Review Summary: We're gonna talk about Cats and you're gonna like it.
There’s a really important fact to know about Cats
- It’s much more a spectacle than it is a musical. Is there a plot? Yes, contrary to what many people believe, but it’s so loose that trying to focus on it will ruin the entirety of the show. Are the lyrics good? It depends on what you quantify as “good”. The majority of the lyrics are taken from T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats”. While Eliot himself of course comes with pedigree, this short book of poems does not. They’re fun little diddies written for his godchildren and the lyrics definitely come off that way. Incredibly fun but, like the plot, they fall apart if you look too far into them. So then is the music good? Again, it depends on what conventions you’re looking for. It’s very much pop-Broadway, with all of the accessibility of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber (of Phantom of the Opera
and Jesus Christ Superstar
fame, among others) turned up to eleven across almost the entirety of the cast recording. He self-plagiarizes as he often does and there is nothing complex to the music, although it is incredibly catchy and the harmonies are impressive and notable. Of course Cats
is also known for its elaborate practical costumes and technical dance, but seeing as this is a review strictly of audio, that doesn’t lend itself to the enjoyment of this cast recording.
So with how hated Cats
is, why does it seem to be as equally loved and perseverant? That’s because of the spectacle. Despite Sir Webber having other much more beloved and well-reviewed shows, Cats
is perhaps the most consistent. With slight exceptions, every song has the potential to be a listeners favorite song and the argument could be made for all of them. Every number is an undeniable ear worm that is over-the-top, grandiose, and most importantly, fun
. Many people would argue that if you take Cats
at face-value, the show just isn’t good. This is where I would disagree - The key to enjoying the show is to take it at face-value. The people who overanzlyze it are the ones that aren’t taking it at face value, but looking for something more that simply doesn’t exist and doesn’t need to exist. It’s art without depth, which might not qualify it as great art in many circles, but it serves its purpose incredibly well.
“Jellicle Songs for Jellice Cats” is nonsense, but that’s what makes it so much fun to hum along too. “The Rum Tum Tugger” is perhaps one of the most danceable songs ever created for a Broadway show, whether it be intricate choreography or the driving beats causing someone to unconsciously bop their head. “The Jellice Ball” is nearly ten minutes of beautiful orchestrations that tell a story just in their sound, practically representing a pop-oriented orchestral suite. “Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat” is an incredibly stupid song about a cat that lives on a train, but has vocal harmonies and a chorus that goes on for days. The choruses are what make the whole show successful. Unlike many of Webber’s other shows, every song in Cats
can exist both independently or within the context of the show, as opposed to many melody-less interludes being dispersed for the sake of exposition. This is Lord Webber unleashed, unapologetic, and focused on strong melodies, which are his strength. He takes the vapid lyrics and lends them to his melodies. Because the lyrics for many songs, don’t matter except for the purpose of increasing the catchiness of the song. For example:
Because Jellicles are and Jellicles do
Jellicles do and Jellicles would
Jellicles would and Jellicles can
Jellicles can and Jellicles do
Skimbleshanks, the railway cat, the cat of the railway train
Again, I am not here to argue that Cats
is a good musical or a good piece of art. There are songs here that are nothing of the sort. “Bustopher Jones” is relentlessly annoying while “Growltiger’s Last Stand” is fun, but long and uncomfortably dated, wearing out its welcome quickly. But the show is an outstanding spectacle and one that can be appreciated even within the context of simply the audio portion. Even when paying attention to the lyrics, some of the songs are incredibly touching and powerful, even when considering they’re sung by humans dressed as cats. The obvious choice is “Memory”, one of the best power-ballads ever written. But the harmonies and lyrics in “The Old Gumbie Cat” create a delightful story and “Gus: The Theatre Cat” somehow creates empathy for an old cat past its performing prime. And that’s where the beauty of Cat
lies. Try to analyze it, and you can entirely miss the point. Simply sit back and listen and you’ll soon be humming along to every cat tale.