The year was 1981, and Broadway’s historic Winter Garden Theatre, which had hosted legends like Fred Astaire and Leonard Bernstein, was undergoing a blasphemous transformation.
The theater’s original 1911 interiors were indiscriminately slathered with tarry black paint, while bundles of scraps were bolted to the walls and ceiling. A hole was punched into the ceiling over the stage to add a heavenly descending staircase, requiring a new piece of roof above it. Finally, the stage’s proscenium was dismantled and the stage extended more than 20 feet, over the orchestra pit and into the audience. All to convert the theater into an oversized trash pile — into the set of Cats.
Cats was a showbiz circus of unprecedented proportions, long before it actually opened at the Winter Garden in October 1982. The show’s budget reached $4 million (about $10.7 million today) and included one of the longest and most expensive marketing campaigns Broadway had ever seen. Its London opening had been a hit, the Winter Garden’s make-under was causing a stir among theatergoers, and pop recordings of the show’s hit song, “Memory,” all combined to create sustained buzz.
Inside the Winter Garden, however, the giant junkyard set was ugly and drab. The much-hyped dancing was a letdown. (“Its quantity and exuberance do not add up to quality,” wrote New York Times critic Frank Rich.) The threadbare plot, about cats gathering to decide who among them was worthy of dying and being reborn — yes, really, that’s the plot — seemed like an excuse for an uneven, pastiche musical score set to the poetry of T.S. Eliot, the maudlin modernist poet you probably read in college. (That guy wrote children’s poems about cats.) And although “Memory” was a juggernaut, it was the only song anyone could remember.
In essence, Cats was a giant show without much substance — a description that would gradually affix to its creator himself: composer Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Lloyd Webber was Cats’ biggest draw. He had three Broadway hits under his belt: With lyricist collaborator Tim Rice, he’d created Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, the latter two of which were still playing in New York when Cats opened.
“We didn’t need a star,’’ the president of a ticket company told the New York Times when the show opened. ‘’The big name for Cats was Andrew Lloyd Webber.”
The buzz gave Cats what was thought to be the largest ticket pre-sale in Broadway history to date — more than $6 million. And in 1996, Cats became what was then the longest-running show in Broadway history, leading to the tagline, “Cats — now and forever.” It ran for 18 years on Broadway and grossed over $1.3 billion; when it finally closed in 2000, the Winter Garden Theatre underwent another massive renovation.
“Now and forever” is truer than even Lloyd Webber could have guessed. This month, almost 40 years after its debut, Cats is back in the form of a new film, directed by Tom Hooper (Les Misérables), with all its original quirks intact, from the oversized set to the weirdness of the basic concept of dancing anthropomorphic cats.
It’s not that hard to see why Cats, an unabashed popular sensation in 1982, might confound and ironically amuse audiences nearly four decades later. Today’s baffled reactions to Cats, when stripped of the hype and hoopla the show originally generated, seem to reflect much of the public’s changed attitude toward Lloyd Webber himself.
I don't know why you're all freaking out over miniature yet huge cats with human celebrity faces and sexy breasts performing a demented dream ballet for kids.— Louis Virtel (@louisvirtel) July 18, 2019
When contacted for this article, Lord Lloyd Webber (he was knighted in 1992 and made a peer in 1997) politely declined to be interviewed, noting through his press agent that he wanted all the focus around the new movie to be on Hooper and his vision. Still, it’s difficult to divorce Cats from its creator, or the new movie from the Broadway juggernaut.
Cats represents the excesses theater fans often associate with Lloyd Webber, with an emphasis on glitz and commercialism, bombast, and perhaps a touch of general weirdness. But Cats also endures, despite its flaws, because it’s a Lloyd Webber musical.
It may look esoteric and even silly, but all the classic ingredients of the Lloyd Webber musical are there: spectacle, rich singable melodies, and that one hit song everybody knows — all elements that help explain the tremendous cultural impact his shows have had. Love him or hate him, Lloyd Webber delivered emotional theatricality to audiences at a scale that fundamentally changed musical theater.
Lloyd Webber’s early years
Born in 1948, Lloyd Webber grew up surrounded by music. His mom was a violinist, his father a successful composer, and his younger brother, Julian, a famous cellist. Lloyd Webber was already writing musicals when he met Tim Rice at 17. Though Rice and Lloyd Webber would have many creative clashes and make-ups before finally parting ways as collaborators in the ’90s, their creative work together ranks them among the most successful partnerships in musical theater history — starting with one of their most enduring and endearing musicals, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
“Nobody knows music better than Andrew Lloyd Webber,” actor Michael Urie (Ugly Betty, Torch Song) told me at the American Theater Wing Gala to honor Lloyd Webber in 2018.
Though Joseph spawned a concept album in 1969, it didn’t receive a proper staging until after Rice and Lloyd Webber’s first successful show — 1970’s Jesus Christ Superstar. Replete with scathing commentary on religion, class and cultural wars, Jesus Christ Superstar doubles as satirical allegory for the tensions between mainstream and countercultural politics of the ’60s and ’70s.
