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I was first made aware of the existence of a musical called Cats when I was a child, and like most children, I took this concept very much at face value. A musical! With cats! Count me in!
And on a very surface level, I was correct: There are indeed cats in Cats. But the musical Cats is not really about cats. In fact, I have no fucking clue what Cats is about, and I’m pretty sure no one else does either, which is also maybe the point of Cats.
Yet despite the fact that, on paper, it’s easily the most esoteric concept for a musical possibly ever — it’s based on a totally plotless collection of poems, for Christ’s sake — Cats is one of the most successful and longest-running musicals of all time, so much so that it’s nearly synonymous with Broadway itself.
This would make at least some sense if Cats were as palatable and universally adored as, say, The Lion King (a different musical about cats!). But it isn’t. A lot of people really, really, really hate Cats, for a host of reasons: It’s too weird, it’s too kitschy, it’s basically just a bunch of introductions one after the other and nothing really happens, the religious undertones are off-putting, and whatever else.
But somehow, Cats keeps clawing its way back into our collective consciousness. The recent Broadway revival, which closed in December, performed solidly at the box office, and on Friday it was announced that it’s currently being adapted into a film starring Jennifer Hudson, Taylor Swift, Ian McKellen, and James Corden.
Which is why I decided to task the Cats apologists among us with answering the following question: What makes a wildly expensive ticket to see Cats worth it, when you could also spend that hundred-plus dollars (if it’s Broadway) on a ticket to a more easily understandable musical or, say, an appointment at an actual cat cafe?
Here are their answers.
“In musical theater, if a character sings when their emotional state is so great they can no longer speak, then they must dance when even that can’t fully express how they’re feeling through singing. So few shows are able to truly integrate dance as part of the storytelling. I think Cats is that at its best and may even surpass classics like West Side Story in the skillful use of movement to show audiences what is happening.” —Alan Henry, has seen Cats on Broadway 11 times and would pay $130 for a good orchestra seat to see it again
“It’s one of the greatest dance musicals of all time, so if you value superb dancing, then Cats is roughly on par with a trip to Cirque du Soleil.
“Also, the minimalism of Cats back in 1984 was kind of a value-add; it was all about the dancing and a sense of pure theater, and there wasn’t a lot of artifice apart from the Heaviside Layer sequence, and that has helped propel the popular cultural narrative that there’s not a lot going on in the show, but there is (or at least you can argue that there is!).” —Aja Romano, has seen Cats once and would pay up to $120 to see it again “if it could a) toss on some spectacle, and b) get some sort of musical theater goddess in the ‘star’ part of Grizabella, like Lea Salonga or LaChanze or Karen Olivo.”
“There is nothing like Cats. It’s an enigma. Like, is it an opera? Is it a ballet? That’s why I don’t really call it a musical because it doesn’t follow musical theater rules. It’s not my favorite musical, it’s my favorite ... staged ... thing. The money is worth it to see the talent (there are no better dancers than in Cats, except maybe the ballet).
“The cats’ relationships are actually established within the show, told only through the choreography (by the late, great Gillian Lynne). It is a show, like A Chorus Line, where you can’t change the choreography or the costumes because then you change the story. You can see any production and point at any cat and say, ‘That is _______’ because of their costume. I go to NYU Tisch Drama and I’m given a lot of crap about liking the show, but I can’t stop, won’t stop.” —Jess Fisher, has seen Cats four times and would pay $100 to see it again
“First of all, it’s about cats. That should be reason alone! But in all honesty, what I love most about it is the choreography, and the fact that it relies so heavily on both music and dance for its storytelling (which is what musical theater is all about). When it’s done right, it’s SO fun to watch.” —De Elizabeth, has seen Cats seven times and would pay up to $150 to see it again
“Cats is the kinda show you can listen to and still get the feel of being there. It’s basically a series of poems, so I guess the bigger question is, does it need to be watched to be enjoyed? I’m not sure. — Annemarie Dooling, has seen Cats twice but wouldn’t pay Broadway prices to see it again
“Cats is kind of like Taylor Swift’s ‘Bad Blood’ music video of Webber’s repertoire, in that it’s basically just a bunch of dramatic-bordering-on-campy introductions strung together and set to music. But between the stellar costuming and makeup, surprisingly catchy songs (‘The Rum Tum Tugger’ is a ‘Blank Space’-level earworm), and choreography, it’s a must-see for any theater nerd.
“It paved the way for other mega-musicals like Les Misérables and Phantom, and — importantly — because dance and music are its main languages, you don’t have to be an English speaker to appreciate its charms.” —Elana Fishman, has seen Cats twice and would pay around $100 to see it again
“The one thing that is inarguable about Cats is that whatever price you’re paying, you get your money’s worth. You get two hours of energetic dancing, iconic costumes and makeup, like 20 very catchy melodies that are going to get stuck in your head for six months, a big fucking tire swing, literal fireworks, etc. etc. I sort of would rather pay a hundred bucks to see that, even though it’s a very flawed (and sometimes unbearable) musical, than pay a hundred bucks to see, like, Tracy Letts and Michael Shannon in a brooding 81-minute Sam Shepard two-hander. The second play might be a lot better than Cats, but I don’t feel like I’m seeing my money on the stage.
“Lastly, you also are paying for the right to get to say you’ve seen Cats. You get to be in conversations at parties and say quips like, “All right, Mr. Mistoffelees, I think you’ve had one too many,” or yawn and say, “I think it’s time I head off to the Heaviside Layer.” (I’m very popular at parties).
