Miss Saigon, Part The First: A Digression on the 1980s, Section (a): CATS

The talented and acerbic Jon Lowe, who consulted on design for {The 99-Cent} Miss Saigon was recently hired to do lights for a production of Cats at Encinal High School in Alameda.

That’s right. A high school production of Cats. Could you say no? I certainly couldn’t.

So even though I was sick as a dog (har har) with something I can only attribute to post-show physical collapse, I went on Friday night, Liz in tow.

It wasn’t as terrible as (let’s be frank) I had hoped. Sure, the set was wretched (I don’t know how Jon managed to light it as well as he did)–they had gotten it from some NYC scene shop, Oversized Urbanscape #8–there was barely room left on the stage for the cast of 50 cats. Who were in terrible costumes–old Deutoronomy looked like an orangutan in overalls. The mike kept cutting in and out on Skimbleshanks, and the chorus was weakly voiced and ahead of the music. “Memory”, shinily sung by the girl who gets cast as the lead in everything and thanks the directors for making her “a better and more talented” person, was pumped out by the band like a shopworn burlesque house grind (regulated triplets ba-da-ba ba-da-ba ba-da-ba ba-da-ba BUMP)–which of course, it is.

Then we have the musical itself. Frank Rich’s tart review from ’82 basically disemboweled everything about the show, minus some cast members and the delightful stagecraft which was, at the time, fairly new–the beginning of the bombast of ’80s musicals. Encinal High couldn’t even attempt real production values (unlike some other schools who, according to last Saturday’s Journal article about high school productions of Cats have $50,000 budgets). So it was what it was, a bit rag-tag but perfectly enjoyable. It certainly wasn’t a Fiasco, and I found myself wishing I had directed these energetic, committed kids–it would have been fun.

What I was left with, though, more than my nostalgia hearing the songs for the first time in years or the giggles at seeing a high school Cats, was a sense of bemusement related to the layers of confused historicity dusting up the production.

First, you have the text, which is more English than English could be–literally. It’s the American Eliot’s imagined street London of the Victorian age–cats embodiying old criminals and music hall actors and roustabouts and glamour pusses.

Then, the production, which is pure 1980s. Everything–the unitard costumes, of course. The music, a successful synthesis of cliches that renders Eliot’s charming poems vapid; the synth-heavy musical arrangements; the kick-ball-change choreography that emerges, unavoidably, from the music.

Who has any connection or reference to either of these things? Much less both? The fetishized Englishness that simply has no correlation to anything American kids know about–and the cheesy cheese of the 1980s (when most of the kids onstage were born in the ’90s). Cats is an artifact that will simply grow more confusing as it ages, and the reason it would ever still be produced will remain more of a mystery.

Because, ultimately, Cats will never be anything more than an artifact of its time, a conflation of historically specific theatrical innovation, musical hackery, and nostalgia. Grease is a similar artifact, except with the 1970s filtering the 50s–very disco groovy.

Except that the kids love it–I mean, the little kids just loved it, were raptly attentive from start to finish. They were written as poems for children.

And hey, Cats was running on Broadway until 2000. What was I saying about theater being a museum?

One response to “Miss Saigon, Part The First: A Digression on the 1980s, Section (a): CATS

  1. I have vivid memories of the Village Voice’s listings for “Cats” throughout the ’90s–whoever was writing the theater capsules came up with a different snap on it EVERY WEEK.

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