“Cats” tells the story of a group of cats as they gather for a competition: Who among them most deserves to be reborn. Each feline performs a number to introduce themselves and deliver their best pitch for the prize.
OK, I admit that the phrase “tells the story” is somewhat generous for such a thin premise. Narratively speaking, the nearly-two-hour movie-musical — which opened this past weekend to scathing reviews and a dismal $6.6 million at the box office — covers the same ground as a season-premiere episode of a reality competitions like “The Bachelor” or “Dancing With the Stars.”
“If you see this movie — and I offer that up as a hypothetical, not a recommendation — and arrive at the theater not excessively inebriated, you will indeed learn about several different kinds of cat, with stripe and spot formations as impressively varied as their personality types and domestication levels,” wrote Times film critic Justin Chang. “There are certainly worse characters one could spend time with, though I am hard-pressed at the moment to think of many worse movies.”
The near universal frustration with the onscreen adaptation among film critics is part of the reason why “Cats” was such a cash cow onstage. The Andrew Lloyd Webber composition — borrowing character sketches from T. S. Eliot’s whimsical 1939 poetry collection “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” — ushered in the era of the blockbuster musical, a kind of catnip for families and tired tourists. It won seven Tony Awards, and remains the fourth-longest-running musical in Broadway history.
“Cats” doesn’t have much of a plot because it’s a concept musical, which forgoes the traditional story structure of a linear plot in favor of vignettes that collectively discuss a shared subject. The scenes don’t necessarily build narratively; instead, they complement one another intellectually or emotionally. Onscreen equivalents, arguably, are multi-arc movies like “Love Actually,” “He’s Just Not That Into You” and “Valentine’s Day,” as well as television shows like Netflix’s “Black Mirror” or Amazon’s “Modern Love.”
“Cats” debuted during the early 1980s, when concept musicals had already gained great critical acclaim throughout the previous decades. Though the first attempts at the form were in the 1940s — Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s “Allegro,” and Kurt Weill and Alan Jay Lerner’s “Love Life” — the genre became popular in theaters throughout the 1960s and 1970s, with titles like “Man of La Mancha,” “Hair,” “Pippin,” “Cabaret,” “Chicago,” “A Chorus Line,” “Company,” “Follies,” “Pacific Overtures” and more.
“These concept musicals are avant-garde Broadway book shows,” wrote Scott McMillin in his book “The Musical as Drama.” “The plots of the concept shows are unpredictable and original. They are driven by confidence that the book has become a narrative art in itself, requiring new ways of relating book to number.”
Since concept musicals often stress spectacular stage-centric elements — like sentimental soliloquies and ensemble experiments that were considered groundbreaking at the time — they have often struggled to retain the same appeal onscreen. Many of the most celebrated examples — from “Pippin” to “Company” — have never even been adapted (“Cats” itself was in development off and on since the ‘90s). And most of those that have — including “Hair” and “Man of La Mancha” — were critical and commercial disappointments.
But by examining the past, through examples of two adaptations that worked and one that failed, maybe we can answer: Where did “Cats” go wrong?
“Cabaret” proved that it’s possible to turn a hit concept musical into a hit movie. Directed by Harold Prince and featuring music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb, the 1966 stage musical is framed as an evening inside a Berlin nightclub during Hitler’s rise. Its characters — an aspiring novelist, a self-destructive singer, a boarding house owner, a shopkeeper, etc. — act out scenes of a linear narrative, while the club’s emcee leads numbers commenting on the topic at hand: how ordinary German citizens could get caught up in Nazi ideology. Wrote Times drama critic Cecil Smith in 1968, after “Cabaret” won eight Tonys: “This is not a play about individuals but of amoral human rot.”
Its 1972 film adaptation, directed by Bob Fosse and starring Liza Minnelli, featured drastic changes — character names and backstories altered, numerous songs completely cut and replaced. With such an overhaul, the stage show and the movie only have five songs (plus the finale, a reprise) in common (its newly written songs were added into later stage versions). Still, the integrity of the concept remained largely uncompromised, and challenged the form of the movie musical in the same way the stage show did in its debut.
“‘Cabaret’ is an exquisitely sculpted milestone in the history of the film musical,” wrote Times film critic Charles Champlin. “It is the most thrilling I have ever seen, the most adult, the most intelligent, the most surpassingly artful in its joining of cinema, drama and music to evoke the mood and events of a turning point (and turning place) in history. … [It] is the kind of achievement — at once singular and collaborative — which the musical movie will have to be measured against hereafter.”
The movie “Cabaret” was nominated for 10 Oscars and won eight of them, including the director prize for Fosse, who famously beat out Francis Ford Coppola for “The Godfather.”
