In the summer of 1830, King William I of the Netherlands scheduled a multi-day birthday bash in Brussels, and he expected everybody in the city to join in the fun. The celebration, however, would not go as planned: Political turmoil, which had been brewing in the city for months, would cause two public events—a fireworks display and a procession—to be canceled. One of the few public events to remain on the schedule would be an August 25 performance of the operaThe Mute Girl of Portici, by the French composer Daniel Auber.
Like the other events planned that week, the show would experience a few hiccups.
In the mid 1830s, tensions in the United Kingdom of the Netherlands were at a boil. In the north, most citizens (King William I among them) were Dutch Protestants. In the south, most people were French-speaking Roman Catholics—and they were demanding independence.
Considering this growing atmosphere of discontent, King William I's choice of opera was a questionable one. The plot of Portici's fiery libretto revolves around the Neapolitan revolts of 1647, telling the tale of Masaniello, the real-life Italian fisherman who led an uprising against the rulers of Naples. (The opera itself was revolutionary, too: Among the first of its kind in the genre, this "French grand opera"—called La Muette de Portici in its native language—was a lavish and large-scale spectacle that, most notably, had integrated ballet and mime into the performance.)
One could say the opera's place in history was preordained: It was one of the final public events for King William I's celebration and, after the cancellation of the fireworks and the procession, one of the few events locals could openly protest. Days before the show, the newspaper Courrier des Pays-Bas suggested that concertgoers should leave the performance at the fifth act. Many of the attendees, however, were so moved by the opera's nationalistic music that they left much earlier. During a second act duet, called Amour Sacré de la Patrie—or "Sacred Love of the Fatherland"—the crowd began to cheer so wildly that the performers reportedly had to stop singing and start over.
Eventually, the performers reached the peak of the piece's lyrics—singing Aux Armes, that is: "Call to Arms"—and dozens of spectators stood from their seats and ran to the streets. When the fifth act arrived, audience members began to loudly boo in an attempt to stop the show and incite a riot. "The delirious crowd [hurled itself] out of the hall—and into history," wrote 20th-century French composer Lionel Renieu. "Welcomed by the other crowd which waited outside, it joined in the demonstrations which loosed the revolution of 1830."
Indeed, the musical performance had invigorated the crowd. The audience passionately chanted patriotic slogans, stormed into government buildings, and began destroying factory machinery. Within days, they were flying the flag of Independent Belgium, which was tied to a standard with shoelaces.
The dissent in Brussels was powerful enough to attract the attention of other disaffected working class people in the south, and soon thousands more would join the cause. According to the History Channel, just one month later, "the city fell into bloody street battles between the military and the rebels, who were eventually victorious. They drafted a Declaration of Independence on 4 October, and on 20 December the London Conference declared the United Kingdom of the Netherlands was dissolved." Soon, Belgium was its own independent country.
Years later, in 1871, the German composer Richard Wagner—who had met the elder Auber numerous times and had conducted a production of Portici himself—wrote in his book Reminiscences of Auber, "[S]eldom has an artistic product stood in closer connection to a world event."
“It was better than Cats!” Decades after Andrew Lloyd Webber's famed musical opened on Broadway on October 7, 1982, this tongue-in-cheek idiom remains a part of our lexicon (thanks to Saturday Night Live). Although the feline extravaganza divided the critics, it won over audiences of all ages and became an industry juggernaut—one that single-handedly generated more than $3 billion for New York City's economy—and that was before it made a return to the Great White Way in 2016. In honor of Andrew Lloyd Webber's birthday on March 22, let’s take a trip down memory lane.
1. The work that Cats the musical is based on was originally going to include dogs.
Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, published in 1939, is a collection of feline-themed poems written by the great T. S. Eliot. A whimsical, lighthearted effort, the volume has been delighting cat fanciers for generations—and it could have become just as big of a hit with dog lovers, too. At first, Eliot envisioned the book as an assemblage of canine- and tabby-related poems. However, he came to believe that “dogs don’t seem to lend themselves to verse quite so well, collectively, as cats.” (Spoken like a true ailurophile.) According to his publisher, Eliot decided that “it would be improper to wrap [felines] up with dogs” and barely even mentioned them in the finished product.
