What is it about Cats (the musical, that is)?

Today was Midori no Hi 'Green Day' in Japan, the first of a series of holidays that constitute Golden Week, a national spring vacation. In the spirit of the day, Ruth and I spent some time working on our guerrilla garden. Then, after lunch, we decided to take a long walk and wind up at the Pompei exhibit (frescos, sculpture, and furniture from the city buried by Mt. Vesuvius) now open at the Yokohama Art Museum. Our route took us past the theater where the musical Cats is playing. I had seen it once before, over twenty years ago, in German, on a business trip to Hamburg. I asked Ruth if she'd like to see it. We checked and managed to get two of the last available tickets to the 5:30 p.m. show (Saturday and Sunday were both sold out). So we saw the Pompei exhibit, then went back for the show. It was, as I had remembered it, spectacular. The singing, the dancing, the costumes and the staging were all superb. But Cats is not only a spectacle. It was also deeply moving, and looking around me at the almost entirely Japanese audience, I could see that I wasn't the only one moved.

So now I m home, and the anthropologist in me is wondering, how did this happen? How did this musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, based on T.S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats become so popular that since its first production in 1981, it has been translated into twenty languages, and continues to be performed in the year 2010 to full houses in Yokohama, Japan? Sometimes we anthropologists talk about different cultures as if they were literally different worlds and wonder how worlds so different can ever communicate with each other. But here is a cultural performance that appears to strike common chords and affect audiences widely separated in time, space, and culture in much the same way. What does this tell us about our common humanity?

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Comment by John McCreery on May 1, 2010 at 1:54am
It makes me wonder why she doesn't just see them in Japan.

Frist, a different experience, seeing a show performed in English instead of Japanese. Also cachet: Many of my friends in the chorus I have joined are opera lovers, who take great pride in knowing arias in Italian or German.
Comment by Philip Swift on May 1, 2010 at 12:04am
Apologies, John, for the flippant comment. It sounded snobbish or elitist, but, in fact, I never go to the theatre either (too expensive in London - all of it). I confess I've had a dislike for musicals for a long time, but I also suspect that, were I to actually see one, I would probably (secretly) love it.

More seriously, though. I have a Japanese friend, whose mother never fails to see as many musicals as she can, when she comes to London (Cats included). It makes me wonder why she doesn't just see them in Japan.
Comment by John McCreery on April 30, 2010 at 4:54am
Philip, may I ask if your dislike of Cats (the musical) is based on having seen it, or the product of a general dislike for musical theater?

I take your remarks to reflect a theater lover's distaste for the musical form, which is seen as less serious that the non-musical form. I could, of course, be wrong.

Also, while there may be something to the notion that music is more culturally portable than more language-and-culture-bound theater, I don't think that's the whole story here. The basic plot device of Cats turns on the figure of Grizabella, a shabby, aging, female cat who is rejected by the other cats during the first act but accepted and taken up to heaven at the end of the second act. In the production we saw yesterday, she is costumed in a way that makes her look like one of the homeless who haunt Japanese railway stations. That she also has the most powerful and operatic voice of all the cats and gets to sing "Memory," the most memorable song in the show, sets up a powerful contrast rooted in what seems to me a universal theme: the outsider at first rejected and then accepted by a group when something divine is detected in her. This theme may have a particular resonance in Japan, where exclusion from the group is treated as a particularly terrifying form of punishment. Am I wrong to think it is universal?
Comment by Philip Swift on April 30, 2010 at 1:47am
The playwright David Mamet offered his own socio-economic explanation for the global prevalence of musicals (in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago). The theatre-going public, he said, used to be predominantly middle-class locals. Since this constituency now no longer go to the theatre in the numbers that they used to, musicals have replaced plays, and the major audiences are now tourists. Tunes, I guess he's saying, connect more easily with audiences, and hence are easily transportable around the world. Regrettably, this argument doesn't work for me, because I have an allergy to cats - both the animal and the musical alike!

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