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The History of 'CATS'

The musical 'CATS' was the most unexpected success of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical career. The story began when Webber bought T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” at an airport bookstore. As Webber read it during his flight, he recalled how, as a child, his mother had read the stories to him. “They might make a lovely album for children...or something.” he thought to himself.

Ten years would go by before Webber would think of T.S. Eliot’s poems again. When he did, he expanded the idea. Webber wanted to make the poems into a full-fledged musical! He, with assistant Trevor Nunn, started work on the musical. They had nothing except bits of songs to work with the poems, and no story to tie them all together. Things were not going well at all.

Finally, at a very late stage in planning the musical, Valerie Eliot, T.S. Eliot’s wife, showed Webber a fragmented poem that had not been published by her late husband. That fragment introduced the character of the lonely and haunted Grizabella: The Glamour Cat. It was just the breakthrough that Webber and Nunn had been waiting for! "There's an image of isolation and pain, there's the idea of change. You were something, now you're the opposite. How do you cope with that?" said Nunn.

Still, as the time to opening day decreased, there was something that troubled Nunn. The show lacked a breathtaking finale, an “Eleven O’Clock Number,” an emotional outpouring. Finally, Nunn asked Webber about it and Webber said that he would try to compose something quickly, though he wasn’t going to make any promises.

The next day, Webber went into a rehearsal room with Nunn and played the melody of what would be one of Theater’s most popular songs. He had written it literally overnight! Nunn remembers saying, “What's the date, what's the time? Remember it, because you have just heard a phenomenal smash hit!" That tune was later called 'Memory,' but at that point it was no more than a melody. There were no words and there were no poems to influence or inspire it. With only a few days left to go before Opening Night, Webber hired three separate lyricists to find words to fit the melody. They were unsuccessful and the pressure was almost unbearable by now!

Finally, with just days to go, Nunn headed for his country home to write the lyrics himself. Nunn could not find even the slightest focal point for his writing. He had the word, “memory,” and that was it. Suddenly, at near 11:00 at night, the “Eleven O’Clock Number” was born. And with it, the show came together. The story of the Jellicle Tribe was complete with Grizabella’s emotional song. And so, the most successful musical in history was born!

A major hit in London, West End, Broadway, and other theaters across the world, CATS was anything but a disaster! It won seven 1983 Tonys for Best Actress (Betty Buckley as Grizabella), Best Director (Trevor Nunn), Best Book (T.S. Eliot), Best Score (Andrew Lloyd Webber and T.S. Eliot), Best Costume Design (John Napier), Best Lighting Design (David Hersey), and the coveted Best Musical!

Today, CATS is the longest-running musical in London and Broadway. It has had four United States touring companies and the song “Memory” has become a classic. Having been recorded over 600 times, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Trevor Nunn should be very proud of the masterpiece that they have created!

--- Written by Munkustrap Kitty (1999)