How ‘Cats’ Was the ‘Hamilton’ of Its Hey Day
Jellicals can and Jellicals do!
“Cats,” the eccentric musical now dancing its way to the silver screen with the likes of Taylor Swift and Jennifer Hudson, first debuted the Heavyside Layer nearly 40 years ago, becoming one of the biggest pop culture hits of its time.
“People forget that because it ran so long on Broadway that it eventually became sort of a tourist show,” explained advertising executive Nancy Coyne, who oversaw all of the marketing campaigns for “Cats." “But when it opened on Broadway, when it opened in London, it was definitely the “Hamilton” of its age.”
Coyne has since retired as CEO of Serino/Coyne, one of the biggest theatrical advertising firms on Broadway. She’s the genius behind the iconic slogan “Now and Forever.”
“I wrote a radio spot that just went, ‘From now on and forever when you enter the Winter Garden theater, you won't see velvet seats and a proscenium. You'll see a larger than life junkyard,’” she recalled. “There was a big room full of people [at the time] and I said, ‘I think we should say ‘Cats: Now and forever.’ They said, ‘Okay.’ It was that simple. It was just three words.”
British composer Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber came up with the idea for the show because he loved cats, and his mom would read him poems from T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” he wrote in his autobiography, “Unmasked: A Memoir by Andrew Lloyd Webber.” So, he decided to set the poems to music. Webber was already a big name in the U.K. and on Broadway with hits “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Evita.”
“Cats” first premiered in 1981 in London to rave reviews with direction by Trevor Nunn and choreography by Gillian Lynne, who has since passed away.
Dame Judy Dench, who plays Old Deuteronomy in the new film, was cast as the very first Grizabella the Glamour Cat. But Dench tore her Achilles tendon and was replaced in the main role by Elaine Paige, who was given a brand new song, “Memory,” to sing. Paige actually heard the song on the radio the day before she was offered the role.
Jennifer Hudson plays the feeble feline and masters the iconic ballad in the upcoming movie. To this day, “Memory” is one of the most memorable show tunes of all time.
“It was clear to me when I saw it that it would have an unusually long run,” said Coyne. “I think the music is the reason.”
Producers clawed their way to bring “Cats” to Broadway. Celebrities like Goldie Hawn, Priscilla Presley and Calvin Klein clamored for tickets, all seen at the show around its debut.
One of the biggest box office draws in the beginning of the show’s run was the mystery of what audiences could expect to see. For the first five years, there wasn’t a single photo released of an actor in costume, explained Coyne. How would these cats appear in the "larger than life junkyard"?
“We wanted people to buy tickets to see it,” admitted Coyne. “The costumes were part of the show and that air of mystery translated into a television commercial. All we had was the camera pushing in on the eyes where you could see that the pupils were actually dancers and then pulling out and the logo Cats came on.”
The costumes, as audiences found out, were skin-tight unitards. A majority of the actors were dressed from head to toe in the spandex body suits with giant furry wigs and full-on cat-like face paint.
“Cats” went on to win the Tony Award for Best Musical. At the time, it was the most expensive musical production ever with tickets costing $45, according to Vulture. The show ran for 18 years and 7,485 performances.
At one point, the musical was the longest running show on Broadway. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “The Phantom of the Opera” now holds that prestigious title.
But since cats have nine lives, this show still lives on in revivals — now and forever!
“Cats” is out in theaters beginning December 20th.
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