The galaxy of enduring Broadway characters, including Maria von Trapp, Annie Oakley, Gypsy Rose Lee, Billy Bigelow, the King of Siam, and Sweeney Todd, has been outstripped, now and forever, by a litter of mangy felines. The Old Gumbie Cat, who’s a ball of fur all day and goes clubbing all night; the insatiable Rum Tum Tugger; the glamorous Mungojerrie; the fading, Sunset Boulevard–esque Grizabella; and the commanding Old Deuteronomy are just a few of the Broadway Cats who hold the record for longest-running Broadway show, either human or feline.
When the Cats first moved into their junkyard set in the Winter Garden Theatre on October 7, 1982, the buzz was that the Brits, led by composer-lyricist Andrew Lloyd Webber and director Trevor Nunn, were going to claim the district. The show, based on the poems of T. S. Eliot, was the quintessential American combination of high- and lowbrow. Its meager story line made it accessible to anyone who’d ever petted a creature with whiskers. The combination of song-cycle format and twentieth-century poetic origins, mixed with nursery-school-like theater games, endowed it with a phenomenally broad appeal. Those kitties could purr to all of the people, all of the time—and damn the critics. The show played 7,485 performances, eventually surpassing its American cousin, A Chorus Line.
“What is most astonishing about Cats is that during its run, it was the punch line of more theater jokes than any other musical,” says Nathan Lane. In John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation, the young man who masquerades as Sidney Poitier’s son claims that his father is directing the movie version of Cats. When he tells the guests at an Upper East Side dinner party that his father is insisting on casting people instead of actual cats, the guests respond in all earnestness, “What a courageous stand.”
Playwright Christopher Durang, during his cabaret act Chris Durang & Dawne, promised the audience never to sing “Memory,” the only song recorded by Barbra Streisand originally performed by a feline (somewhere under whose ratty gown was Betty Buckley). However, at the end of his show, Durang involuntarily shrugged his shoulders and sang it anyway. “What can you do? You have to sing what they want,” he explained.
And then there’s Paul Rudnick’s play Jeffrey, in which a dancer in Cats (played by Bryan Batt, a dancer in Cats) is an object of derision until AIDS proves that some cats have only one life, and ascends, no doubt in the company of Old Deuteronomy, to the Heaviside Layer.
My own cat, Antonia Wasserstein, remains jealous of all of those Cats cats to this day. She doesn’t understand why she had to stay in my apartment and couldn’t go to the Winter Garden every night to sing “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats.” When I asked her why she thought Cats was so successful, she glanced up from her bowl of turkey-and-liver Fancy Feast and purred, “If you don’t understand why a show is the longest-running one in Broadway history, you’ll never have one.” Then she licked her paws just like Rum Tum Tugger did every night for almost eighteen years at the Winter Garden. And left the room.