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Why Cats is not your average movie musical


Social media hit overdrive recently with the release of the trailer for Cats, Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the hit musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, which ran for 21 years in London’s West End and 18 on Broadway in New York.

Many were taken aback by the visuals in the trailer, which turn the all-star cast, including Taylor Swift and Idris Elba, into humanoid felines using cutting edge special effects. The trailer divided movie fans – some sceptical of the unusual look, others excited by the surreal possibilities of the movie's world.

Those familiar with the original stage version, however, will be well aware that the legacy of Cats is built on defying the odds…

How was Cats developed?

First developed in 1980, Andrew Lloyd Webber put music to T.S. Elliot’s book Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.

Director Trevor Nunn then added a plot, original songs, and realised Lloyd Webber’s vision of a world seen from the perspective of cats. It was a tremendous risk, with the legendary producer putting his own money up to fund the project, but it became a worldwide smash and redefined what theatre meant to millions around the world.

What sets Cats apart from the rest is its premise. Compare it to the other hit musicals launched in the years prior to its debut – the likes of Jesus Christ Superstar, Chicago and Evita were all period pieces with glamorous leads in ornate costumes, all adapted from famous works or events.

Cats, on the other hand, was a musical adapted from a book of poems, which featured actors playing felines not for comedy effect, but in a manner that suggested serious intent.

Nowadays with musicals such as The Lion King or Shrek it’s not an unusual approach, but nearly 40 years ago it represented a big change to the established order.

How successful is the Cats musical?

However, it was a risk that paid off – to date, Cats has amassed a worldwide gross of over $3.5 billion and that distinctive poster has become a landmark of the musical theatre scene.

It’s also considered by many theatre fans to be the first ‘megamusical’ – a stage version of a Hollywood blockbuster, a familiar brand that can be exported around the world, the stage being half theatrical production, half movie set.

It’s likely that the heavy-hitting musicals of the 1980s that came after it, such as Phantom of The Opera and Les Miserables, would not have enjoyed the same success had they not followed the Cats blueprint.

What is the most famous song from Cats?

Of course, there's also 'Memory', the signature song from the end of the show. Made famous by original cast member Elaine Paige, then covered by Barbra Streisand, it’s a haunting song about growing older, and the desire to begin anew.

It’s a song fans of show-tunes will know well, and inserts a powerful moment of melancholy into the lavish spectacle.

How did Cats arrive on the big screen?

With all this in mind, it’s surprising that Cats didn’t arrive on the silver screen sooner. One stumbling block may have been technology – Steven Spielberg attempted a dark animated version in the 1990s, which ultimately never came to be, while movie studios in the 2000s opted for more traditional showstoppers such as Chicago, Dreamgirls and Nine.

However, thanks to advances in CGI, familiar faces can be given a furry makeover, with the results being revealed in one of the most talked-about trailers of the year. Nothing on this scale has attempted before, and the prospect of appearing something so unique has drawn one of the biggest casts in recent memory.

Cats always had a big fan base among the rich and famous, with shows such as Family Guy and Tina Fey’s The Unbreakable Kimmie Schmidt lovingly satirising the premise. And several of Hollywood’s biggest names have enlisted in this year’s movie: joining Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson as Grizabella is pop icon Taylor Swift, funny man James Corden, action star Idris Elba, singer Jason Derulo and British acting royalty Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Judi Dench.

The latter’s casting was something of a ‘full circle’ moment, as Dench had to pull out of the original stage production in 1980 due to injury.

Cats succeeded on the stage because, at the time, there was nothing else like it. People flocked to theatres to experience something new. Nearly four decades on, the film version may do exactly the same for even the most cautious of cinema-goers.

With that amount of interest, it’s likely that Cats will be making more memories on the big screen.

Cats is released on 20th December so tweet us @Cineworld if you can't wait to see it on the big screen.

James Luxford is a writer who blogs for Cineworld as part of our news team.