Rice’s wry, deft lyrics are biting and perceptive (“Keep them yelling their devotion / but add a touch of hate at Rome”) and Lloyd Webber’s score is almost always thrilling, whether it’s doling out pop hits like “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” or Shakespearean character studies.
“I think that show is really dear to fans,” Brandon Victor-Dixon, who starred as Judas in NBC’s acclaimed live performance of Jesus Christ Superstar in 2018, told Vox. “It started everything for him, it made him real.”
Jesus Christ Superstar instantly resonated with younger generations of theater fans, but its satire and cynicism were clearly opposed to the counter-cultural resistance narrative of 1968’s Hair. While Rice and Lloyd Webber came out of nowhere, they were anything but anti-establishment, and they had the marketing savvy to prove it. Rice and Lloyd Webber’s two-disc concept album for the show turned the songs into chart-toppers and garnered Jesus Christ Superstar what was then the biggest advance sales in Broadway history, with celebrities lining up to see the show.
All that hype led to blowback: reviewing the 1973 film, Times critic Howard Thompson wrote, “The onslaught of music by Andrew Lloyd Webber (to Mr. Rice’s lyrics), with bits and pieces of everything since rock started rocking, is haunting, deafening ... Brace your ears.” Still, Jesus Christ Superstar made Rice and Lloyd Webber into instant celebrities, and paved the way for their next hit: 1978’s Evita.
Thematically similar to Jesus Christ Superstar, but sporting more obscure subject matter and far denser melodies, Evita was nonetheless a huge hit that ran on London’s West End for a full decade. After opening in New York in 1979, it won numerous awards, including the 1980 Tony for Best Musical. Stars Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin became major Broadway names, and made the show’s hit, “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina,” into a cultural touchstone.
Lloyd Webber gained a reputation early on for being disloyal and difficult to work with; interviews where he glibly blamed fellow creators and actors for flaws in his productions only furthered this reputation, and it gained traction over the years. The Guardian’s Fiona Sturges summed up her reaction to Lloyd Webber’s 2018 memoir, Unmasked, with, “Oh Andrew, you massive pillock.” (For his part, Dixon told me he found Lloyd Webber “delightful” to work with.)
It’s possible that Lloyd Webber’s petty personal reputation took its toll on his musical reputation. (He’s also weathered many charges of plagiarism and unoriginality over the years, including settling a lawsuit brought by the estate of opera composer Giacomo Puccini.) But he didn’t help matters by creating shows in the ’80s that ranged from weak — like Song and Dance, a one-woman rehash of themes covered better in Stephen Sondheim’s Company — to deeply weird, like Starlight Express, an indescribable roller skate musical about trains that doubles as a religious fable about energy consumption.
Whatever the reason, Lloyd Webber’s artistic reputation now hinges primarily on his three earliest shows, especially Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita. Yet it was Lloyd Webber’s fascination with the weird and whimsical — embodied in Cats — that would elevate him to the level of Broadway’s upper-echelon composers.
The inarguable oddness of Cats
Modern audiences are justifiably mesmerized and taken aback by the many weirdnesses in the trailers for Hooper’s film adaptation of Cats: The cats are cat-sized! The CGI fur looks bizarre, and the sexualization of humans pretending to be cats is deeply discomfiting. And what is this musical even about anyway?
All of these questions surrounded Cats when it first opened on Broadway. But none of them mattered to original audiences, who were fixated on the special effects, the hype, and the fact that a buzzy new Andrew Lloyd Webber musical was in town. Plus, Barbra Streisand had recorded “Memory,” and Babs couldn’t be wrong. Still, there were people who had their doubts, including director Hal Prince.
Cats’ oddball concept was offset by the draw of Lloyd Webber and the popularity of “Memory.” A lifelong cat-lover, Lloyd Webber grew up reading T.S. Eliot’s children’s poetry book, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which whimsically describes the personalities of many “Jellicle cats.” It introduces the cats as they assemble for an annual meeting to choose the cat who will ascend to cat heaven: frolicking felines, sadistic thieves, sexy caterwaulers, and down-and-out strays.
Cats is written around Eliot’s cat poems, but “Memory” is an exception: for that song, Lloyd Webber received permission from Eliot’s estate to use lines from previously unpublished poems. This makes the song, performed by a downtrodden alley cat, feel even more separate, as if the rest of the show is just an elaborate, surreal vehicle to deliver one pop hit. For many audiences, “Memory” itself was worth the ticket.
After parting with Rice, Lloyd Webber drifted toward shows that were less intellectual and more openly emotive. Cats made this trend official; it was important as a dance musical, but mainly it was dazzling, an early forerunner of the shows that made big, blustery musicals the standard Broadway fare.
It’s not like musicals didn’t have flashy elements before Cats, but it had been decades since Broadway hosted the kind of glitz for glitz’s sake approach of, for example, The Ziegfeld Follies of the ’20s and ’30s.
