“I laughed, I cried, it was better than Cats!”
What is great about that phrase is you are setting the bar very low for expectations. Cats may be the second longest-running musical in Broadway history (bested only by The Phantom of the Opera), but you don’t often hear people talking about how boring and overdone Phantom is, despite both shows being most closely associated with Andrew Lloyd Webber. The difference between the two musicals is vast — as is the demographic wanting to see them. That is, people willing to give up two hours and 30 minutes to watch a show with better makeup than story.
I do understand the appeal of Cats to children; it’s the closest we have come, in Broadway musical terms, to live-action cartoons. Humans moving around in a pseudo-sexual manner that they think accurately portrays a feline: What’s not to like?
Well, anyway, Lloyd Webber thought it was time for the next life for Cats, and I don’t mean “time for it to go to Branson where musicals die.” Instead, it’s time for a Cats revival. As widely reported, Cats will reopen this December for a 12-week limited run at the London Palladium.
I really can’t believe I am going to type this next sentence, but, as also widely reported, one of the major modifications of this revival is that the role of Rum Tum Tugger will be changed into a “rapping street cat.”
I’m tempted to just end the column now because there is little comment I can make that even compares to how ridiculous and demeaning to musical theater this idea is. But because I am a glutton for punishment, let’s continue.
Being a musical created in the late 1970s and premiering in the early 80s, it makes sense why Lloyd Webber would want to make Rum Tum Tugger more of a glam rock cat. You simply pick the cheesiest pop culture reference you can find and throw it in, why not? In retrospect I am surprised they did not also put him on a skateboard. As playwright Neil Simon showed us, once you have a formula that works, don’t differ from it. So what was once glam rock kitsch is now rap kitsch. I personally have never thought of rap as kitschy, but I can almost guarantee you that this rap will sound much more like Fresh Prince than 50 Cent, and in that cents (see what I did there?) it is certainly kitschy, but in a way that loses all the joy of irony.
But it seems Lloyd Webber has concluded this is the natural progression of Cats, which is based on T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, published in 1939. In an interview, Lloyd Webber said:
I’ve come to the conclusion that…maybe Eliot was the inventor of rap.
Coming to a conclusion about anything being a “maybe” is not a conclusion, but I digress. Here is the appropriate response to Lloyd Webber’s statement: WHAT?
To make his point, Lloyd Webber used these lines from “The Rum Tum Tugger”:
The Rum Tum Tugger is a curious cat
If you offer him pheasant he would rather have grouse
If you put him in a flat then he’d rather have a house
I have heard there are troubles of more than one kind
Some come from ahead and some come from behind.
But I’ve bought a big bat. I’m all ready you see.
Now my troubles are going to have troubles with me!
Not only are their meters and rhyme schemes similar in scope, but Dr. Seuss’s character is armed! (I realize this is a gross generalization of rap music, but for the sake of humor, please bear with me.) If this is truly where Lloyd Webber thinks rap began, then he has proven how outdated he is in the modern world and especially about the history of a genre he is now trying to employ.
I’m not saying rap and hip-hop have no place in musical theater. In The Heights did a wonderful job weaving it into the story and there are other musicals that use it as a focal point. I am saying that to bring a musical back to life from the Do Not Resuscitate list, you need a lot more than some cheesy gimmick. Which is exactly what this is, and Lloyd Webber is not being apologetic about it.
Fo’ shame, Sir Andrew, fo’ shame.