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Eighteen years is a long life for a cat. And it’s an extraordinarily
long life for a Broadway musical.

Mind you, Broadway theatre critics didn’t like “Cats” too much when
it first opened, so its survival is something of an animal miracle. It’s
something of a theatrical miracle also, of course, with all these human
beings ineffectually disguised as members of the feline species. It is
also the first hit Broadway musical drawn from the work of a Nobel Prize
winner (1948): T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.”

Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice blew the theatre world to
smithereens with “Jesus Christ Superstar” in the 1960s. It was turned
down by every producer in London until they made a hit record of it, but
after that there was no looking back. How many people it brought (or
brought back) to Christianity I would not want to hazard a guess at, but
my speculation would be on the low side. Still Christianity left its
mark on Mr. Webber and Mr. Rice, of that there can be no doubt.

“Evita,” was Mr. Webber and Mr. Rice’s next hit after “Jesus Christ
Superstar” and, played with embarrassing ineptness in the film by pop
superstar Madonna, she is clearly intended to be a Mary Magdalene
figure. After which came “Cats,” which looked at correctly gives you the
whole Jesus story.

Reigning over the cat-world is a St. Peter-like cat named
Deuteronomy, whose principal function, at an annual ball, seems to be
selecting the next candidate for reincarnation. An observant Christian
in the audience will notice a confusion here between Christianity and
Hinduism. Christians, at death, enter “the life everlasting,” whereas
Hindus are reborn as entirely different people, more elevated and
distinguished — if they’ve been good and behaved themselves — or
decidedly downscale, if they’ve been naughty.

In my mucking about in the cat world I’ve met a rather appealing
female cat named Grizabella — a cat with a past. She used to be very
beautiful in her glory days, she tells us, the boy cats couldn’t leave
her alone. She used to be a prostitute, in fact, and all the respectable
cats now snub her. Here an observant anthropologist will note a
confusion about a cat’s sex life. Because all cats are tramps, sexually
promiscuous. So why should the more restrained cats (of “Cats”) look
down on Grizabella? This is another detail that impedes cats being
identified with human beings.

However when the St. Peter cat helps select the winner of the Grand
Prize at T.S. Eliot’s cats’ Jellicle Ball, she turns out to be a worthy
cat after all. or, as described by Mr. Eliot:

    Jellico Cats are white and black,

    Jellico Cats are of moderate size;

    Jellicles jump like a jumping jack,

    Jellico Cats have moonlit eyes

    They’re quiet enough in the morning hours,

    They’re quiet enough in the afternoon,

    Reserving their terpsichorean powers

    To dance by the light of the Jellicle Moon

For this, and a number of other poems (“The Waste Land,” “The
Hollow Men”), Mr. Eliot not only won the Nobel Prize, but gave up his
American citizenship, which he must have considered a poetic impediment.
As for Grizabella, she too is rewarded for her shift in allegiance. As
the orchestra plays “Memory,” she steps onto what looks like a Firestone
automobile tire, which promptly starts an ascent to cat-heaven. She has
already reached her cat-heaven, however, when Deuteronomy intones in his
profound bass voice the show’s final, wisdom-embracing number; “A cat is
not a dog. And again I must remind you that — a dog is a dog — a cat’s
a cat.”

Gross ticket revenues for “Cats” have now surpassed $400 million. Ten
million people have seen the show on Broadway alone, and left with their
hearts dancing and a new understanding of both cats and Christianity.
Can 10 million Americans be wrong? Have the heathen come into thine
inheritance? And thy temple have they defiled?

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