There may be no more divisive work of musical theater than Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats.”
It’s hugely popular, raking in more than $3 billion since its debut on the West End in London in 1981. Adapted by Lloyd Webber from the 1939 poetry collection “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” by T.S. Eliot, the Broadway production ran for 18 years and helped launch the “megamusical.” It won both the Tony and Olivier awards for best musical and created a gorgeous entry in the book of Broadway musical standards, “Memory.”
Spokane audiences in particular have loved it, selling out the house 28 consecutive times when the national tours played the Spokane Opera House (now the First Interstate Center for the Arts) in 1987, 1997 and 2004.
It’s also been the object of derision. In 1986, Jon Lovitz and “Saturday Night Live” created ”The Amazing Alexander,” a sketch about a hypnotist who opens a show on Broadway. “I loved it,” his hypnotized audience says. “It was much better than ‘Cats.’ I’m going to see it again and again.”
On the Netflix series “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” Titus Andromedon (Titus Burgess) fakes his way into the cast of “Cats” only to discover … everyone else did, too. “So the whole show is made up?” he asks a fellow actor. “We just do some poppers and say whatever comes to mind,” is the reply.
And don’t even talk about the recent, star-studded “Cats” movie version, which was so bad, Lloyd Webber recently told Variety that it made him go out and for the first time in his life get a dog.
“There wasn’t really any understanding of why the music ticked at all,” Lloyd Webber said. “I saw it and I just thought, ‘Oh, God, no.’ ”
Criticism and missteps aside, the fact that “Cats” still remains a staple of popular culture speaks to the enduring appeal of its fanciful story about a tribe of cats called the Jellicles who gather one night for a great party to determine which of them will ascend to the “Heaviside layer” and come back to a new life.
For Portland-raised actress Tayler Harris, the secret to embracing “Cats” is about “diving into the details like you would with every story.
“Not every single story is going to make sense to every single person,” she added, speaking by phone from a tour stop in Nebraska. “But no matter what you do with live theater and storytelling in general, someone is almost always going to be moved by your work.”
Lloyd Webber’s work, too, speaks for itself.
“ ‘Cats’ has been around for 40 years,” she said. “It’s one of the most iconic musical theater shows ever. On top of the fact, a song from the show, the song that I sing actually, was like a Billboard hit. Celine Dion sang the song.”
Ah, the song. “Memory” is by far the best-known and most beloved song from “Cats.” Sung by the fading glamour cat Grizabella, “Memory” is a gorgeous and somber moment. Barbra Streisand, Elaine Page and Barry Manilow all found chart success with “Memory.”
For Harris, having to sing “Memory” every night feels like a very natural thing to her – “It feels so right in my soul,” she said. The song has been with her for much of her life. “I’ve known this song for a long time, even before I knew it was from ‘Cats,’ ” she said.
“I just knew it was a song from a musical, from a book of musical theater songs that my grandmother gave me. As I got older, I tried to sing it. In college and high school, I was like, ‘Oh, this song is hard. Oh my goodness. How do you build up to this?’ ”
Being able to see the song in its context, done by several incredible women and Manilow over the years, helped her put it together. “There have been so many iconic Grizabellas. And it’s an honor to now be in that pool of really amazing human beings who have been given this opportunity to sing this song night after night.”
Still, it’s a moment that Harris said gives her pause every night.
“It’s so crazy. The nerves, right before I’m about to walk on, going, ‘Alright, we’re doing the song again. We’re doing it, we’re doing it. It’s going to be great.’ ”
The biggest thing about this tour is how excited Harris and her fellow actors are to be working and seeing the country while performing a classic show after a long time off stage because of the COVID-19 pandemic
“Getting back in front of a live audience, there’s nothing like it,” she said. “The silence you get just before the applause, when you know you’ve given it your all, and you know you did your best, and you feel good about the work you put out here for everyone to see.”
She’s also especially proud that the cast of this U.S. national tour is relatively diverse. She is a Black woman playing Grizabella, and she’s joined by actors whose ancestry includes family from Asia and Southeast Asia, as well as nonbinary and Latinx performers.
“You have so many awesome people of color in these roles, and I look forward to having so many younger people who look like us come and see it knowing the possibilities in this industry are endless,” she said.
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