“Could you write a short note for the new “Cats” production – shouldn’t be too much trouble?”. This was the gist of my producer’s communication; “Fine”, I replied, “It will be with you at once”.
So why have I been staring at a blank sheet of paper for an hour now, wondering where to start? Writing about “Cats” should be easy. There’s volumes to say. “Cats” changed not just my life but that of so many people close to the show so profoundly that three of us, me included, married girls in the original cast.
I suppose after everything that’s happened with “Cats” that it is hard for me sometimes to remember how it began. It started as a personal experiment to discover if I could set existing words to music. Up until 1978, when I first falteringly tried to set T S Eliot’s timeless cat poems, I had composed the music for the shows that I was involved with first. Then my lyricist would put words to my musical offerings.
True, we agreed the storyline together in advance but, be it Tim Rice or Don Black, the music always came first. So I started writing music to T S Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” primarily to see if I could work the other way round.
Soon I began to realise that these poems, poems that my Mum had read to me when I was a little boy, were very special. Their irregular, even angular meters were like lyrics (I was later to learn from Eliot’s widow Valerie that her husband was a huge lover of contemporary popular songs).
I began to think of “Cats” as a concert piece for children, a bit like Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf”, but something nagged away at me. I sensed that there was some sort of theatrical future in the project although I had no clue what it was or how it could be achieved.
So I staged my work so far in a concert at the 1980 Sydmonton Festival. In the audience was Valerie Eliot. Afterwards she gave me unpublished material that her husband had written about a cat entertainer. It was priceless. There was a letter suggesting a sort of plot. After a “Jellicle Ball” the cats were to go “up past the Russell Hotel” in a balloon “to the Heaviside Layer”. There was an introductory poem about cats and dogs that became the basis of the present opening lyric.
But the clincher was the story of a cat called Grizabella that Eliot thought was too sad to be included in a children’s book. With that discovery “Cats”, as it was to become, had the potential for light and shade that I needed to compose a whole score.
Before the Festival I had taken the idea of “Cats” to the then relatively untried producer Cameron Mackintosh. It was with Cameron that I embarked on the astonishing ride that led to “Cats” becoming a phenomenon that neither of us could remotely have predicted. It was Cameron’s idea to approach director Trevor Nunn. Choreographer Gillian Lynne had worked with Cameron before and she took on the Herculean job of turning humans into dancing cats which, I suppose I can reveal now, a very famous American Terpsichore had already turned down point blank. To be truthful, people thought that Cameron and I were stark staring bonkers. We opened in May 1981 with half our investment missing and a second mortgage on my house.
I am very excited that certain changes have been made that I have long wanted to happen, particularly the reinstatement of the melody that I wrote to an unpublished Eliot poem “The Ballad of Billy McCaw”. This was replaced for Broadway with a pastiche opera number that I never really cared for and which subsequently crept in everywhere else. In fact quite a lot of musical revision has been done which, I hope, has tightened the original score and improved some of my settings of Eliot’s wonderful words.
I hope you enjoy this, the second life of “Cats”.