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A Bit of History

The first performance of Cats took place on May 11th 1981 at the New London Theatre, that's the theatre where the show has been on stage until May 11th 2002 (click here to see the stage background). Andrew Lloyd Webber was inspired to write this musical from a poems book by Thomas Stearn Eliot, that was named The Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. He asked to Valerie Eliot (the poet's widow) if he could work on this book and he started to write the musics of the show.
About twenty songs, each one rather different from the others, were the final result. But, unfortunately, there wasn't a real plot that could keep them together: there were different characters, each one with his way of being, acting and singing, but there wasn't a real storyline to tie them all together. There was not a real "glue" that could make unforgettable the songs and give strenght to the whole musical... and the opening night of the show was quite near.
Then Valerie Eliot suggested Webber something new. She showed him an unpublished fragment from Eliot's poems, describing a new character: Grizabella, the glamour cat. Just eight lines (you can read them in the Lyrics page), but enough to inspire a new way of reading the whole work. Here is a quote from Trevor Nunn about it: "The discovery of the fragment 'Grizabella: the Glamour Cat' was probably the fulcrum moment in our planning. Here in eight lines Eliot was describing an intensely recognisable character with powerful human resonances, while introducing the themes of mortality, and the past, which occur repeatedly in the major poems. We decided that if Eliot had thought of being serious, touching, almost tragic in his presentation of a feline character, then we had to be doing a show which could contain that material, and the implications of it" (1).
Grizabella, the glamour cat who had an obscure and dissolute life, was che character who could create a simple but effective storyline. Webber composed her theme "Memory" during one single night; then Trevor Nunn wrote its lyrics (in part inspired by another Eliot's poem, named "Rhapsody on a Windy Night" - click here to read something about it) and finally choreographer Gillian Lynne had to train the whole cast in a very short time. As the situation was not enough difficult, the singer Judi Dench, who should have performed Grizabella's role, a few days before May 11th broke her Achilles tendon and her role was given to Elain Paige, who became the first Grizabella of a long serie. Another unforeseeable event was that, on the first night of the show, someone told there was a bomb in the theatre. It was only a bad joke, but the show had to be stopped and the theatre evacuated.
Then, Cats' history is well-known. The musical has been shown all over the world, with a huge number of performances and tours that allowed about 50 millions people to see it. A record that was just a bit obscured by Broadway closing (after "only" 18 years on stage) and London closing (after 21 years).

(1) From Cats, the Book of the Musical, New York, Harcort Brace Jovanovitch, 1983, p. 10. Thanks to Talis (webmistress of The Cats Book Corner) for having suggested me this quote.