By John Benson
There’s a funny scene in the old NBC comedy “Mad About You” where the Buchmans share a cab with a gentleman going to see “Cats” for the first time. Both are shocked that the stranger who lives in New York City hadn’t seen the Andrew Lloyd Webber smash musical that had 7,485 performances in the Big Apple and constantly toured the world since.
Now, Northeast Ohio residents will have a chance to see the Tony Award-winning musical, known for the hit song “Memory,” when it comes to Cleveland this weekend at the Palace Theatre. The Vindicator talked to “Cats” press representative Jennifer Lott about the show’s fandom, longevity and even its haters.
Q. The first obvious question is why is an over-the-top musical such as “Cats,” which features cast members dressed up as alley cats, still seemingly going strong decades later?
A. It’s been on the road now for almost 30 years. Next May will be 30 years since “Cats” first opened in London, and I think that people just love coming back to something they love and know. It’s something they don’t have to learn about. A lot of people who come see the show have seen it before and are coming back and bringing their children and grandchildren. In my mind, it seems like there is something very special about seeing sort of old friends on stage. It’s good to see a production that you know the music for and you know the story.
Q. Playing on your notion of audiences seeing old friends on stage, doesn’t it seem like some theatergoers need, well, some new friends?
A. Make new ones but keep the old; one is silver and the other is gold (laughs). It’s a thing that obviously there is tons of new theater out there and a lot of fabulous shows out there, but “Cats” has had a staying power. I don’t know what it is that people love, but they come back again and again. The show has been through every economic time in the country, a lot of different types of government and world order, and it just continues to do so well around the world, and not just the United States. It’s just a really popular show. People love Andrew Lloyd Weber. I wish I had the magic answer, but people just love it and come back again and again.
Q. Interestingly, “Cats” the musical was a smash hit, though “Cats” the movie was a 1998 direct-to-video failure. What happened?
A. I can’t speak directly to the movie, but, as I recall, it wasn’t released like “Chicago” or “Mamma Mia!” Frankly, a lot of my cast members grew up on the video. One of my cast members who plays Mr. Mistoffelees told me recently that he got to go as a child to a master class taught by Jacob Brent, who was the Mistoffelees in the video, and how much that meant to him as a kid.
Q. Doesn’t it seem as though “Cats” has risen to a pop-culture level almost beyond Broadway?
A. It is. Recently on “The Office” Dwight mentioned the last time he saw a Broadway show, a man dressed as a cat sat in his lap. He didn’t say “Cats,” but everyone who saw the show knew he meant “Cats.” Back in the ’90s there was a TV show called “Caroline in the City,” and on the show her best friend was a cast member of “Cats.” So it’s a musical that if you don’t know anything about Broadway theater, almost without a doubt, you’ll know “Phantom of the Opera,” “Les Mis rables” and you’ll know “Cats.”
Q. Finally, there does seem to be a vocal segment of the public who at this point would be called “Cats” haters. Why is this?
A. I think there’s a perception that it doesn’t have a story line. I don’t think people give it credit of thinking it’s a difficult story to follow. It’s comfort food and not flashy like “Wicked,” or there’s no chandelier crashing like “Phantom” has. They’re not screaming like “American Idiot,” which is popular right now. And frankly, it’s sort of the grandfather of all of what’s popular now because it really was before “Les Mis rables” and “Phantom” and “Wicked.” ... It’s what changed the Broadway culture as we know it to be now. So there are haters out there, but there are also super fans out there too.