Cats! the Musical is a pop culture staple that we have grown to love, to love to hate and to love to download snippets of on YouTube. Broadway Across America performs Cats! the Musical at the Colonial Theater until April 18, where the Tony Award-winning production by Andrew Lloyd Webber continues its 30-somethingth life. Especially after a couple of the special cocktails offered at intermission (the Cat’s Meow, a radioactively-red combination of champagne, peach schnapps and cranberry juice), Cats! is realized to be more than eye candy when looked at through an avant-garde perspective.
Cats! denies the Aristotelian model of the narrative: that there should be a beginning, a middle and an end, equipped with conflict, climax and resolution. The musical instead associates itself more with an avant-garde format by utilizing random character development, non-linear action and a quick resolution for an invisible problem only during the second act.
One of the biggest proponents of avant-garde theater was Antonin Artaud, a French playwright who founded the idea of the “Theater of Cruelty,” a complicated, sometimes contradictory philosophy that acts as a sort of a manifesto for playwrights dabbling in the surreal. Some qualities of Artaudian thought are that the audience must be actively part of what’s happening on-stage, using lights and sound and that characters focus more on physical action than on spoken words.Cats! depends on flashing lights, loud, explosive rumbles of noise and crescendos from the orchestra to awaken and enliven the audience.
Artaud, much like avant-garde playwright Bertolt Brecht, believed that the experience of the audience should not be passive – that the production needs to completely arrest the audience in their emotions, their actions and their self-awareness.
The play takes place under the gleam of the full moon of the Jellicle Ball, when one Jellicle Cat is chosen by Old Deuteronomy, the wise sage, to venture to the Heaviside Layer, a euphemism for death and reincarnation. The Jellicle Ball is a dystopian atmosphere, with the animals, some wearing neon-green illuminated goggles as eyes, slinking around the orchestra-level aisles pawing and glaring at the theater-goers. There is constant tension as Macavity, the villainous ginger cat, makes spontaneous appearances throughout the two acts but is never caught.
Max Reinhardt, an Austrian avant-garde playwright most active during wartime, applauded the idea of the “total art-work,” using different means of dancing and singing, as well as prop and scenic possibilities to create the stage into something more than a set. Cats!The Musical was intended to be a spectacle, using carefully detailed costuming and make-up, grandiose set design and complex dance choreography. The characters Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer, the renegade felines of the cast, perform a highly stylized dance number, equipped with acrobatics and gymnastics. Mr. Mistoffelees, the “Magic Cat,” hypnotizes the audience with his countless forte turns and hardly mysterious sleight-of-hand tricks.
There are elements of the production, which debuted on Broadway in 1982, that completely defy Artaudian philosophy. Cats! relies on the dialogue (all of which is sung to the audience, not between characters) more than Artaud would prefer. The turn-of-the-century playwright believed that dialogue was too heavily relied on in Western theater and that the gestures, of the characters should speak volumes more than what was leaving their mouths. Although the songs, which act as dialogue throughout the play, are based on poems from T.S. Eliot’s 1939 Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, the movements of those on stage reveal more about the characters and conflicts among the Jellicles than the lyrics. Rum Tum Tugger, the sex-driven rock star, is better understood when he gyrates his hips and props his leather-fringed collar than when he sings about preferring grouse to pheasant.
The performance by Broadway Across America is a downsized version of the gargantuan award-winning production that put cat ladies on the map. Those dressed up as life-sized tabby cats and Siamese kittens do not try to capture the audience under the illusion of reality, that what is being viewed is anything but a pure theatrical creation. Cats! the Musical can be seen as not just a novel orgy of eye shadow, faux fur and hitch-kicks, but an overlooked element of avant-garde theater.