‘A Chorus Line’
At the other end of the adaptation success spectrum lies “A Chorus Line,” the Michael Bennett-directed musical that’s structured as an audition, and the dancers in question are evaluated upon being asked to share something about themselves. With music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Edward Kleban, the vignettes offer momentary peeks into the emotionally tumultuous lives of these performers. In addition to the Pulitzer Prize for drama, “A Chorus Line” won nine Tonys and set Broadway records with 15-year run.
“The triumph of ‘A Chorus Line’ lay in its ability to thrill most people, its greatness lay in the artistry that was necessary to achieve that thrill,” wrote critic Martin Gottfried in 1990. “This show was the theater’s tribute to itself.”
But the 1985 movie — directed by Richard Attenborough and featuring Michael Douglas in the cast — failed to capture this adequately onscreen. “If you were one of that legion who saw ‘A Chorus Line’ more than once in the theater, the film is enough to make you doubt your judgment. If you’ve never seen the stage piece, you may come out wondering what in the name of goodness all the fuss was about,” wrote Times film critic Sheila Benson.
There are many reasons that the magic of the musical got lost in translation — as Benson pointed out, Bennett’s “crisply elegant” choreography “had been all but erased,” the movie’s editing and cinematography choices were clever but counterproductive to showcase its dancers, and the reassignment of a climactic song from one character to another sabotaged the story: “It’s indicative of the earnest, unsoaring, unimaginative conveyance that ‘A Chorus Line’ has become.”
“Chicago” was a far more successful adaptation attempt. When the Kander and Ebb musical opened on Broadway in 1975, it was presented like a 1920s vaudeville show, with songs that told the stories of “celebrity” criminals and satirically commented on the corruption of the criminal justice system.
Directed by Fosse, the original production only ran on Broadway for two years, but its 1996 concert-like revival from Walter Bobbie won six Tonys and remains the longest-running musical revival on Broadway. Times theater critic Laurie Winer called it “a fabulously confident revival for the post-O.J. era. … In 1996 a theater-goer can relax and enjoy the show’s sleek cynicism with a clear eye and a knowing heart.”
The 2002 movie — directed by Rob Marshall and starring Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere and Queen Latifah — drew inspiration from the revival, but flipped its framing: rather than having the entire story told on a stage to an audience, it was rejiggered into a linear narrative with cutaways to onstage performances that communicated characters’ emotions. Multiple songs from the show didn’t make it onscreen, while many scenes were restructured to visually and narratively accommodate settings left to the imagination onstage.
Though Times film critic Manohla Dargis didn’t think the original text’s “darkly cynical attitude toward the media and celebrity” carried over to the film — “denuded of satire, the musical now comes across as another charming if creaky theatrical contrivance,” she wrote — the movie won six Academy Awards, including best picture, and grossed over $306 million worldwide. Its success was partially responsible for the annual wave of movie musicals that audiences are offered as of late — the most recent, of course, being “Cats.”
So “Cabaret” and “Chicago” proved that concept musicals can be adapted for the big screen, with a bit of reframing to make up for a movie’s missing suspension of disbelief, one that only soars when in the room with the performers and the rest of the audience. Ignoring this strategy can be the core detriment of the attempt, as it was for the “Chorus Line” movie.
One of the odd things about “Cats” — of which there are many, yes — is that, despite its commercial success onstage, “few with any real discernment thought the show was any good,” explained Times theater critic Charles McNulty. “What ultimately rescued ‘Cats’ from failure was the directness of its theatrical appeal. This is a dance musical, in which the book is subsidiary to spectacle and motion.”
The show’s strongest assets were its subliminally erotic choreography, its complete commitment to the artifice, its inherently theatrical ask of an audience to go along with actors in cat costumes, hissing and purring through the aisles. Noted Chang in his film review, “That was the right aesthetic for that live performance medium; it was an example of how inventive stylization and stagecraft could bring a fantasy world to vivid life.”
All of that disappears in Tom Hooper’s adaptation, which presents viewers with the faces of Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Jennifer Hudson, Idris Elba, James Corden, Rebel Wilson, Jason Derulo and Taylor Swift, edited onto bodies with “digital fur,” human hands and human breasts. Not to mention, human-faced cockroaches. (No patch can fix that.)
“With its grotesque design choices and busy, metronomic editing, ‘Cats’ is as uneasy on the eyes as a Hollywood spectacle can be, tumbling into an uncanny valley between mangy realism and dystopian artifice,” continued Chang.
It’s too soon to say if the “Cats” debacle will affect future screen musicals, and how. But 2020 is already looking like a busier-than-usual year for the genre with Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story,” Jon Chu’s “In the Heights,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Tick, Tick ... Boom!” and Ryan Murphy’s “The Prom” all on the way.
And there are also more concept musical adaptations in the works — including a take on Stephen Sondheim’s 1971 show “Follies,” which meditates on theater nostalgia, self-image and aging. The clearest lesson those filmmakers can learn? Don’t lose sight of its story’s most appealing attributes, and make sure they are translated adequately to the big screen.