By Trevor Nunn

Long Live the Revolution

It’s easy to romanticise, remembering back more than 30 years, but I would say we, the creative colleagues working on Cats, knew that we were attempting something revolutionary. Musically through-written, and with no spoken scenes (of course, as Andrew had done before) but in addition, the show was dramatising the wonderfully comedic and witty verse of TS Eliot, the greatest 20th-century poet. Our narrative was developed in the interstices between the songs through dance and mime, plus the use of light and surround sounds; but, as importantly, there was to be no proscenium arch, no orchestra pit, no barrier between performers and audience: we would perform amongst and through and behind the audience, who would become crucially involved in the action, in a show in which not one single ‘human’ character would appear.

“…we would perform amongst and through and behind the audience, who would become crucially involved in the action.”

Not surprisingly, our friends and professional peers responded to our ideas with a mixture of disbelief and sympathetic amusement (otherwise known as laughing up their sleeves). We knew that in technical terms, what we were doing was mad, but we also knew that fortune favours the brave, especially in music theatre where it is literally impossible to predict what will become a hit and what will be lost without trace in the ocean of dreams.

“We were perpetually asked, ‘why is it so successful?’”

Of course, none of us ever thought that our ‘revolutionary’ show would become (for a while) the longest-running musical in the world, but as we continued to work on our pride and joy, in and around America, Australia, throughout Europe, and as it continued to break box office records everywhere, we were perpetually asked, ‘why is it so successful?’

We came to understand that ‘cats’ are universal, that dance is universal, that great melodies are universal and that we had a show adored by children, but equally loved by adults who received the message TS Eliot had for us in a very different way from their offspring.

“The Tugger has moved with the times, and has become a thoroughly bad boy of now”

Eliot’s Rum Tugger, perverse and wilful, satirises the kind of ‘bad’ boy that crops up in every generation. Back in the early 1980s, it was natural for Andrew to characterise him musically as a rock ’n’ roller, still heavily influenced by Elvis. Clearly, popular music has changed unrecognisably, so the Tugger has moved with the times, and has become a thoroughly bad boy of now. In the process, I have learned all about the groove, and the hook and the track. I am almost cool.

Preparing and rehearsing the new edition of this work that changed our lives was a perpetual mixture of nostalgia, and intensely immediate excitement, as we brought some material bang up to date, found ways of tightening and clarifying our original intentions, and as we understand that, extraordinarily, Cats feels pretty much as revolutionary now as it was in 1982.

– By Trevor Nunn