CATS has been the most succesfull musical in history! It has become the longest-running musical in London, with more than 6138 shows the longest-running production currently playing on Broadway and with the 6138th performance CATS became the longest-running show in Broadway history, even longer-running than A Chorus Line! CATS has played all over the world and has also become the longest continuously-touring musical in America theatre history (currently the 4th CATS-Tour is making it's way through USA, some cities are "visited" twice or even more)! It's hard to imagine, that this production had a difficult birth and uncertain future. But as a composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and his friend and director Trevor Nunn describe it, the creation of CATS was full of hurdles and doubts.
The idea to turn T.S. Eliot's book of verse Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats into a musical occured to A. L. Webber in 1972 when he picked the book up in an airport bookshop. Reading it during the flight, he recalled that as a child his mother used to read these poems to him and the thought occured that "they might make a lovely album for children...or something".
A full decade went by before he recalled on his friend, director Trevor Nunn, to help him turn Eliot's book of verse into a full-fledged musical. And so, when Nunn and Lloyd Webber went into a rehersal, they had nothing more than bits and pieces of songs based on the poems, and no story or relationships to support a complete musical. It was late in the rehersal, when the key to making the show work was literally handed to them. "Valerie Elliot, T. S. Elliot's widdow came up with this rather crumpled, grubby sheet of typing paper with there eight lines on it a very late stage", recalls Trevor Nunn. That fragment introduced the character of the lonely and haunted Grizabella, The Glamour Cat, and says Trevor Nunn, it was the breakthrough they had been waiting for. "Valerie Elliot sait, 'Tom didn't include it in the published work, because he said it would be too upsetting for the children.' That was the insight," says Nunn. "There's an image of isolation and pain, there's the idea of change. You were something, now you're the opposite. How do you cope with that?"
As the opening night loomed closer, though, Nunn was still troubled. The show lacked an emotional climax: the "11 o'clock number" that connects with the audience and sends them out humming. Little did Lloyd Webber and Nunn realize as they began working on this moment that the result would be their toughest hardle and greatest success. Nunn recalls telling Lloyd Webber, "What we need in the show is your big emotional outpouring. You don't have your Puccinni aria." The composer resisted the idea initially, but finally agreed to go home and attempt something, though he would make no promises!
But that night Lloyd Webber went home and - literally overnight - one of the theatre's most popular songs was composed. Nunn remembered hearing the tune for the first time. "The next morning - I can only assume he'd been up all night, maybe just jotted it off - he said- 'What about something like this...?' He played it in a rehersal room where we were having a meeting and I said to everybody, 'What's the date, what's the time? Remember it, because you have just heard a phenomenomenal smash hit'!"
The tune, of course, became Memory. But at that point it was just a melody without lyrics and, unlike any other song in the show, there wasn't a poem to adapt or serve as inspriation. With days to go until performances began, a search was launched for a lyricist who could make the song work and fit well with the Elliot lyrics that made up the rest of the show. Three separate lyricists tried their hands without success and the pressure was mourning!
Finally, with just days to go, Trevor Nunn headed for his country home to write the lyrics himself. He spent the entire weekend reading and re-reading Eliot's poems, but still could not find a focal point. "How that lyric came about was despiration", Nunn admits. "I agreed that we should announce that it was based upon two poems by Eliot. Of course, that's not true. He does ude the word 'memory', but that's about it". The "11 o'clock number" truly did come at the 11th hour, and Memory unlocked for Nunn the mystery of how to structure the show. At last, the yearning character Grizabella had an emotional outlet. She who had left the tribe of Jellicle Cats to experience the outside world, recalls the hard times she encountered, the glorious past forever lost and her desire to return to her family.
After coming up with the most memorable and instantly recognizable show tune in recent years, Lloyd Webber and Nunn should have been able to relax as CATS went from rehersal to previews, but Nunn humorously recalls that time with a shudder. "It's the time when all your supposed friends and colleagues in the business come and are supportive, to see the work at the earliest stage because they just can't wait. Actually, what's going on is all your potential enemies are there to celebrate the disaster. The earlier they can come, the bigger the disaster is likely to be - before anybody's had a chance to fix anything."
A runaway smash in London, on Broadway and all over the world, CATS was anything but a disaster. It won seven (!) Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and that eleventh hour song, Memory, has become a contemporary classic. It's been recorded more than 600 times, including as international as barbara Streisand, Barry Mantilow and Judy Collins, among many others. It's most recent incarnations underline its diverse and universal appeal: as a #1 dance smash by European chanteuse Natalie Grant, and a duct for Placido Domingo and Natalie Cole during a live telecast of the tenor's world tour.
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