By Alison Baumgartner
Jellicle cats come one, come all…Jellicles come to the Jellicle Ball!
If you hear the words “Jellicle cat” and are thinking to yourself, “What on Earth is that?” Then you’ve come to the right place, you curious cat! We at The Lincoln Center know a thing or two about how Cats, the smash musical sensation, came to be.
Our story begins in the 1930s when famed poet T.S. Eliot first penned poems to his godchildren about the secret lives of Jellicle cats. In the poem “The Song of the Jellicles,” Jellicle cats are described as commonly nocturnal black and white, scruffy cats that like to gather at an event called the “Jellicle Ball”. Later collected into Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, these poems would become a favorite of the future Broadway musical legend Andrew Lloyd Weber.
While making a name for himself with musical smash hits like Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, Lloyd Weber kept the book of feline poems close to heart because he knew that there was something magical about those silly verses that centered around disappearing kitties and pirate prowlers. Then, Lloyd Weber began writing songs using the poems and lyrics as an exercise.
Over the decades since Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats was published, many have asked for the rights, not the least of which was Disney. Unimpressed with their concept, T.S. Eliot would refuse and that paved the path for a very different cat-themed movie we know today as The Aristocats.
When Lloyd Weber asked T.S. Eliot’s widow, Valerie, for the rights, she responded “You realize, don’t you, that Tom turned down Disney?” To Eliot, the cats in his poems were street cats; not the loveable, cuddly creations that Disney would ultimately make them. Lloyd Weber told Valerie that his vision was less Disney, and a little more like the modern-dancing, Lycra-bodysuit-wearing aesthetic of Sarah Brightman & Hot Gossip’s “I Lost My Heart to Starship Trooper.” She felt that her late husband would have loved that and granted the rights.
Even with that win, Cats was not a done deal. Funding was short, and Lloyd Weber had to take a second mortgage out on this house to complete his passion project. Everything was stacked against Cats hitting the stage, from financial pressures to rewrites of song lyrics just before opening night. Even harder, there was no plot connecting the poems.
It was hard for people to believe in a musical that functioned more as a dance review than a story. It didn’t even have a power ballad, a prerequisite for any hit on Broadway.
These two problems would be solved by an unpublished poem called “Grizabella the Glamour Cat.” Centering around a cat so grizzled she surprises people that she’s still alive, the poem was deemed too sad for children and not included in the original collection. However, in her character, Lloyd Weber saw a much-needed cathartic release for the show.
Thus, the plot was introduced: The Jellicle Cats gather for a Jellicle Ball, where they all vie to be the next cat sent to the Heaviside Layer. The ostracized Grizabella would ultimately be the one chosen after she belts out the now-classic song “Memories.”
Largely, the plot is a framework for the cats to show off their skills and talents, whether it’s Mr. Mistoffelees’ predilection for magic, the willful Rum Tum Tugger’s deliberate contrariness, or Jennyanydots masterful control of the mice and cockroaches. What results is a delightfully playful show filled with the highest level of dance and vocal skill ever performed.
The show’s longevity both on London’s West End where it ran for over 21 years and on Broadway with an 18-year run is a testament to its power to mesmerize audiences. Come experience the magical and fantastical Jellicle Ball and meet all the diverse personalities and individual talents of the Jellicle cats yourself November 11-13 at The Lincoln Center. Seats from $20 at LCtix.com.