Monday, April 23, 2007

Mungojerry and Rumpleteaser Were A Notorious Couple of Cats

Yikes! Seeing this ad in Sunday's paper for Cats coming to OKC in May made me feel as freaking OLD as Gus the Theater Cat. How is it possible that this show is celebrating its 25th year?

I saw first saw Cats in New York in 1985 with my mom. The show was at the Winter Garden Theater and it was all the rage. We had great seats, fairly close to the stage, although the stage wasn’t traditional at all – it jutted out into the audience all over the place.

When the lights dimmed and the orchestra began playing I was almost breathless. And then it was ON… cats were jumping and playing and dancing and singing and shouting and crying and being nice and mean and sweet and sad and it T.S. Elliot’s poems were coming to life.

It was unlike anything I had ever seen, and I loved it. But at one point I looked over at mom and she looked totally perplexed. And sort of annoyed. A look that said she wasn’t sure what to make of this musical melee with its no-dialogue-having plot being nothing but a loosely tied together string of songs sung by bulge-showing leotard-clad actors who were jumping and hissing around like banchees, with crazy lighting effects, and a giant descending spaceship. This was the closest thing to “performance art” either of us had ever seen and it pushed the limits of our Helena, Montana sensibilities.

The day before, we had seen the incredible musical 42nd Street at the Schubert Theater, which was right up our alley. Now that’s how musicals were SUPPOSED to be, right? A simple, straight-forward plot that involved a sweet love story and “saving the day”, fabulous songs, big tap dance numbers and lots of high-kicking Bob Fosse feather and sequin costume-wearing chorus line choreography. THAT was a musical.

Cats was much more “out there” than we were used to at that time. And it’s funny to think now that I actually thought Cats was “out there”, then. But I digress…

Mom was a really good sport and she hung out with me afterwards at the stage door so I could see Laurie Beechman who had played Grizabella (and sadly, has since died of ovarian cancer when she was not much older than I am now!) and that foxy Terrance “Rum Tug Tugger” Mann. Meow…

From that point on, I was pretty much eaten up with Cats. I thought it was awesome. I got the soundtrack on audio cassette and listened to it so much the tape warped. I bought the score and tried to learn to play some songs on the piano, but sounded fairly atrocious.

On that note, I have a funny memory of my wonderful grandmother, Mom Jo. As I’ve said before, Mom Jo was an extraordinary pianist and a musician of some renown in the gospel music world. Mom Jo had a VERY distinct style of playing that I don’t even know how to describe in words. It’s the sound that I will forever attach to old-school gospel quartet music, if that means anything to anyone. She would play songs in a real boogie-woogie style with a double-time bass line. Anyway, it’s hard to explain, but Mom Jo was visiting one summer and I was upstairs doing something and she was downstairs playing the piano and I could tell she had found the Cats music because I heard her playing the beautiful, haunting song “Memory” in that boogied-up, double bass beat gospel style. It was hilarious.

Fast forward some period of time, I really don’t remember how long, and the Broadway production of Cats was touring through Denver. My buddy Steve and I were pretty pumped and we had fun seeing the show together. Steve had seen the show in New York before I did, AND he had sent a Laurie Beechman a fan letter, to which she responded with a personal letter and picture, so he was a bigger Cats nerd than me.

Steve and I share a totally ridiculous Cats memory, but we thought it was hysterical at the time. There was a fairly small Cats promotional poster hanging inside the theater that I really wanted. And while I am completely embarrassed to admit this, we concocted this elaborate scheme to take the poster that involved waiting until everyone was gone. So we lurked and hid in dark shadows until the theater was clear. Then Steve held the door open and I quickly untacked and grabbed the posted and put it in my coat and once outside the doors we “walked/ran” as fast as we could to the car, laughing the whole way, thinking we were pretty Oceans 2 clever for getting away with stealing the Hope diamond. Never mind the fact that the theater had 100 copies of that same poster in their office and probably would have just given me one if I'd have asked, this was a treasure and it was MINE. I had it mounted and framed and it hung on my wall for years. Classy.

I had eagerly anticipated seeing Cats on PBS when they aired the show some years ago as part of Great Performances, but alas, I was disappointed. To me, Cats isn’t something you can watch on TV; it’s something you have to experience, and that only comes across to its fullest in the theater.

So now Cats is 25 years old and not so avant-garde, anymore. It’s one of those musicals that I don’t think I can ever see again because I over dosed on it years ago. I know it too well. I would want to fast-forward over certain parts. It would be a little bit tedious. It wouldn’t be the same as it was low those many years ago when I was a wide-eyed teenager being exposed to a little NYC culture.

Oh, what the heck…in the spirit of feeling really old as Cats celebrates its 25th:

All alone in the moonlight
I can smile at the old days
I was beautiful then
I remember the time I knew what happiness was
Let the memory live again

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