Cats: My Favorite Trainwreck


this video is sponsored by CuriosityStream. hey, welcome to 12tone! about a month ago,
the trailer dropped for the Cats movie and the internet lost its mind. there was a lot of discourse about it, both
from theater kids who knew exactly what to expect and from newcomers who weren’t entirely
sure what they were experiencing, but there was one inescapable conclusion that everyone
seemed to agree on: Cats is weird. it always has been. lots of people talked about the ways in which
it’s weird, but I didn’t see many people talking about how it got that weird in the first place,
which is sad because the behind-the-scenes may actually be even weirder than the show
itself. so today I thought I’d take off my music theorist
hat for a second, dust off my old musical theater hat, and tell you all the story of
how this plotless, chaotic, beautiful nightmare of a show became, at the time of its closing,
the longest-running musical in the history of both the West End and Broadway, and why,
in spite of everything, I think it just might deserve it. so buckle up, ’cause we’re gonna talk about
Cats. (intro sequence) let’s start with the part that most theater
fans know: Cats is based primarily on a book of poems by T.S. Eliot called Old Possum’s Book of Practical
Cats. originally written as letters to his godchildren, Eliot’s series of whimsical cat
poems was eventually collected and published in 1939. he was pretty concerned about how
the book would be received: he was, after all, known as a fairly serious poet, with
critically renowned works like The Waste Land, which explores the realities of death and
post-war disillusionment, and Ash Wednesday, written after his conversion to Anglicanism,
which deals with the question of how someone who hasn’t always been faithful can still
achieve salvation. and then he published a goofy book of cat poems full of names like
Bustopher Jones, Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer, and The Rum Tum Tugger. so yeah, kind of a weird swing. because it was such a departure from what
he was known for, Eliot was very careful about how Old Possum was crafted. he wanted to make
sure they were all initially published as a single collection, because, in his words,
“one by itself looks rather silly, whereas a number together might appear to have some
reason for existence.” the initial plan had been to have a character
called the Man in White Spats narrate a series of poems about cats and dogs, describing both
societies before eventually they all come together and rise up in a balloon, up to the
Heaviside Layer, which as a kid I thought was just, like, the name of a cool hangout
spot, but apparently it’s a real part of Earth’s Ionosphere, starting about 90 kilometers above
sea level. so, uh… yeah, they were gonna die. after
going back and forth with his publisher for a couple years, they eventually decided to
abandon the dogs and the Man with White Spats and just focus solely on the cats portion. thus, Old Possum was born. but how did it become a musical? well, this is the part of the story that usually
gets glossed over. for example, here’s how my friend Patrick
Willems described it in his Cats video: (PATRICK: then, around 1980, Andrew Lloyd Webber decided
to put Eliot’s words to music, and turned it into the musical Cats.) now, in Patrick’s
defense, his video was about the movie, so this was a perfectly good summary for the
point he was trying to make, but it turns out that, if you really want to know how we
got from Old Possum to Cats, it’s gonna take a bit more than one sentence. seriously, though, Patrick’s video is great,
there’s a link in the description. but our story begins during technicals for
Evita. Evita, it’s worth noting, was a fairly serious
play detailing the life of Eva Perón, the former first lady of Argentina. it was a critical darling, receiving all sorts
of awards for its story, its score, and its performances, and showstopping numbers like
Don’t Cry For Me Argentina made it a huge hit with audiences as well. in fact, it’s another one of the longest-running
shows in West End history. Webber has a lot of those. but no matter how good the show is, technicals,
the part of the rehearsal process focused on dialing in things like sound and lighting
cues, can be pretty dull for a composer, so Webber was looking for something to distract
himself. that’s when he was approached by actress Jennie
Linden, who was developing a show called I Say, I Play for the Sydmonton Festival, a
small annual arts festival Webber hosts on his estate at Sydmonton Court. Linden wanted to do a series of poems set
to music, and she wondered if Webber would be interested in composing something for it. he agreed, largely because it seemed like
an interesting challenge: up to that point, he’d mostly worked with lyricist Tim Rice,
and their approach had been to agree on a basic dramatic structure, after which Webber
would write the music and then Rice would fill in the words later. Webber had never really tried writing music
to pre-existing lyrics before, and he was curious to see if he could. but first, he’d have to figure out which poems
he was going to use, and this is where Old Possum comes back into the story. it had been a childhood favorite of Webber’s,
and he also remembered that many of the poems featured, in his words, “irregular and exciting
meter” which lent itself well to musical composition. he ultimately set four of Eliot’s poems to
music: The Naming of Cats, The Song Of The Jellicles, Mr. Mistoffelees, and Macavity. so yeah, Cats started its life as basically
just a songwriting exercise because Webber was bored in rehearsals. from there, though, he went back to working
on Evita, and moved the cat songs to the backburner. he’d play them occasionally for friends, but
the next real plan was for them to serve as what’s called a curtain-raiser for another
of his works, Variations. a curtain-raiser is a theater term for a short,
