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We asked a Cats superfan what the musical is actually about, and their answer was baffling

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Hannah-Rose Yee
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Cats the Musical

What is the musical Cats actually about? Serious question, asking for myself.

There are two meanings of the acronym NATO. The first is the defence treaty between several countries, including the US and the UK, drafted in the wake of the Second World War. The second is the National Association of Theatre Owners, no less militant but a fraction less concerned with diplomatic alliance and more in favour of the coming blockbuster attractions. 

This particular NATO – it’s confusing, this – is the group that hosts the annual CinemaCon in early April in Las Vegas. And it’s this NATO that unveiled the first images and information about Cats, the movie musical, unto the world.

This is what we know about the forthcoming 2019 motion picture Cats. It will star Taylor Swift, Idris Elba, Rebel Wilson, Jennifer Hudson, Jason Derulo, Ian McKellen, Judi Dench and James Corden. It just finished filming in the UK, directed by Les Miserables’ Tom Hooper.

It will be motion capture, which means that someone, somewhere has footage of Dame Judi Dench – esteemed queen of the stage and screen – romping about in a onesie. 

The filmmakers used “digital fur technology to create the most perfect covering of fur” on the motion-captured actors. The cats are all going to be the size of actual cats in the movie, which means that the sets and props are all oversized. (Human sized, really, in relation to the cats.) 

And now, at long last, we’ve been given our first behind-the-scenes look at the movie. 

Check it out:

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At CinemaCon, some of the film’s stars said some revealing things about this movie. “We spent a very long time preparing how to be a cat,” Dench said. For Elba, the strength of his performance was in switching to “the cat perspective”. Corden, speaking for everyone, merely added: “These are people, but they’re cats, and it’s kind of blowing my mind.” 

Ian McKellen and Judi Dench

Should we be surprised? Cats the musical is a truly bonkers, absolutely deranged piece of popular culture that is also one of the most successful musical productions of all time. 

These things are not mutually exclusive: Cats can be a weird and wacky thing and be seen by more than 10 million people on Broadway and become the longest-running musical in London courtesy of its 21-year production span since its debut in 1981. (It is thanks, in part, to Cats that creator Andrew Lloyd Weber has a personal net worth of £715 million, or $937 million.)

How to describe the plot of Cats, though. Stylist editor Kayleigh Dray and Cats superfan explains it thusly: “It’s a musical. About cats.”

That’s it. It does exactly what it says on the tin. The 1982 Playbill review of Cats on Broadway summed up as much when it said: “Cats has no plot, no book, no real story line; it is simply an arrangement of twenty of Eliot’s Old Possum poems for dancers and orchestra.” It noted that the core pull of Cats is its cache of hit songs – Memory is the most memorable, for want of a better word, and will be belted out by no less than Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson in the movie adaptation – and its “revolutionary dance drama”. 

The plot of Cats is simple, but strange. It follows a tribe of cats called Jellicle Cats at their annual Jellicle Ball. The Jellicle’s leader Old Deuteronomy (gender-flipped in Cats the movie so that he could be played by Dench) decides that one of the assembled cats will be given the opportunity to move to a higher plane where they will be reborn into a new life.

The cats then compete to be chosen one, unfurling all of their special abilities, wisdom and traits. There’s Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), glamorous and preening, flirtatious Bombalurina (Taylor Swift) and Rum Tum Tugger, the sexy charmer, who in a stroke of cognitive dissonance is not being played by Elba but by Derulo. “Rum Tum Tugger gets a lot of screentime, because he’s ‘sexy’ and he uses his pelvis to make a point,” Kayleigh says. (Her personal favourite is Mr Mistoffelees, a magician cat.)

There’s also the louche Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson) and Bustopher Jones (James Corden). Elba is playing Cats’ resident bad boy Macavity the Mystery Cat, a trouble-maker of a cat if ever we saw one, and whom all the other cats lust after. Bad boys are an eternal language, after all. 

“The Jellicle Cats Ball is an important event for cats,” Kayleigh explains. “All the cats turn up and reveal their real names and sing songs until their leader decides which one of them gets to die and go to a special cat heaven.” 

The point of Cats is not to get bogged down in the Cats-ness of Cats. “Maybe it’s about (and this is always my fallback) Christianity,” Kayleigh guesses. “And Grizabella is the sinner in search of redemption?” 

Grizabella, we are told, has a dodgy past but is desperate for forgiveness and to be reborn into a new life, but all the other cats look down on her because of her glamour. “I assume glamourous is a byword for something else, as every other female cat hisses at her for ‘flitting about’ the No Man’s Land between ‘The Rising Sun’ and ‘The Friend at Hand’,” Kayleigh says. “Which must be pubs?”

“I realise it sounds like I don’t know about the plot of Cats, but I’m not so sure there is one,” she adds. “They just sing about being cats. One is a railway cat who likes trains, one is a cat magician, there are cat burglars (aha!) and there’s also a cat who has all the other cats dress up as dogs to underline how rubbish dogs are.”

“It really is just cats being cats and telling us humans that we don’t know anything about cats, actually,” Kayleigh says. “And that’s true: they are mysterious moggies. I honestly feel as if I know less about them after watching Cats.”

So there you have it: Cats is a musical about cats. What else is there to know? 

Cats the movie will be in cinemas on 20 December 2019. 

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Hannah-Rose Yee

Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer based in London. You can find her on the internet talking about movies, television and Chris Pine.

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