Cats prowls the line between love, hate and acceptance

Cats is the Nickelback of musical theatre.

It is both the most loved and hated of its kind. It has played for 30 continuous years on Broadway, won seven Tony awards, been translated into 20 languages and has given birth to many healthy litters of touring productions, the latest coming to the Jubilee Auditorium Feb. 22-26.

Yet it is not regarded as the finest piece of musical theatre ever made.

Joe Queenan begins his book “Red Lobster, White Trash and the Blue Lagoon” with the words “Cats was very, very, very bad.” He describes it as “what Grease would look like if all the cast members dressed like KISS,” adding, “Think of a musical where the songs are so bad that Memory starts to sound like Old Man River.” Then at the end of the book – detailing Queenan’s struggle with bad entertainment addiction at the hands of Michael Bolton, Branson, Garth Brooks, Deepak Chopra, Tony Danza, Billy Joel, Liza Minnelli, the Osmonds, Riverdance, Adam Sandler, John Tesh, Yanni and much more – indentifies Cats as the “worst thing on the planet,” which he only sees a second time to save his life because “the only antidote to the rattler’s venom was the rattler’s venom itself.”

Now you really have to see it, don’t you?

None of this now-institutional Cats backlash is lost on performer Louie Napoleon, who will play the role of Skimbleshanks, the orange tabby Railway Cat in charge of the Night Mail Train. He will share the stage with Sillabub, Victoria, Rumpelteazer, Pouncival, Tumblebrutus, Mungojerrie, Demeter, Alonzo, Old Deuteronomy, Grizabella, Bombalurina, Jellylorum, Jennyanydots, Cassandra, Plato/Macavity, Asparagus/Bustopher Jones, Rum Tum Tugger, Munkustrap, Growltiger, Griddlebone, Genghis, Mr. Mistoffeless and – if that weren’t enough – two new cats, the psychic teen twins Coricopat and Tantomile.

Jeez, where were we? Right. Nickelback.

“I think a lot of people are eager to dismiss the show,” Napoleon says. “I think it’s because of its format. It’s not a typical book musical. There’s very little book at all. A lot of people argue there’s not a lot to the show. I disagree. I think there’s a lot more there that people aren’t always willing to see. It’s told in a more difficult language that challenges people to pay attention. It’s all told in poems set to music. So quite honestly you probably lose about 50 per cent of the people just because of the language.”

There’s a moral message here, too: In Andrew Lloyd Webber’s take on T.S. Eliot, we learn about acceptance and forgiveness, about tribe mentality, and thus find some connections with our own human behaviour. Napoleon admits that while he has a newfound respect for cats after his experience in Cats, he remains a dog person. Maybe we’ve come to the heart of the critical dichotomy: It might be interesting to do a poll of Cats-lovers to determine the ratio of cat people vs. dog people. Another time, maybe.

The story goes that Grizabella – the feline Norma Desmond – has been shunned by the other cats for being past her prime, but she comes back to the pride to ask for a second chance at the annual Jellicle Ball, where, after a good deal of singing and dancing and hissing and scratching, comes to the point in the tale where the magical Mr. Mistoffeless saves the day and paves the way for one cat in the tribe to be chosen for the Journey to the Heaviside Layer – and we don’t give away which cat it is.

“I think even 30 years in there’s still a spoiler alert,” says Napoleon. It’s surprising, he adds, how many people are coming to see Cats for the first time even after all these years. Joe Queenan has a few choice words for the Cats fans as well: “Legion of Doom numbskulls who’ve been out of the loop since Day One.”

But “Red Lobster, White Trash and The Blue Lagoon” is out of the loop. It was published in 1998 – and Cats is going stronger than ever. You could argue that the last 10 years of this theatrical phenomenon wouldn’t be possible without the explosion of musical theatre, which now touches every corner of popular culture – from television (Glee, Smash) to rock stars (Bono and Spider Man, Green Day and American Idiot) to counter-culture heroes (Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s The Book of Mormon), and thus spills out legions of fresh new fans towards all musical theatre, including Cats. Napoleon had a recent fan encounter that really turned his head, “There were these three young gentlemen at the stage door and they looked like teenage football jocks. They were so excited, getting every cast member’s autographs and their favourite cat was Mr. Mistoffeless and they were freaking out on musical theatre – and that’s not something that’s typical in our culture. I was very refreshing to see.”

So you see there is nothing that can be done but heed the message that Cats itself presents – acceptance. This musical will probably stay as big as it ever was. So will Nickelback. All we have to do now is get over it.