For his part, Andrew Lloyd Webber has described his attitude towards cats as “quite neutral.” Still, the composer felt that Eliot’s rhymes could form the basis of a daring, West End-worthy soundtrack. It seemed like an irresistible challenge. “I wanted to set that exciting verse to music,” he explained. “When I [had] written with lyricists in the past … the lyrics have been written to the music. So I was intrigued to see whether I could write a complete piece the other way ‘round.”
2. "Memory" was inspired by a poem that T.S. Eliot never finished.
In 1980, Webber approached T.S. Eliot’s widow, Valerie, to ask for her blessing on the project. She not only said “yes,” but provided the songwriter with some helpful notes and letters that her husband had written about Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats—including a half-finished, eight-line poem called “Grizabella, the Glamour Cat.” Feeling that it was too melancholy for children, Eliot decided to omit the piece from Practical Cats. But the dramatic power of the poem made it irresistible for Webber and Trevor Nunn, the show’s original director. By combining lines from “Grizabella, the Glamour Cat” with those of another Eliot poem, “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” they laid the foundation for what became the powerful ballad “Memory.” A smash hit within a smash hit, this showstopper has been covered by such icons as Barbra Streisand and Barry Manilow.
3. Dame Judi Dench left the cast of Cats when her Achilles tendon snapped.
One of Britain’s most esteemed actresses, Dench was brought in to play Grizabella for Cats’s original run on the West End. Then, about three weeks into rehearsals, she was going through a scene with co-star Wayne Sleep (Mr. Mistoffelees) when disaster struck. “She went, ‘You kicked me!’” Sleep recalls in the above video. “And I said, ‘I didn’t, actually, are you alright?’” She wasn’t. Somehow, Dench had managed to tear her Achilles tendon. As a last-minute replacement, Elaine Paige of Evita fame was brought aboard. In an eerie coincidence, Paige had heard a recorded version of “Memory” on a local radio station less than 24 hours before she was asked to play Grizabella. Also, an actual black cat had crossed her path that day. Spooky.
4. To finance the show, Andrew Lloyd Webber ended up mortgaging his house.
Although Andrew Lloyd Webber had previously won great acclaim as one of the creative minds behind Jesus Christ Superstar and other hit shows, Cats had a hard time finding investors. According to choreographer Gillian Lynne, “[it] was very, very difficult to finance because everyone said ‘A show about cats? You must be raving mad.’” In fact, the musical fell so far short of its fundraising goals that Webber ended up taking out a second mortgage on his home to help get Cats the musical off the ground.
5. When Cats the musical came to Broadway, its venue got a huge makeover.
Cats made its West End debut on May 11, 1981. Seventeen months later, a Broadway production of the musical launched what was to become an 18-year run at the Winter Garden Theatre. But before the show could open, some major adjustments had to be made to the venue. Cats came with an enormous, sprawling set which was far too large for the theatre’s available performing space. To make some more room, the stage had to be expanded. Consequently, several rows of orchestra seats were removed, along with the Winter Garden’s proscenium arch. And that was just the beginning. For Grizabella’s climactic ascent into the Heaviside Layer on a giant, levitating tire, the crew installed a hydraulic lift in the orchestra pit and carved a massive hole through the auditorium ceiling. Finally, the theater’s walls were painted black to set the proper mood. After Cats closed in 2000, the original look of the Winter Garden was painstakingly restored—at a cost of $8 million.
6. Cats the musical set longevity records on both sides of the Atlantic.
The original London production took its final bow on May 11, 2002, exactly 21 years after the show had opened—which, at the time, made Cats the longest-running musical in the West End’s history. (It would lose that title to Les Miserables in 2006.) Across the pond, the show was performed at the Winter Garden for the 6138th time on June 19, 1997, putting Cats ahead of A Chorus Line as the longest-running show on Broadway. To celebrate, a massive outdoor celebration was held between 50th and 51st streets, complete with a laser light show and an exclusive after-party for Cats alums.
