`Cats' are cream for Lloyd Webber

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Andrew Lloyd Webber will be throwing an outdoor party this evening on 51st Street and Broadway in New York with a feline theme. Amid storms of confetti and a giant laser show, the British composer and impressario will be celebrating the very long life of perhaps his most famous musical, Cats.

With performance number 6,138 in Manhattan's Winter Gardens theatre tonight, Cats will officially dethrone A Chorus Line, as the longest-running show in Broadway history. Tonight's bash is expected to attract stars from stages the length of the Great White Way, as well as other New York dignatories.

For some purists of the American theatre, the passing of the mantle to Cats is no cause for joy, however. Its opening in October 1982 marked the beginning of the conquest of Broadway by the Lloyd Webber machine that later gave it Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera and Sunset Boulevard.

"It is a dagger in heart, and a dagger in the heart of Broadway," commented Gary Stevens, who has co-authored a book about A Chorus Line.

And while it continues to draw tourists by the busload - so far an incredible 8.25 million people have seen it at the Winter Gardens - the musical, based on the TS Eliot's verse collection, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, is also a favourite target of jokes.

Being catty about Cats is almost as standard as ridiculing mother-in- laws. Thus, for instance, there is this line in a promotion for ABC television's successful Politically Incorrect talk-show: "New York ... murders are down, burglaries are down, but we still can't do a damn thing about Cats".

It is not even as if the critical reaction to the musical was terribly marvellous when it first opened in New York almost 15 years ago in October 1982. "As it happens, Cats does attempt a story," declared the New York Times, "and it also aspires to be the first British dance musical in the Broadway tradition. In neither effort does it succeed".

As Lord Lloyd-Webber will doubtless be reminding his guests tonight, however, the cat-stats are unanswerable. The show, whose apt slogan is "Now and Forever", has been the largest single generator of income and jobs on Broadway - it has employed 231 actors. With 42 different productions staged worldwide, it has drawn a global audience of 50 million.

Other things you should know: at the Winter Gardens alone, it has gone through 2,706 pounds of yak hair (for the cat wigs), 1.5 million pounds of dry ice and 9,958 G-strings.