usually light-hearted performance that goes before a bigger, more serious show: think
the animated shorts that play in front of most Pixar movies. Variations was an instrumental piece based
on a theme by Niccoló Paganini, and he was getting offers to turn it into a dance show,
so naturally Webber felt that the obvious pairing to this serious reimagining of a famous
classical theme was some goofy cat songs. as far as I can tell, this is where the idea
came from to have the cats dance. but they never actually served as a curtain-raiser,
because soon after that, Webber met lyricist Don Black, and the two of them came up with
an idea for a one-woman show called Tell Me On A Sunday, about an English girl who travels
across the United States looking for love. between working on that and managing Evita’s
U.S. premiere, Webber was strapped for time, so he shelved the Variations project, and
with it, Practical Cats, as the show was called at the time. Tell Me On A Sunday wound up being made into
a TV special by the BBC, and its success would ultimately lead directly to Cats as we know
it today. you see, Tell Me wasn’t really a play, it
was more of a song cycle: a series of compositions designed to be played together, thematically
connected but without much underlying narrative structure. it was just a series of events, and with the
encouragement of veteran producer Cameron Mackintosh, Webber wondered if maybe Practical
Cats could be the same thing: a full-blown show, setting all of Eliot’s poems to music,
but without any real plot, just a bunch of fun little cat vignettes. that’s right, musical was his third idea for
what to do with these songs, and we still haven’t got to the part where the show gets
a story. that was a problem for the future, though:
before this went any further, they needed permission. Old Possum wasn’t public domain: you couldn’t
just adapt it into a stage show without the approval of Eliot’s estate, which was managed
by his widow, Valerie, so Webber met with her and invited her to the Sydmonton Festival,
where she could see what he’d done so far and decide if she’d let him proceed. as it turns out, she was interested, and she
brought along a series of unpublished cat poems that had been left out of the book for
one reason or another. these contained two main revelations for Webber:
the first was Eliot’s planned balloon story, which gave the show something to build toward,
and the second was a poem called Grizabella the Glamour Cat, about a cat who had once
been a beauty queen but was now old, mangy, and ignored. it had been cut from the book for being too
sad, but it gave Webber a real, sympathetic figure to build around, and the final shape
of Cats began to form. meanwhile, they had started filling out their
production team: Mackintosh had brought superstar choreographer Gillian Lynne to the Festival
show, and she quickly agreed to join the project. harder, though, was their director: Valerie
Eliot still wasn’t fully on board, so they needed a big name in order to really sell
it to her. with that in mind, they approached Trevor
Nunn. now, a brief aside on Nunn: he was, at the
time, the artistic director for the Royal Shakespeare Company, which is about as big
a deal as the name makes it sound. he worked in high-end, serious theater, and
had never done anything commercial, certainly nothing at all like Cats, but for some reason,
he agreed. he still had one major concern, though: the
plot. specifically, the fact that there was none. that’s right, it took this long for someone
to suggest that maybe, just maybe, the show could use some semblance of a story, so Webber
and Nunn went back through Eliot’s poems and developed the concept for the Jellicle Ball,
where the Jellicle Cats make the Jellicle Choice and yeah, it’s still paper-thin, but
at least it’s kind of a plot. if you want a better summary, though, check out Patrick’s
video: I’ve got a lot more trainwreck to cover. anyway, the next problem that had to be solved
was the theater: set designer John Napier wanted to build a massive, immersive junkyard
that spilled out into the crowd, but in most theaters in the West End, the layout made
that impossible. they’d need a very special theater in order
to accomplish their vision. after months of searching, Webber wound up
finding the perfect venue by accident, when he appeared on a reality show called This
Is Your Life, filmed in the New London Theater. it had everything they were looking for, it
even had a turntable for the seats so they could move the audience around during the
show, but there was one problem: it wasn’t really a theater anymore. the owners had tried to make it one, but after
numerous productions there failed, they decided to cut their losses and build a business renting
the space out to TV shows and conventions instead, and they were worried that if they
let another show open there, it might take them off the market for too long and they’d
lose the business they’d built. but Webber was insistent, and fortunately
for him, his old friend Bernard Delfont served on the board of the theater, and together
they worked out a very peculiar deal. basically, Delfont’s reasoning was this: if
the show failed quickly, closing in, say, less than 3 months, it wouldn’t really interrupt
their conference business, so it’d be fine to rent it out at a normal rate. if, on the other hand, the show was a big
hit, running for 2 years or longer, that would mean they were succeeding as a theater again,
in which case it’d also be fine to rent it out at a normal rate. the problem came if it was a small hit, crawling
its way through a year or so and then closing, so Delfont proposed that, if the show ran
longer than 3 months but less than 2 years, Webber and company would pay a penalty of
200,000 pounds, which in today’s money is around a million dollars. Webber immediately agreed. I’m gonna give that a moment to sink in, because