7. One theatergoer sued the show for $6 million.
Like Hair, Cats involves a lot of performer-audience interaction. See it live, and you might just spot a leotard-clad actor licking himself near your seat before the curtain goes up. In some productions, the character Rum Tum Tugger even rushes out into the crowd and finds an unsuspecting patron to dance with. At a Broadway performance on January 30, 1996, Tugger was played by stage veteran David Hibbard. That night, he singled out one Evelyn Amato as his would-be dance partner. Mildly put, she did not appreciate his antics. Alleging that Hibbard had gyrated his pelvis in her face, Amato sued the musical and its creative team for $6 million.
8. Thanks to Cats the musical, T.S. Eliot received a posthumous Tony.
Because most of the songs in Cats are almost verbatim recitations of Eliot’s poems, he’s regarded as its primary lyricist—even though he died in 1965, long before the show was conceived. Still, Eliot’s contributions earned him a 1983 Tony for Best Book of a Musical. A visibly moved Valerie Eliot took the stage to accept this prize on her late spouse’s behalf. “Tonight’s honor would have given my husband particular pleasure because he loved the theatre,” she told the crowd. Eliot also shared the Best Original Score Tony with Andrew Lloyd Webber.
9. The original Broadway production used more than 3000 pounds of yak hair.
Major productions of Cats use meticulously crafted yak hair wigs, which currently cost around $2300 apiece and can take 40 hours or more to produce. Adding to the expense is the fact that costumers can’t just recycle an old wig after some performer gets recast. “Each wig is made specifically for the actor,” explains wigmaker Hannah McGregor in the above video. Since people tend to have differently shaped heads, precise measurements are taken of every cast member’s skull before he or she is fitted with a new head of hair. “[Their wigs] have to fit them perfectly,” McGregor adds, “because of the amount of jumping and skipping they do as cats.” Perhaps it should come as no surprise that, over its 18-year run, the first Broadway production used 3247 pounds of yak hair. (In comparison, the heaviest actual yaks only weigh around 2200 pounds.)
10. A recent revival included hip hop.
In December 2014, Cats returned to the West End with an all-new cast and music. “The Rum Tum Tugger,” a popular Act I song, was reimagined as a hip hop number. “I’ve come to the conclusion, having read [Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats] again, that maybe Eliot was the inventor of rap,” Webber told the press.
11. Another revival featured an internet-famous feline for one night only.
If you can’t wait for the new Mister Rogers movie with Tom Hanks to come out later this year, here’s a little something to tide you over until then. As Paste magazine reports, a new book highlights 75 songs that Fred Rogers wrote and performed on his show, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.
The forthcoming biopic and book are unrelated, but they both carry the same title: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. The subtitle of the book reads The Poetry of Mister Rogers and, in written format, the songs do resemble children’s poems. Published by Quirk Books, each song/poem is accompanied by illustrations from Luke Flowers.
Many of the songs will be familiar to those who grew up watching the show. One of the best-known examples is “It’s You I Like”—an uplifting song that Rogers sang to Jeff Erlanger, a 10-year-old boy in a wheelchair who grew up to be an advocate for disability rights. (Just watch this video of Erlanger surprising Rogers by showing up at his induction into the Television Hall of Fame in 1999 and try not to cry.)
Rogers often wrote songs to address scenarios that might be scary or confusing to children. One song, for instance, was titled “You Can Never Go Down the Drain." In one of the show’s most heartfelt moments, the puppet Daniel Striped Tiger sings the opening lines of “Sometimes I Wonder If I’m a Mistake.” Performing the second part of the song, Lady Aberlin reassures him, “You’re not a fake. You’re no mistake. You're my friend.”
If you’re ready to walk down memory lane and relive some of your favorite moments from the show, you can get a copy of the book from Amazon for $13.51. It’s also available as an Audible audiobook, narrated by actors John Lithgow and Kate Mulgrew.