Since those early days, musical theater had evolved so its component parts — singing, dancing, dialogue — all worked together to tell a story; so when, say, Mary Martin flew around the stage in 1954’s Peter Pan, it was a very big deal, but it was an essential part of the plot, not something done just to draw a crowd. By contrast, much of the showier elements of Cats — like a cat ascending to heaven on a giant hydraulic tire — were, well, stunts.
But once those elements were there, they became a fundamental part of the appeal; after Cats, the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical itself became associated with spectacle. And Cats marked the real start of the “British Invasion” of the ’80s and ’90s, usually considered to be the trio of “mega-musicals” directed by Cameron Mackintosh: Les Misérables (1987), Phantom of the Opera (1988), and Miss Saigon (1991), with 1994’s Sunset Boulevard often tacked on.
These days, many Broadway fans view Lloyd Webber’s latter works — usually regarded as everything after his collaboration with Rice — as lowbrow, soapy, and forgettable. His reputation is so well-known that in reviewing his 2018 memoir, Unmasked, the New York Times led with, “Andrew Lloyd Webber knows exactly what you think about him.”
But if Cats shifted Lloyd Webber’s reputation toward “showy and overblown,” it also launched him into the pinnacle of his career — and his next musical permanently established him as the king of Broadway extravagance.
Phantom and Lloyd Webber’s legacy
Phantom of the Opera, which opened in 1988, was a massive cultural phenomenon. So fully did this story about a sociopath terrorizing a Parisian opera house saturate areas not known for their love of Parisian opera that my tiny rural Tennessee high school devoted an entire yearbook theme to it. Phantom was the most profitable live event in history, grossing $6 billion worldwide. With more than 13,000 performances, it’s been playing for 31 continuous years on Broadway, making it by far the longest-running show in history, and it shows no sign of closing soon.
Broadway scaled up thanks to Andrew Lloyd Webber, but the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical itself reached its upper limit with 1993’s Sunset Boulevard. That famously volatile production had what was then the largest budget in Broadway history — $13 million — but when it closed in 1995 it had recouped only 75 percent of that, prompting Lloyd Webber to declare that the era of the big-budget musical was over.
In fact, it was just beginning — but not for him. Through the ’90s and the aughts he produced smaller-scale musicals that received mixed-to-scathing reviews and had very short Broadway runs, if they opened at all. It wasn’t until 2015’s School of Rock that Lloyd Webber had a legitimate Broadway hit once more, though the show downplayed its status as a Lloyd Webber musical — a moniker that would once have gotten top billing.
Lloyd Webber’s most significant cultural impact might be more far-reaching: He fueled the musical form’s de-evolution from a fully integrated whole into a blockbuster pop hit maker. Lloyd Webber usually writes fully integrated musicals — meaning that most musical numbers don’t stand alone outside the plot they’re in. (This is why, for example, Evita’s “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” is a singularly weird pop hit, because it’s not like the experience of being the up-from-the-bottom scandalous celebrity wife of a controversial Argentinian president is a universal experience.)
But he helped decontextualize his songs by releasing concept albums and allowing artists to record his hits before the shows opened in order to drive advance box office sales. This technique of divorcing showtunes from their shows had been around since the days of Tin Pan Alley in the 1920s, but usually, the show made the songs a hit — not the other way around. These days, the Lloyd Webber strategy of releasing the concept album first is everywhere, from Hadestown to Be More Chill.
We see the legacy of his “hitmaker” ethos in countless revues built around pop hits: Mama Mia, Jersey Boys, The Cher Show, ad infinitum. Lloyd Webber’s shows also paved the way for the rise of Disney on Broadway. It’s probably not a coincidence that Tim Rice went on to contribute lyrics for Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King, all of which yielded pop hits, and which were later turned into musicals that helped solidify the Mouse’s hold over the Great White Way.
“Did Andrew Lloyd Webber ruin the musical or rescue it?” the New Yorker asked in 2018, noting that he probably made the musical more sustainable by way of making it ultimately less complex — which allowed the form to shift and take new directions.
Though Lloyd Webber himself claimed in 2013 that modern musicals lacked really great songs, the current musical theater renaissance has shown that there’s room for hit-makers in the Andrew Lloyd Webber model of musical theater, as well as cult favorites after the Stephen Sondheim model. Even better, Broadway increasingly seems to host a more modern blend of the two: Think Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen, and Hadestown, among many acclaimed recent hits that easily straddle what was once a perceived gap between musicals that are popular and musicals that are smart.
And even alongside the smartest modern musicals, Lloyd Webber’s musicals have remained popular and enduring by comparison. In 2018, NBC’s live production of Jesus Christ Superstar garnered Emmys for both the composer and Rice, making them among the very few creators with EGOT status. If Lloyd Webber is a joke, then he certainly seems to be enjoying the last laugh.
Aja Romano is a culture staff writer for Vox, reporting on internet culture and community, film, and theater.
Michelle Rohn is an illustrator based in Los Angeles.