this, I think, is the moment that Cats lost any incentive to be normal. all they could do was swing for the fences. the show could be a catastrophic flop or it
could be a spectacular success, but contractually speaking, they could no longer afford for
it to be just decent. no one in the company had that kind of money
just sitting around, so if the show was ok, it would be a disaster. they had to go big, or they might have to
mortgage their homes, so whatever Cats was gonna be, it might as well go all in. but they weren’t really sure yet what it was
gonna be, because the show was still incomplete: Nunn felt that, among other things, it lacked
an emotional center, a powerful tear-jerker like Don’t Cry For Me Argentina. Webber suggested repurposing a song he’d written
for an abandoned play about opera composer Giacomo Puccini, which would eventually become
Memories, but they had no lyrics yet. Webber first reached out to Don Black, but
his submission was rejected. Nunn tried to do it himself, eventually deciding
to adapt another Eliot poem called Rhapsody On A Windy Night, but he was taking too long
to do it so Webber and Mackintosh brought in Tim Rice to help complete it. Nunn rejected Rice’s lyrics as well for being
too sad, but they were out of time, so they had to use a hybrid version to start. it wasn’t until well into previews that the
lyrics for the most important song in the show were actually finalized, and even then
it only happened because Rice threatened legal action if they didn’t stop using his version. and this is leaving out all the drama of the
rehearsal process itself: the musical director quit on the first day, forcing Webber to bring
in Harry Rabinowitz, a film conductor who, while highly regarded in that world, had never
done theater before, to replace him. Judi Dench, who was supposed to play Grizabella
and was one of the biggest stars in the show, suffered an injury during rehearsals and had
to drop out weeks before previews started, Napier had to throw away 45,000 pounds worth
of costumes because, despite being beautiful, they were impossible to dance in, and besides
Memories, lots of other parts of the lyrics and the score were incomplete too, relying
on improvisation and last-minute magic to make everything come together. they even considered pushing back the beginning
of previews to give themselves more time to clean up the mess they were dealing with,
and the only reason they didn’t was that rumors were already circling that the show was falling
apart and Mackintosh worried that if they didn’t start on time, it’d feed those flames
and the rumors would sink the show before anyone had even seen it. from start to finish, the making of Cats was
complete and utter chaos. so… why did it work? I mean, even if you don’t personally enjoy
the show, it’s hard to argue with the results. and I think the lesson of Cats is this: there’s
something to be said for just taking a bunch of really, really talented people and having
them all work together to make something truly ridiculous. I mean, look at it: T.S. Eliot is one of the most important poets in
American history. Andrew Lloyd Webber had already proven himself
to be a musical powerhouse with works like Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita. Cameron Mackintosh was a legendary producer,
Trevor Nunn was the artistic director for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and Gillian
Lynne, John Napier, and Harry Rabinowitz were all at the tops of their respective fields
too. and that’s to say nothing about the cast, the musicians, the crew, and everyone else
involved in the show. by all rights, none of these people should
have been anywhere near something as incoherent as Cats, and yet all of them were not only
involved but excited about it. the level of raw talent that went into making
Cats is almost as absurd as, well, Cats. they assembled a super-team, and together they
made a spectacle unlike anything the world of musical theater had seen before, and unlike
most of what it’s seen since. it’s a celebration of fun over function, and
it doesn’t care if you take it seriously because it’s playing by rules that only it knows. so yeah, I love this show, and I can’t wait
to see the movie. plus, if it succeeds, we as a society move
one step closer to finally seeing Starlight Express on the big screen. let’s make this happen, people. I believe in us. but if you’re looking for the story of an
even weirder show, CuriosityStream has a great documentary called Can A Computer Write A
Hit Musical? which… I mean, it’s right there in the title, isn’t
it? check it out: *snap* (NICK: I’ve just generated a showtune by my program. I call my program Android Lloyd Webber.) (Nathan: Still… gibberish.) this film follows composer Benjamin Till and
lyricist Nathan Taylor as they attempt to craft a complete musical out of suggestions
from different artificial intelligence systems, including a lyric machine, a composition robot,
and even a plot predictor. together they synthesize all these different
computer-generated ideas into one show. does it work? well, you’ll just have to watch the documentary. but yeah, it kinda does. *snap* and CuriosityStream has thousands of
other awesome documentaries, covering art, history, science, and nature. they’ve even got originals, with great hosts
like David Attenborough and Sigourney Weaver that you can’t find anywhere else. plus they’re offering 12tone viewers a free
31-day trial: all you have to do is click the link in the description and use the promo
code 12tone when signing up! and hey, thanks for watching, and thanks to
our Patreon patrons for making these videos possible! if you want to help out, and get
some sweet perks like sneak peeks of upcoming episodes, there’s a link to our Patreon on
screen now. you can also join our mailing list to find
out about new episodes, like, share, comment, subscribe, and above all, keep on rockin’!

