Jonathan Bellman

But always keep in mind that he

Resents familiarity.

I bow, and taking off my hat,

Ad-dress him in this form: O CAT!


—T. S. Eliot, “The Ad-dressing of Cats,” Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats

It’s that time again.  Last year I blogged about the spring musical at my son’s high school, Peter Pan,and this year the show is an ambitious production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, based—we all know—on the whimsical poetry of T. S. Eliot.  The poetry is charming, and reflects the influence of the likes of Edward Lear’s Nonsense Books, the mercilessly loving satire of British types that one finds in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, and a real love of cats.  For that last, I’m depending on my wife’s analysis, because I’m not a cat guy, particularly; when she was growing up one of the family’s cats was Her Cat—all praise on Spooky’s illustrious name!—so I’ll take her word for it.  Tomorrow night is the scheduled final performance, which I will attend.  I also attended opening night two weeks ago.  Relax—since Ben broke his foot several months ago, he was given a very minor role, so I’m not going to be doing the adoring-daddy thing.  Here, I mean.

Sinful pleasures of my youth to which I am still attached include the Webber/Rice musicals Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ Superstar.  I know, I know.  I have no explanation for this other than I liked the tunes and they call back the times and friends I was with and so on.  No apologies.  I have loathed the later stuff—Evita?!  Ugh.  Other songs I’ve heard all sound alike.  Not interested.  Still: Cats, oddly, was a show I never knew, though at the time I really hated all the hype, the wannabe-feline, narcissistic pseudo-eroticism among the dancy set (where I was spending a lot of time, since my gig then was being a ballet pianist), etc.  Why know a piece if you can judge it without hearing it?  Well, precisely.

The opening night performance was therefore my first hearing of the piece (and remember, these are high school performers).  I was ambivalent; I subsequently borrowed my son’s recording and listened again.  So:

I am really not  all that enamored of it, but I was struck by the extent to which some of the songs are almost contrafacta.  “The Rum Tum Tugger” is almost a direct steal of Eddy Cochrane’s 1950s rockabilly classic, “Something Else,” and the character is very Elvis, much like Pharaoh from Joseph.  “Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat” is a kind of re-metering of the American railway hobo classic, “The Big Rock Candy Mountain,” a bindlestiff’s vision of the Land of Jubilo—appropriate enough, I suppose.  A pirate cat, Growltiger, sings a bit of opera—wickedly parodistic Puccini, down to the phraseology and overheated pentatonicism. “Magical Mr. Mistoffelees” sounds to me like a combination of two numbers from Superstar: “Look at all my Trials and Tribulations”* and the verse from the song Jesus Christ Superstar itself.  There may be a slight echo of Superstar itself here; Mistoffelees can do works of magic that no other cat can do, and brings back the kidnapped Old Deuteronomy, and so is sort of the Jesus Cat to Old Deuteronomy’s God Cat (if you want to go this far, and if you don’t I certainly won’t be offended**).  And so it goes; I suppose that since musicals usually seek to amuse rather than challenge their audiences, giving them this kind of reworked familiar stuff is well within the rules of the game.

(I must observe that my random comments make no less sense than the actual plot.  Narrative coherence is not in the forefront of this one.)

But—damn it—I would be dishonest were I to pretend that I did not find the show affecting in some ways also.  Particularly the old theater cat, Gus: feeble, well past it, palsied paws, reliving past glories, nattering self-righteously about the untrained kittens in modern productions and reliving his past glories…”when I made history.”  Yes, this is an English type, done to a fare-thee-well by Eliot and then Lloyd Webber.  But is there not a resonance here of every legend-in-his-own-mind artist, whose past accomplishments grow ever larger in the rear-view mirror, and in the retelling?  Maybe it is just where I am in life—my academic scholar/poet father (never successful as a creative writer) is in a nursing facility, and I never became either Horowitz or a rock piano virtuoso—that this comic character strikes me as almost unbearably poignant.  And what to make of Grizabella, the formerly beautiful but now rather wasted and dissipated cat, who had left long ago for a life of unspecified excesses and who has now returned but is shunned by the tribe?  She sings of her past beauty, and is ultimately granted resurrection by Old Deuteronomy—she gets another chance at life, in other words.  What gay melancholic (Eliot) or, perhaps, female who overplayed the hand her beauty dealt her wouldn’t share this yearning to the point of madness: the possibility, granted against Nature Herself, to come back and do it right this time, not to make those self-destructive mistakes?  To, for God’s sake, be happy?  Uncomfortable as it is, there’s a bit of each of us in Gus, whether we strutted the boards or were musicians or even athletes (thinking of Springsteen’s “Glory Days” here).  A standing ovation by high school friends and parents or by a college audience or whatever becomes, in memory, a command performance before the crowned heads of Europe.  The trials and tribulations of student performances become…a career.  Who wouldn’t think twice about another chance?

Eliot’s eye didn’t fail him, and Lloyd Webber expands his vision in a  psychologically consistent and plausible way.  So here it is: I’m grudgingly admitting I found something to admire in a hugely popular work that everyone else loved, even though the Webberian idiom is not really to my taste.  It goes against my nature, but there it is.

I’m looking forward to tonight’s performance.

*LATE ADDITION: Debbie insists the operative referent here is more “Hosanna” than “Trials and Tribulations,” in terms of the use and mood.  Musically, I still think my identification is a closer fit. Debbie: “Sorry.  Wrong.  Thanks for playing.  Dismissed.”  Figures, but it isn’t the first time I’ve suffered from unfair judging in a music competition.

**And, obviously, any cat—however magical—would devour a fish before getting a chance to multiply it, so the comparison will only go so far.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
This entry was posted in Pop Aesthetics. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to O CAT!

  1. leah says:

    As to Lloyd Weber stealing his melodies from others, perhaps this will explain:

  2. jonathan says:

    Oh, my WORD. The Brits really take no prisoners. Adieu; I withdraw!

  3. Ralph Locke says:

    Fascinating observations from Jon (and Debbie). The resonances of this somewhat puzzling musical are fascinatingly explored in:
    Kathryn Lowerre, “Fallen Woman Redeemed: Eliot, Victorianism, and Opera in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats,” _Journal of Musicological Research_ 23 (2004): 289-314.

  4. I recently gave a paper on keys, tetrachords and the theology of Jesus Christ Superstar, and would actually like to write a full book about the show someday.
    I feel a little dirty just writing that, but I can’t help it. I like the show.

  5. jonathan says:

    Wes–I was once REAMED by my friend Vivian for talking like that (about “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” as I recall). This is the academic’s form of Ode: if we like something, we explain it. (Think of it as a kind of song form for bores!) If you keep coming back to it and feel a need to explain it, then there’s something there worth explaining, whether or not the composer has any cred with critics, thinkers, or you.
    Looking forward to the book. I’ll read it!

  6. Galen says:

    It’s worth giving Sunset Boulevard a chance, if you haven’t heard it. It’s good.
    Also, taking any excuse to tout the greatness of Laibach, here’s their cover of Jesus Christ Superstar:

    The video is a fan thing, but it’s got the original audio, which is great.

  7. Mary says:

    Just happened upon your blog. Interested to learn you were a ballet accompanist, yet lived to tell the tale. Instant empathy. I did the same for about 30 years and have been scarred for life. But I may publish a book for accompanists, so they won’t have to suffer as I did. And maybe I’ll do one for dancers, who sorely need musical instruction.
    Best of the best,

Comments are closed.