In case you’ve forgotten, the musical features a bunch of creatures with names like Rumpleteazer and Grizabella, sporting leotards and whiskers, who jump around on stage to no great purpose for about 2½ hours. The show, loosely based on the work of T.S. Eliot, has something to do with reincarnation. Many who see it will wish to come back in their next life on a planet that has no musicals.
In the 1980s, every night on my way home from work, I would walk past the Winter Garden Theater, where “Cats” was playing now and forever. I knew that sophisticated theatergoers viewed “Cats” with contempt, but I was curious to find out if it was really as bad as people said. So one day I bought a ticket.
“Cats” was bad. It was the worst thing I ever saw, and still is. And I saw the 1971 St. Joseph’s College “Star Trek”-inspired production of “Julius Caesar.” I saw Deepak Chopra golf. I saw Columbia University students try to play football. None of them approached “Cats” for macabre schlockiness. “Cats” was pretentious and moronic and excruciating. It only had one decent song, the treacly “Memories,” which makes “Yesterday” sound like death metal.
I subsequently wrote a book about spending an entire year trying to find something worse than “Cats.” I never did. I saw “Lord of the Dance” at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, went all the way to Branson, Mo., to hear Tony Orlando and to sit through the Osmonds on Ice. I saw every Steve Guttenberg film and ate at the Olive Garden and spent a weekend in Cleveland and read every single Robert James Waller book. If something was appalling beyond belief, I gave it a rip. But nothing could go toe-to-toe with “Cats.” Only John Tesh at Carnegie Hall came close. Tesh—described, correctly, as the devil in an episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”—gave it the old college try. But in the end, Andrew Lloyd Webber smoked him.
“Cats,” like Attila the Hun and Carly Simon, eventually went away. For a while it stayed away. But the popularity of ingenious, thought-provoking, trailblazing shows like “Hamilton” and “The Book of Mormon” beguiled the public into letting down its guard, confident that our long pop-cultural nightmare was over for good.
The return of “Cats” is devastating for those of us who finished grade school. It’s like finding out that the bubonic plague is coming back for round two. It’s like finding out that Mickey Rourke and Kathy Griffin are slated to appear in “The King and I.” It’s like finding out that Andrea Bocelli, Josh Groban and Michael Bolton will be appearing inAndre Rieu’s production of “Rigoletto,” set on Long Island, with additional music provided by Billy Joel and Yanni.
Am I saying that “Cats” is the single cheesiest thing mankind has ever produced? I am. Nothing is as dumb, as annoying, as interminable as “Cats.”
What does its return say about mankind? It says that the price of eternal freedom from “Jesus Christ Superstar” is eternal vigilance against “Evita.” It says that those who cannot remember “Starlight Express” are condemned to a repeat performance of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” And it says that nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American people.