This week, Deputy Editor Ashley Cardiff discovered Andrew Lloyd Webber’s much-maligned but also beloved classic musical Cats. Then editor-in-chief Jennifer Wright tried to explain it to her. She was only marginally successful. Cats is about Dante, or something.
Ashley: So. A few days ago, I was writing a post in which Tom Cruise wore tiger makeup. I thought it would be funny to link to a clip of Magical Mr. Mestofolees. This was stupid for a couple reasons, but the main ones are: 1) I have never seen Cats, nor had any familiarity with it, so linking to it was kind of disingenuous, 2) Tom Cruise seems like more of a Phantom guy and 3) saying “this thing is like this other thing” isn’t really funny. Then I actually watched the video and was astonished by it. The cat shoots lightning out of his hands. The singing cat is weirdly sexualizied. None of it made sense. And then, before I knew it, I was torn into a fucking K-hole of Cats clips and spent an entire afternoon watching this shit and weirdly, my confusion only mounted. I have so many questions.
Jennifer: Hang in there, baby! (That’s the kitten clutching the tree poster reference. One of those things WAS like the other).
Ashley: So, now I’ve watched, accumulatively, the entire thing and it’s still completely mystifying. And I have so many questions.
Jennifer: Well, it’s actually incredibly simple. The basic premise is that these cool cats are gathered together on some sort of purgatorial plane, and Deuteronomy will choose one to come back to life.
Ashley: Okay, see. That doesn’t explain anything. We need to go back further. Namely, is this what T.S. Eliot wanted?
Ashley: Have you got anything to back that up?
Jennifer: I knew Tom and Viv back in the day. We ate melted chocolate together.
Ashley: Let me piece together what I understand.
Jennifer: You often forget that I am a Struldbrug, but I just think about how insensitive your are in general, and try not take it personally.
Ashley: The cats–which are a specific breed called jellicles (which I think is like a calico that grabs its crotch a lot)–are gathered together in some kind of junkyard set that represents the underworld. The shaggiest cat is named Deuteronomy, which, weirdly, is the most normal name of all of them. And Deuteronomy presides over them for the entirety of the narrative, which is nothing more than various cats introducing themselves. In song.
Jennifer: Right. And Old Deuteronomy (God) decides which one will return to life. And you would think it would be one of the cool, clever ones right? But oh! SPOILER! It’s not. I suppose in a way its intensely bound up in the narrative of Christian mythology, right?
Ashley: I guess I was under the assumption it was Mistofolees, the way he leaps into Dueteronomy’s arms and nuzzles him excitedly.
Jennifer: No. Look. We’re all cats. In a junkyard. Waiting to be reborn. Hoping our unique gifts will make us worthy in the eyes of God. Or we will be once we’re dead. Does it make sense now?
Ashley: Wait, so, the talents we’re given in life are supposed to liberate us from the underworld in death? So all of life is just a practice run for the death that we try to escape in order to have a new life?!
Jennifer: Of course.
Ashley: That doesn’t make sense.
Jennifer: I mean, that’s the idea behind most religious narratives. “Do a good job here, buddy, and you’ll be moving up to GREAT THINGS.” Life as a sort of elaborate mail-room, death as a potential executive corner office. Or else, death equating to just being homeless, on the street. Or in a vast junkyard. In which case, your only shot at happiness is to try it (life) again, and hope that this time you can prove your worth.
Ashley: No. No. Because it seems like the point of Cats is the desire to get out of the underworld.
Jennifer: Yes. That’s what I’m saying. They’re trying to prove their worthiness for reincarnation. They’re trying to say, “The world needs a cat like me in it.” Which is why the ending is so beautiful.
Ashley: So it’s like Dante if Beatrice represented a different Jellicle life?
Jennifer: Dante? Well, okay, imagine they’re all virtuous nonbelievers. So, yes, but first circle stuff, not the weird stuff, and try to steer away from Beatrice, because I don’t think that syncs up.
Ashley: So, like, the cats are unbaptized babies and ancient Greek philosophers and shit?
Jennifer: Exactly. And Grizabella is Francesca (if you’ll recall, Francesca and Paolo were the only pair in hell that moved Dante to tears). (Dante passes out it’s so sad they’re in Hell). (Because they just loved beauty and were so beautiful.)
Ashley: I don’t think Dante would have wanted The Divine Comedy reimagined with so much thrusting. That doesn’t seem very on-brand for him.
Jennifer: REALLY? Yeah, Dante’s really subtle. NOT.
Ashley: Yes. Now, eating people, if the play was all about alluding to eating people, then totally. Count Uglino and his sons re-imagined as a wacky black comedy in which his three sons race to the altar while their father races to… eat them… that would make sense for Dante. If they were cats, I mean.
Jennifer: Can we get funding for this?
Ashley: Let’s start a Kickstarter right now. We can call it “The Wedding Feast of Count Uglino.”
Ashley: “Trapped In This Tower, Eating My Progeny” seems wordy.
Jennifer: “The Countin’ Count Has A Snack!” WHOLE NEW AUDIENCE.
Ashley: Too slapstick. So, Cats: it’s about nothing, and also maybe Dante.
Jennifer: “Three Little Piggies Who Never Listed To Their Father.”
Ashley: SO HE EATED THEM
Jennifer: HAHAHAHA Cannibalism is hilarious.
Ashley: It’s better than Cats!
Jennifer: Someone’s already re-branded Dahmer’s entire life story as a dark musical, right? Wait! Too dark! Too dark!
Ashley: Yeah, probably. Cats is terrible, by the way.
Jennifer: No, it’s great. I mean, I’m not saying that in some hipstery way. I’m not saying “it’s so bad it’s great”. I think it’s legitimately great. I mean, Fitzgerald pointed out that the great artist creates for the youth of his generation, the schoolteacher of the next and the critic of the great hereafter. Andrew Lloyd Weber made some weird stuff Tom wrote offhandedly years ago accessible and interesting to… everyone, apparently. Mostly though excessive face paint and pawing motions, but still. And – much like the Le Petit Prince – you can understand Cats at any age.
Ashley: It’s because man’s darkness is most evident in children. Also, what is a Glamour Cat? That hasn’t been made clear at all.
Jennifer: Okay, I thought when I talked about Francesca you’d understand, but then I remember that you’re young, and dense and not a Struldbrug, so that accounts for a lot, and I’ll explain again. While the other cats had qualities and cool stuff to recommend them Grizabella had only the memory of life’s enduring beauty and a profound desire to be a part of it once more and she loved it in spite of knowing how fleeting the beauty is. Both physically and on a larger level. And that is the most important thing. It’s all Our Town, really.
Ashley: I hate you.
Jennifer: Because I made so much sense?
Jennifer: Doesn’t it make it seem doubly unfair that I’m legally dead and not allowed to own property? Also, isn’t this just The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock? Don’t you see how perfectly they align ideologically?
Ashley: This has become upsetting.
Jennifer: What part of it upsets you? I feel like I’ve effectively tied Cats to every great, major cultural achievement. You made some jokes and came up with a premise for a hit Broadway show. We both won!
Asgley: It’s a wash!
Jennifer: WE ARE CLEVER CATS.