Now That You're Done Laughing, What Is Cats Actually About?

Photo: Courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Me waiting to eat Cats memes
Spoilers ahead for Cats. Seriously.
If you're here, it's too late. You've already seen the Cats trailer. You couldn't unsee those tiny, prancing cat-humans if you tried.
From the trailer, we know what the movie version of Cats will look like: A dystopian soup of West Side Story cobblestones, Greatest Showman colour schemes, and Alice in Wonderland proportions.
But what is the movie actually about? The trailer offers little clues about plot, instead focusing on the movie's assets: "Digital fur technology" and Jennifer Hudson's voice. When it comes to Cats, there is no straightforward way to answer that question. We'll do our best to unravel the mystery that is Cats.
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What is Cats?

Believe it or not, Cats was the Hamilton of its time. The unclassifiable musical was created by an all-star team: Andrew Lloyd Weber wrote, Trevor Nunn directed, and Gillian Lynne choreographed. The musical debuted on London's West End in 1981 and Broadway in 1982 — and a legend was born.
"The reason why people will hunger to see Cats is far more simple and primal than that: It’s a musical that transports the audience into a complete fantasy world that could only exist in the theatre and yet, these days, only rarely does. Whatever the other failings and excesses, even banalities, of Cats, it believes in purely theatrical magic, and on that faith it unquestionably delivers," Frank Rich wrote in the New York Times review in 1982.
When it closed in 2000, Cats held the throne as the longest-running show on Broadway. Since its been debut, the musical has been translated into 15 languages and been seen by more than 73 million people. Thirty-eight years after its juggernaut debut, Tom Hooper of The King's Speech and Les Misérables is bringing the feline spectacle to millions more with the Cats movie.

Well, then: What is Cats about?

Cats takes place over the course of a single evening. A tribe of cats called Jellicles gather in a junkyard to prepare for a ritual — think the Cats equivalent of the "Circle of Life." The point of the Jellicle Ball is to see which of the cats is worthy of ascension to the Heaviside Layer, the cat equivalent of heaven, to be reborn as a younger cat.
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Each of the Jellicle Cats introduce themselves to Old Deuteronomy. Grizabella, a lonely outcast, is shunned from joining the tribe. But Old Deuteronomy still sees her. In the end, he chooses Grizabella to ascend, the ultimate honour.
That said, there's no conventional narrative structure to Cats. No climax, rising action, no hero's journey. It's an arrangement of 20 songs, a Jellicle Cat spectacle.

Where did this story come from?

Here's the real twist of Cats: The musical was adapted from T.S. Eliot's 1939 book of poems, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, which he wrote for his godchildren. Many of the songs' lyrics are pulled directly from the book of poems. So, yes, that T.S. Eliot — the stuffy modernist poet you may have read in school — is technically the playwright of Cats.
In 1972, Lloyd Weber picked up Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats at an airport (back when they sold T.S. Eliot in airports) and remembered reading it with his mother. The thought struck him that the book might make an interesting children's album. After writing the hits Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar, he decided to think bigger.

What is a Jellicle Cat?

The cats in Cats are Jellicle Cats. "All cats are jellicles, fundamentally," Andrew Lloyd Weber said in an interview around the time of the musical's release. "Jellicle" translates "dear little" in Elliot's book. Apparently, the word was created by Elliot's infant niece in her attempt to say her cat's name. When she called for her dog, she said "pollicle dog" — that meant "poor little puppy."
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So it's just a descriptor for a cat. According to the musical's website, Jellicle Cats have three names: "The one the family uses daily, a more dignified name, and a secret name. It is the contemplation of these secret names that keeps felines deep in thought."

Who are the Jellicle Cats?

In the movie, Jennifer Hudson plays Grizabella, Taylor Swift is the foxy Bombalurina, Idris Elba is Macavity the criminal "mystery cat," Jason Derulo takes on Rum Tum Tugger's rock-star energy, James Corden is Bustopher Jones, Ian McKellen is Gus the Theater Cat — the list goes on. Each sings his or her own song to Deuteronomy. "Mr. Mistoffelees" and "Rum Tug Tugger" are especially bops.
For Judi Dench, who plays Old Deuteronomy, Cats the movie is a full circle moment: She was cat as Grizabella in the 1981 London production, but then tore her Achilles tendon and had to withdraw.

Will Cats be a disaster?

The trailer dropped, and the memes immediately poured in. The general response ranged from shock to horror. But we shouldn't judge Cats yet. When Cats the musical was in rehearsal, everyone — including the cast — thought it would be a disaster. It was many things. Disaster was not one.
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