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Reader Comments

  1. 12tone

    Some additional thoughts/corrections:

    1) In case I didn't make it clear, Cats is one of my favorite musicals. When I say it should never have happened I mean that from a practical standpoint: The number of bizarre things that all had to line up in order for this show to come to fruition is truly mind-boggling.

    2) Most of this comes from Webber's memoire, Unmasked, which goes into way more detail on a lot of this stuff because unlike me, he doesn't have to animate every word he writes. If you want to know more, maybe check that out, there's definitely some stories I had to leave out for time.

    3) I misspoke: The big tearjerker in Cats is called Memory, not Memories. Apologies!

    4) Agh! I forgot to link to Patrick's video! Here it is: https://youtu.be/b1nQoWnFBSw

  2. Fossil Fishy

    Ha! I saw Cats for the first time a year ago. The video was meh. The editing annoyed me enough to keep me from engaging. The live production was a different beast. I found myself relaxing into it. I stopped struggling to find a plot and enjoyed it as a series of unconnected interesting moments. Exactly the same way I enjoy a band's gig.

  3. Fossil Fishy

    Pish-posh, if you want a real trainwreck you need to leave it to the amateurs. Featuring the elder god Cthulhu, Canadian media pundit Marshall Mcluhan, half-assed math rock, a vat of nano computers, and a youthful me playing guitar.

    Right, just so we're clear: this isn't really a shameless plug. Okay, it is a little bit, but I's gots plenty of shame, and it happened almost 20 years ago so everyone has moved on with their lives.

    https://youtu.be/SEJXZ-v9Xos?list=FL0Rl8yW0Q5fH2JZTv9B_Zjg

  4. Troodon

    Loved your analysis, but still hate this musical (it's a terrible musical, and I don't even like most GOOD musicals). So nope, not seeing the movie. And I hope Starlight Express is never made into a movie. I'm still hoping society just collectively forgets it exists.

  5. Nash Hansen

    Heh, starlight express would be a literal and figurative trainwreck. I played Nintendo in a production of it and… WHOA, thats… thats a show? (Racing in rollerskates is some of the scariest stuff anyone will ever do.)

  6. Music Pills Horizons In Music

    I have never watched anything about Cats, I just know the title and some of the imagery, maybe because I'm Italian and in translation, much of the art has been lost in this language

  7. Adel Wolf

    I was following with fair-to-midlin' interest, having never seen Cats (but always wanting to, mind you)… but then you brought up Starlight Express. This NEEDS TO HAPPEN. Starlight Express was my childhood fever dream, and I want someone to do right by it, damnit!

  8. AlKohaiMusic

    Fucking Lloyd Webber! In all honest, I dislike Cats, I always have, but I always give it credit. It’s a garbage fire, but like, an absolutely fascinating garbage fire.

  9. Violet Broregarde

    I think this might be my favorite video of yours, which is really weird considering that there's no music theory happening at all. Your style works really well for these storytelling videos.

  10. quietone610

    As someone who has never seen "Starlight Express" but heard the two soundtracks from the most famous versions, and has watched both Hollywood's take on "living robots" and "Phantom of the Opera" I can honestly say that I'd rather Hollywood NOT get their hands on it, nor that Webber be allowed to freeze it as his own vision. The dynamics of a long track call for a dynamic director, and so, so much could go wrong.

  11. shingshongshamalama

    No, bro, everyone was just talking about how the CGI looks goddamn awful and the movie is just a giant vanity project for a bunch of celebrity A-listers who don't need the attention.

    If you wanna actually talk about the musical, the TV movie CATS: The Musical was amazing and you should all go watch it right now it's by the BBC.

  12. Nigel Hobson

    I had a book about the making of Cats. It created a kind of mythology in my mind. When I saw the musical years later I was hugely disapointed.
    It was so dated and only has one good song. It made me sad.

