The really useful money spinner

On Monday, Cats becomes the longest-running musical in London and New York history. How come? By David Benedict
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"You went to Cats. You said it was an all-time low in a lifetime of theatre-going... you said Aeschylus didn't invent theatre to have it end up as a bunch of chorus kids wondering which of them will go to Kitty Kat heaven." In Six Degrees of Separation, the playwright John Guare puts the case for the opposition. Cats is the show that smart American playwrights love to hate, and they're not alone. For the culturally elevated, it has become synonymous with theatrical vulgarity, but can 7 million London theatregoers be wrong?

Whatever else it was, when Cats opened in 1981, it was new and different. Traditional backers backed off, so finance was raised from a host of small investors. Putting money into a show is usually an act of charity. On Cats, a pounds 750 stake in the Really Useful Theatre Company's biggest success has netted around pounds 20,000 over 14 and a half years. It has taken pounds 1bn worldwide, pounds 85m in London.

It was by no means a dead cert. Lloyd Webber was coming off a hit (Evita), but he'd lost his lyricist Tim Rice and TS Eliot was a) unversed in writing musicals, and b) dead. Lloyd Webber persuaded Valerie, Eliot's widow, to give him the rights to Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats - but a musical about furry pets?

The cast included Bonnie Langford and Wayne Sleep, not exactly famed for their poetry readings, and it was director Trevor Nunn's first musical. Choreographer Gillian Lynne clocked the early Eighties dance boom, put the entire company into legwarmers and created a complete dance aesthetic for the show, one of the key reasons for its success. Two days before the opening, Judi Dench tore her achilles tendon and had to be replaced by Elaine Paige, who went on to sing the hit song "Memory", which itself went into the top five. Over 150 others have since recorded it.

The show changed lives. Its producer, Cameron Mackintosh, became immensely rich and a force to be reckoned with; its composer married one of the chorus, Sarah Brightman. The sensational logo, a dancer in a cat's eye on a black poster, almost didn't happen because "you can't have a black poster", but it was inspired, changed the face of theatre marketing and catapulted the agency, Dewynters, into an unassailable pole position.

It revived the New London Theatre, used state-of-the-art effects - designer John Napier even put some of the audience on a revolve - and ended up with stacks of awards. There is nothing to offend in it and no dialogue translation problems, hence its global franchise potential (there are 11 productions worldwide). It's a tourist attraction to rival Madame Tussauds. But it's unlikely to become the world's longest-running show ever. The Mousetrap is 44 years old and going strong.