Trevor had persuaded to play Grizabella, snapped her Achilles tendon during rehearsals. Although she tried valiantly to return during our technical rehearsals, she fell badly. Trevor would not allow her to continue.

It’s the stuff of legend now that Elaine Paige, who had played Evita so wonderfully, stepped into the role. Somehow, although we pushed back our opening night, we previewed on time.

– OPENING NIGHT –

By the time we opened on May 11th 1981, ‘Memory’ was climbing up the charts and Cats was away.

Yet even the opening night was nearly fatally holed by a bomb scare which thankfully was not transmitted to the cast until just before the curtain call. This famously turned both cast and fully cat-costumed cast out onto the London streets until the all clear was given. But we had at least got through the entire show. I often wonder what would have happened if the warning had come earlier and the critics had never got to hear Memory.

“It’s almost as if they were meant to be lyrics.”

Looking back it is hard to overestimate how well Eliot’s poems lend themselves to music. They are full of irregular metres and defined choruses that, I believe, only an American could have written, particularly in the 1930s. It’s almost as if they were meant to be lyrics; Valerie Eliot once confided in me that her husband was very fond of the hit songs of his day and often wrote his “off duty” words to them.

It is great to have Cats back, and to introduce TS Eliot’s timeless verse to a new generation.

– By Andrew Lloyd Webber