  13. Daniel Koontz

    1:55 starting to describe the heavy spot. At the end he says "they come together and die." 2:13 is when it ends. That is the EXACT moment my bluetooth earbuds made the shutting off sound. … I lolled hard…. XD

  14. John Verne

    I want a musical theatre hat. Though I suspect it isn't the slightest practical to wear in the rain. Unless I'm singing in it. then it's perfect.

  15. BigSh00ts

    I have a fun idea for a video (which I actually got watching curiosity stream, one of your sponsors!). I was watching a documentary on the Great Barrier Reef and, since I have a kid (who was napping) I was watching with captions. A caption came up that said “mystical orchestral music playing.” I thought it was interesting and then realized every time music comes on the captions, an adjective is used to describe the music. You should do a theory analysis of why some specific adjectives are used to describe certain music in the documentaries and shows on curiosity stream!

  16. Michele Parker

    As an avid cat lover, I think that the way the play "Cats" came about is a perfect example of what a cat is all about– grace through chaos. Anyone who has ever owned (or as we like to call it, been owned by) a cat sees this plainly. 😻

  17. Leo Watley

    i've always hated cats; thought it was super boring. on the other hand, this video was super enjoyable – loved the frieza and double-slit doodles, both made me laugh super hard. #BigScreenStarlight #TonightIsRaceNight

  18. TRiG (Ireland)

    I grew up on Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. Read it. Listened to it read on the radio and on tape. Loved it.

    So when the local youth club put on a performance of Cats, I went to see it (alone, as a man in his early thirties, watching kids on stage). It was a strange experience. Poor audio quality, so I could barely hear the words, didn't help.

  19. Prinses op de Pingpongbal

    Before watching this video, I thought I should at least have a vague notion of what Cats is, outside of references on The Nanny. 2 hours later I now know everything about Cats, both the upcoming movie, the live stage shows and the recorded direct to video performance from 1998

  20. Ed Slushie

    You should write for documentaries or something. That explanation of the backstory, especially the part about the contract saying how long the play could run, was way more exciting than I expected it to be, and in fact more exciting than most other sources explaining the topic.

  21. Ed Slushie

    Imagine listening to an instrumental version of “memories.” That would be like a piano cover of Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect.” I don’t know about you, but I would have been like “it’s… it’s just long strings of the same note! With just a couple syllables of melody at a time!”

    I’m not saying they’re bad songs, I’m just saying their melodies exist to serve the lyrics, not the other way around.

  22. Ed Slushie

    “There’s something to be said for just taking a bunch of really, really talented people and having them all work wogether to make something truly ridiculous.”
    I think the same can be said for the soundtrack to the Sponebob Squarepants Movie.

  23. tyranny

    very interesting video! cats is my all-time favorite musical (i am an unabashed stan :/ sue me ahgdfuhg) and it's nice to learn a bit more history in such a concise, neat way.

  24. happychaosofthenorth

    This video makes me think that a movie about making of the musical "Cats" would be better and more interesting movie – and I could be wrong, but isn't that how Webber met Sarah Brightman, who would later be his wife and star of Phantom of the Opera? It could feature a lot of scenes from the show, but stage production rather than the CGI monstrosity that we've got. Great video but the drawings were distracting, though an interesting way to present a video.

  25. Doctor Moreau

    THANK YOU. I cheerfully, enthusiastically hate Cats. The mere existence of this plotless, bizarrely sexual, completely unwatchable mess delights and puzzles me to no end. I think it's deeply terrible and I am so excited that it exists. How a grown-ass adult came to be gyrating suggestively in a lycra cat suit while singing a children's poem about an indecisive tomcat has been an enduring mystery that has defined my life. You have put my soul to rest, 12tone.

    I haven't been this hyped for a movie in years.

  26. Seal0626

    10:00 Tim Rice's lyrics are so good, though. Clearly a first draft, with a little more polishing needed, but wow, they're effective. I can only try to imagine Dench sprechsinging and emoting the fuck out of them.

    And yeah, that injury? Never land a jump in heels without a plie. That's how Achilles tendons snap. Apparently her calf muscle was up around her knee.

  27. Ernie Ernst

    In the 1933 James Cagney film “Footlight Parade” (choreographed by Busby Berkely) much of the plot revolves around a musical where the performers all sing and dance in cat costume…would be a weird coincidence if neither Webber nor Lynne were familiar with it.

  28. notoriouswhitemoth

    Strictly speaking, it should be Lloyd-Webber, not just Webber. More specifically, it should be Baron Lloyd-Webber. …Nobility is weird.

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