How 'Cats' conquered the world

They laughed when Andrew Lloyd Webber said he wanted to put TS Eliot to music. Who's laughing now?

Rebecca Fowler
Tuesday 30 January 1996 00:02 GMT

They said it would never work: a musical in which grown men and women would dress up as cats and sing along to the words of TS Eliot's poetry. It was spurned by theatrical investors as madness, scoffed at by critics and until the very first night disaster was predicted for Cats. Even that was blighted by a bomb scare, which cleared the theatre.

But 15 years on, Cats, the musical, is the most successful show in the world. Last night, on its 6,138th performance, it overtook A Chorus Line as the longest-running musical ever in London. Its creators, Andrew Lloyd Webber, the composer, and Cameron Mackintosh, the producer, have both received knighthoods; and between them they have been at the forefront of establishing the musical as the greatest commercial force in the history of British theatre.

When audiences finally beheld the spectacle, it was like nothing else to have appeared on the British stage. The Jellicle cats exploded from every corner of the theatre in the opening scene, rolling around in the Lycra and legwarmers that became the dance uniform of the Eighties; the New London Theatre was rebuilt to accommodate a set that broke all boundaries by using the whole of the theatre instead of just the stage; the frenetic combination of acting, dancing and singing buried the conviction that Britain could not take on the Americans at their own game; and one song, "Memory", was etched on the national consciousness, sung by everyone from street buskers to opera singers.

According to its supporters, Cats' greatest legacy was to create an entire new audience of theatre-goers, eager for the new mix of populism and innovation, who had been turned off by theatre's elitism. In its first eight years, every seat in the house was sold; even now only a handful lie empty.

Raymond Gubbay, the promoter who puts on hugely popular shows of classical hits, said: "It brought a huge number of people to the theatre who wouldn't otherwise have come, and broke all the barriers. Even the set broke away from tradition and the proscenium arch, to make it more accessible and less formal."

Sir Andrew, fiercely sensitive, still has his critics who accuse him of dragging theatre down to the lowest common denominator. None, however, can deny the power of Cats as a popular institution on a par with the Royal Family and, more recently, the National Lottery.

As the public fell in love with the Lycra and the crashing chords of "Memory", Lloyd Webber and Mackintosh piled up their profits and became the most prolific figures in British musicals.

Sir Andrew remembers it as a high-risk venture: "We knew that when it came to the crunch we would either come up with something very extraordinary or a total turkey. I had forgotten how close we came to calling the whole thing off."

Still searching for the last pounds 50,000 to launch the production, Lloyd Webber, having already remortgaged his house, invited senior Warner Brothers executives to listen to him playing the score on his piano. They weren't impressed. In the end, he and Mackintosh raised three-quarters of the pounds 450,000 capital they needed from small investors who put in pounds 750 each.

The financial success in large part stemmed from the innovative marketing strategy created for the show. Under the guidance of the legendary producers Robert Stigwood and David Land, who produced Evita, they franchised the show in much the same way as McDonald's has franchised its method of making and selling hamburgers. In the past there have been shows that have transferred from Shaftesbury Avenue to Broadway. Cats took the international marketing of theatre on to a different plane. It created the theatre production as a global product; Andrew Lloyd Webber became a global brand.

Sheridan Morley, the theatre critic and broadcaster, described it as a breakthrough for the economic potential of theatre. "Until the end of the Sixties, shows that opened in London would be bought for America in the way that books were, and redone by the Americans for the Americans. What they established was this idea of moving in like a taskforce, to put exactly the same show on whether it be in Manchester or Malaysia. It showed we could provide a musical that could rival anywhere, including the Americans, and export it."

The effects of its financial success spread beyond the theatre, including establishing Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber as a significant patron of the fine art sales rooms. His recently acquired Picasso bought for $29.5m is on view at the National Gallery. Sir Cameron Mackintosh is said to be worth about $200m. Sir Andrew has homes in Berkshire, New York, London, the south of France and Ireland.The success of Cats also allowed the publishers Faber and Faber, which is part of the TS Eliot estate, to flourish as a small independent while others have been swallowed up in mergers. "That was probably more significant than a single note of the musical," said Robert Hewison, the cultural historian.

But the theatrical legacy was to redraw the map of the West End. It was the start of an unprecedented crossover between the populist, commercial world of musicals and the high-brow world of subsidised classical theatre. Trevor Nunn, the director of Cats, was the first to make the leap from the Royal Shakespeare Company. He was joined by John Napier, the RSC designer, while Gillian Lynne, the choreographer, had a Royal Ballet background.

"There isn't any longer a feeling that people who want to be taken seriously shouldn't do that," said Trevor Nunn. "I was fascinated by what do we mean by populists, and how it might be possible to do a work with a hidden underlay, and for a populist audience still to get it. It seems to me it works."

Others now move in and out of populist and classical theatre with ease. Sam Mendes, tipped as the next director of the National Theatre, directed Sir Cameron's production of Oliver; Declan Donnellan of Cheek By Jowl, applauded for its Shakespeare productions, is taking on Martin Guerre, Sir Cameron's latest musical. The legacy of Cats has created a new generation of musical performers, as the demand for singers and dancers grew with the success of musicals.

There are plenty who still turn up their noses at Cats. Its critics deride it as nothing more than shallow entertainment, with no lasting artistic merit. Its supporters, including Raymond Gubbay, who is staging the 100th anniversary production of La Boheme this week at the Royal Albert Hall, believe that in time Sir Andrew may be seen as the Puccini of his day, a composer spurned by the Establishment who was a popular hero.

"There is no doubt songs like 'Memory' will be around for decades and decades to come. Maybe it does offend the snobs, but if it's a beast that touches people's hearts, and it does, why not? It's just a bloody good tune."

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