11 Memorable Facts About Cats

Noam Galai/Getty Images for CATS
Noam Galai/Getty Images for CATS

“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 triumphant return to the Great White Way in 2016. In honor of the show's 35th anniversary, let’s take a trip down memory lane.

1. THE WORK THAT IT’S 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.) Ultimately, according to his publisher, Eliot decided that “it would be improper to wrap [felines] up with dogs” and barely even mentioned man’s best friend in the finished product.

For his part, 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,” the two men 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 WHEN HER ACHILLES TENDON SNAPPED.

One of Britain’s most esteemed actresses, Dench was brought in to play Grizabella for Cats’ original run on the West End. Then, about three weeks into rehearsals, the performer 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 some 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. How spooky.

4. TO FINANCE THE SHOW, WEBBER ENDED UP MORTGAGING HIS HOUSE.

Although 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 off the ground.

5. WHEN CATS 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 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, an unemployed office worker, 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, T. S. ELIOT RECEIVED A POSTHUMOUS TONY AWARD.

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 Award 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 Webber.

9. THE ORIGINAL BROADWAY RUN USED OVER 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 noggins, precise measurements are taken of every single 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 a whopping 3247 pounds of yak hair. (For comparison’s sake, 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 some upgraded 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. Let the record show that this take on the song does not appear in the current Broadway revival, which uses the original, fully-sung version instead.

11. THE CURRENT PRODUCTION FEATURED AN INTERNET FAMOUS FELINE—FOR ONE NIGHT ONLY.

On September 30, Grumpy Cat made her Broadway debut in Cats, briefly taking the stage with the cast. Despite being named Honorary Jellicle Cat, she hated every minute of it.

Billie Lourd Shares What (Very Little) She Can About Star Wars: Episode IX

Frazer Harrison, Getty Images
Frazer Harrison, Getty Images

​Nearly nothing is known about the final film in the latest Star Wars series, except that J.J. Abrams, who helmed The Force Awakens, will be returning as director, and many of the cast members from both Abrams's earlier effort and The Last Jedi will be reprising their roles. Even the late Carrie Fisher, who sadly passed away on December 27, 2016, will be included in Episode IX, through unused footage from the previous two films.

Though all the stars of the upcoming film are sworn to secrecy about it, Fisher's daughter, Billie Lourd, is spilling what she can. Lourd, who played the minor role of Lieutenant Connix in the last two films, teased what it was like being back on set.

"I gotta watch myself because the Star Wars PD is going to come get me, but it is incredible. I’ve read the script and I’ve been on set," Lourd told ​Entertainment Tonight. "I was on set for, like, three weeks back in September, and it is going to be magical. I can’t say much more, but I’m so excited about it and so grateful to be a part of it. Star Wars is my heart. I love it."

A lot of things are riding on Episode IX, especially considering how divided fans were over The Last Jedi. Though with Abrams back in the director's chair, it seems likely that the new film will be a return to form. The as-yet-untitled film hits theaters on December 20, 2019.

A 24-Hour Pee-wee's Playhouse Marathon is Coming to IFC on Thanksgiving Day

Shout! Factory
Shout! Factory

Today's secret word is: AHHHH! If the thought of talking politics with your drunk uncle this Thanksgiving is too much for you to bear, might we suggest that you stay right there on the couch and watch 24 hours of Pee-wee's Playhouse instead?

In the spirit of holiday marathons, IFC has announced that it's bringing the not-just-for-kids cult classic Saturday morning TV series back to the small screen this Turkey Day—more than 30 years after it made its original debut.

Pee-wee, Chairry, Conky, Miss Yvonne, Jambi, Cowboy Curtis, Reba the Mail Lady, Clocky, The King of Cartoons, and the rest of the gang will all be there when the network kicks off a full 24 hours of all-Pee-wee programming.

"For over 30 years, the enormously popular Pee-wee Herman and innovative television series Pee-wee’s Playhouse—created by and starring Paul Reubens—has captured a special place in the hearts of millions of viewers, young and old," IFC wrote in a press release. "Since its initial premiere on CBS in 1986, this multiple Emmy-winning children’s program became Saturday morning appointment viewing for kids in the '80s and '90s and has been a staple in the pop culture zeitgeist ever since."

In addition to embedding itself in the hearts and minds of its viewers over its five-year run, Pee-wee's Playhouse garnered unprecedented critical acclaim, earning 15 Emmy Awards and the 1987 Television Critics Association Award for Outstanding Achievement in Children's Programming. In 2010, Reubens brought the character back for a stage show that began in Los Angeles before migrating to Broadway (where it regularly sold out).

In addition to being a launching pad for soon-to-be-stars like Phil Hartman, Laurence Fishburne, S. Epatha Merkerson, and Natasha Lyonne, Reubens hired some serious talent behind-the-scenes, too. Five years before he wrote and directed Boyz n the Hood—for which he earned two Oscar nominations—John Singleton was a P.A. on the Playhouse set. Around the same time he formed White Zombie, Rob Zombie held the same title.

The marathon, which will include a special screening of Christmas at Pee-wee’s Playhouse, will kick off at 6 a.m. on November 22 (Thanksgiving morning) and run for 24 hours straight. Beginning on November 24, IFC will be bringing Pee-wee's Playhouse back to "its rightful home on Saturday mornings" with weekly airings of the series.

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