Cats: When Movie Adaptations Fail

Jessica Anthony

So, the Cats movie was a thing. The world went through that and we survived giant weird CGI furries on the big screen, and now we as a society can collectively move on from whatever the hell ​that ​was. Except, not really, as it continues to tour the United States and has dates in cities across the United States for months to come. The Broadway run, though over now, was one of the longest in Theatre history, and it is bound to be revived time and time again for new generations to see.

You might be asking ​why​ we would ever willingly sit through a live version of something that gave everyone who saw it nightmares for weeks on end – I would argue, it’s because the live show is actually kind of… good?

That’s right. I said it. I kind of like Cats. No, not kind of – some of the songs in Cats are actually some of my favorite songs ever written for the Broadway stage. Don’t get me wrong, the show as a whole is still really, ​really​ weird. There’s almost no story, and what can be pieced together is off the walls: essentially, homeless cats present themselves to the ultimate cat in order to get permission to be burned in a trash fire in order to ascend to cat heaven. Some of the songs are awful, and the finale is one of the worst ever written. It’s weirdly sexual, and the costumes are terrifying, but there’s an integral difference between the movie and the live production: the magic of live theatre.

It sounds cheesy, but it’s true. Some shows are not built for movie adaptations, and Cats is undoubtedly a show that only works when experienced, not simply observed. When attending a musical, we as audience members are often willing to extend our suspension of disbelief. We don’t expect fantastical realism in a medium bound to reality and love to see the limits of the human body and stage effects pushed to the limits. Realistic CGI fur is not the baseline, and instead, allow ourselves to believe that a human in a bodysuit and face paint is a cat in this onstage universe. In fact, five out of the ten highest-grossing musicals of all time include an element of animals or fantasy, from The Lion King (all-time most profitable musical) to Phantom of the Opera (all-time longest-running musical). The electricity in the air during a dance number will often more than makeup for the shortcoming of special effects, and Cats has no shortage of electrifying spectacle in its offerings.

Practically every song features a jaw-dropping dance break, feats of athleticism, or vocal parts pushing the actors to their limits. Songs like “Macavity” (which I argue is the greatest song ever to be written for Broadway, and no, I do not take constructive criticism on this opinion) hit a cool jazzy tone, building up to an explosive brass orchestral dance break. “Macavity”‘s signature riff is worked into the background, sneaking through the music until finally revealed at the end, along with the character’s appearance.

There are other magical moments brought to the stage: when Mistoffelees comes back to restore the power, Grizabella’s powerful ballad, and even when Jennyanydots first reveals her tap shoes. The sheer talent and wonder showcased through song and dance makes Cats into a musical spectacle, so many aspects of which were lost through the film adaptation. The story is pointless because the story is not the point. People don’t go to see Cats to see who gets chosen; they go to see incredible feats of song and dance performed live. The fact that it became a movie inherently took away what makes the show magical, and the moviemakers replaced it with weird, scary tropes in a last-ditch attempt to recapture some of the spectacular visuals that Cats offered. And it failed ​tremendously.​

As I said in the beginning, Cats is still weird. The show still has much of the same story, the costuming is still very strange, and it often feels far too sexual to do what I did and bring my younger sister to a performance. Yet, I can’t help but love it. And if one of the tour dates comes by your hometown, I can’t recommend enough to go buy tickets – it’s an experience like no other.