“Cats is, for better or worse, a piece of our cultural fabric. If you’re a fan of musical theater as a genre, it’s your duty to sit through Cats at least once.” —Jimmy Blackmon, who has seen Cats once and would pay $30 to see it again, and who also hosts the podcast SMASH Bros, about the Broadway television show SMASH.
“I’m a musical theater snob, but when I saw Cats again, I was not prepared for what a good time I’d have. To say it is a well-written musical would be a lie, but I do think the musical offers all the campy, face-kicking, high-spectacle performance that we expect from Broadway. There’s no plot, little dialogue, and no real message, but when Mr. Mistoffelees literally flies onto the stage only to do a series of fouettés as his LED catsuit changes colors, you best believe I was living my best life in the audience. It’s stupid and fun, and demands a crazy amount of stamina from the cast. You don’t have to like it, but you have to respect its staying power.” —Wyatt Welles, has seen Cats twice
“I’m a firm believer in the theater experience and think it’s worth any cost. The atmosphere, the energy, and the magical way live performances can whisk you out of your world and into another is priceless. Cats, in particular, was great at that.” —Kimberley Ring Allen, has seen Cats once and would pay a few hundred bucks to see it again
“You’re not just seeing an ordinary show, you’re paying for a SPECTACLE. Cats has spectacular costumes, makeup, singing — it can bring you to tears and make you die laughing, and even has a magic trick. Shrek the Musical could never.” —Liam Johnson, has seen Cats once and would be “willing to sell my left kidney (according to Google $262,000)”
“Great songs, great show for all ages, the makeup is realistic, and the setting is amazing!” —Gianna, has seen Cats four times and would pay $150 to see it again
Andrew Lloyd Webber!
“Three words: Andrew Lloyd Webber. The music, his music, is genius. Cats is a showcase of everything that is beautiful about Broadway: singing, music, dancing, acrobatics, costume, imagination, metaphor, adaptation, all presented in one revue. It is not so much a story as it is a celebration of the beauty and magic of theater.
“Though I do think it is definitely a show one should be really familiar with before seeing, it’s not an ‘I’m a tourist and want to see a Broadway show but know nothing about the show’ type of show. I think it’s an ode to Broadway and theater that theater geeks would appreciate and pay for. Also Andrew Lloyd Webber.” —Vince, has seen Cats once and would pay about $60-$75 to see it again
It’s about the human condition despite being about cats!
“Aside from the obvious reason of being the ultimate musical for cat lovers, Cats perfectly captures the hardships, tragedies, and beautiful moments that we all experience in life through its various felines. Each time a Jellicle cat sings, it calls upon the audience to contemplate their own mistakes and regrets or to remember fonder (and perhaps more reckless!) times.” —Briar Cromartie, has seen Cats once and would pay up to $350 “to be entertained and moved by the dancing of my favorite Jellicles and have vowed to see it again before I make my own journey to the Heaviside Layer, lord willing that Old Deuteronomy selects me.”
“It’s worth it for the great music, lovable characters, interesting costumes, and impressive choreography. It’s a fun and interesting spectacle that you just can’t really get from a musical about humans doing human stuff. The subject matter brings a surreal (and even absurd) atmosphere, but the characters still show relatable humanity. The characters are not far from human archetypes, and they offer insights into human nature through how they describe the cats’ interactions with humans. But most of all, it’s fun, eye-catching, and full of great sing-along tunes.” —Claire, has seen Cats once but wouldn’t pay Broadway prices to see it again
Actually, it’s about nothing!
“Cats is escapism at its best: The music is fun, the dancing is incredible, and the costumes are totally absurd in the best way. There are so many musicals on Broadway now that deal with serious themes, but sometimes all I want is to forget about the problems of the world and watch a bunch of adults in weird bodysuits leap and twirl on stage. Cats isn’t Hamilton, but why can’t there be room for both?” —Marissa Solomon, has seen Cats once and would pay $120 to see it again
“Cats provides a theatrical experience that is dying out. It offers the audience pure entertainment and delight, without getting caught up in plot or character development. It is a specific type of escapism where you are able to turn off your brain and watch some really ripped humans dressed in tight catsuits dance and sing their balls off. In the world we are currently living in, I think having a night of escape and delight at the theater is well worth the price of admission.” —Molly, has seen Cats twice and would pay $50 to see it again
Mister Mistoffelees is a queer icon!
“Spending at least $90 to see Cats is worth it to confirm my theory that Rum Tum Tugger is actually in love with Magical Mr. Mistoffelees (have you watched him sing that beautiful ode to him? Listen now.) and is actually a romantic bisexual icon, rather than just the tomcat lady’s man his reputation presents him as.” —Sophie Saint Thomas, has seen Cats twice and would pay $112 to see it again
It’s trippy as hell!
“The beauty of Cats is in its ridiculousness and fantasy. While the stars are very talented, their extravagant costumes and makeup add comedy to even sad songs like ‘Memory.’ The costumes are also very intricate, and one must be impressed by the hours put into them.” —Madison Clifford, has seen Cats once and would pay $50 to see it again
“Witnessing the — ‘magic’ is too strong of a word, so let’s go with mania — of Cats onstage is worth it at least once. Even if you don’t understand why the show is so absorbing to some, it’s worth the trip just to see for yourself the fever dream of people in expertly crafted cat costumes singing and dancing through a narrative that mostly doesn’t make sense and when it does, it’s not really worth following outside of one emotional thread. But the acrobatics! The painted faces! The nonsensical lyrics that will get stuck in your head for days! It’s the kind of Broadway show that lets you truly see the uniqueness of the mind behind it. For better or for worse.” —Whitney McIntosh, has seen Cats once and would pay $150 to see it again