The Meaning of Cats

Recently, I was fortunate enough to be in the audience of a local high school's production of the musical Cats. I wish that I could name the high school, so that I could give the student performers the credit that they deserve. But much of what I have to say about this production could be interpreted as a negative review of their performance. It isn't; the performances were exemplary, especially given their age, and especially given the artistic context in which they had to work. Let me explain what I mean by that.

I was reading the program during intermission, and I came across two very curious passages in notes written by the adult instructors and overseers of the production. First, from the director:
To appreciate “CATS”, I think it is helpful to think of it, not as a musical, but as a ballet that has been composed with songs rather than instrumental pieces. Most of the songs are little stories about the cats that sing them. They stand on their own and are full of interesting wordplay, humor and touching sadness. Connecting the poems together is a thin thread of plot about the Jellicle cats meeting once a year to celebrate their lives and choose one cat to be reborn into a new life. Don’t look too deeply for a meaning — it’s really just a fanciful tale about cats. [emphasis mine]

Next, this is from the head of the production crew:
When [name omitted] told me that we were doing the show CATS, I told him what I pretty much tell everyone; I have seen it twice, and successfully slept through act one both times. I kept looking for a deep meaningful story line, and it’s just not there. Finally, I tried the following approach and found it helped. Our production has a lot of fine performances, good songs, fabulous dancing and great costumes. It is a pleasure to experience it solely on that level. So don’t try to think too deeply about what you are seeing and hearing, just enjoy the spectacle. [emphasis mine]

Suddenly, the flat, uncomplicated looks of earnestness on the faces of the high school performers made a new kind of sense. Throughout the second act, I was assailed with more corroborating evidence that these students, these exceptional young craftspeople, had built their performances in an almost complete vacuum of meaning. What we were witnessing was a recital, a showcase of technique. Evaluated on this basis, the show was a success. But for someone like me, who sees theatre as a platform for art, the show failed to meet the criteria of the medium.

Do not tell me that my standards are too high, that one has no right to expect "art" from anyone except adult Artists-with-a-capital-A. That's bullshit. All that I mean by "art" is the intention to communicate meaning to an audience. Anyone can do it. It can attain various levels of success based on the experience of the artist. But your typical modern high schooler is more than capable of comprehending and communicating artistic human truths. If they are coached to do so. If they are not prevented from doing so by their "elders".

"What are you trying to tell me?" I kept asking the stage. "What are the stakes?" Looking into the eager, bewhiskered faces of the performers, I saw no sense of understanding the answers to these questions, or that these were even questions to be asked. It could have been that they were just not experienced enough to know that this was part of what an audience would be expecting.

But based on the evidence in the program, I do not blame the performers. There seems to have been a top-down misunderstanding of what Cats is about. Or more like a misunderstanding of what Cats is for. Regardless of however one chooses to interpret this show, it is not just a "spectacle", whatever that means. There are stakes here. There is meaning and a message. And to construct a student production with these elements purposefully excluded is worse than artistic distortion: it amounts to the misrepresentation of the theatrical artistic process to these young performers, many of whom are experiencing this medium for the first time, and whose first impressions are absolutely crucial to their development as artists.

That's why I'm making such a big deal about this. Children really are the future, specifically the future recipients of my box office dollars. I do not want to end up trapped in a world where theaters are staffed with artists who have a chunk missing from their artistic education. The stakes are really fucking high, and we've got to get it right while they're young.

So what was the meaning that I felt was missing from this production of Cats? This sort of thing is open to interpretation, of course, but here's one way of looking at Weber's material:

The reason that all of the Jellicle cats gather for the Jellicle Ball is so that Old Deuteronomy can pick the one cat to ascend to the Jellicles' next plane of existence, the Heaviside Layer. Most of the songs that are sung are a kind of audition to Old Deuteronomy, cats making the case for their own or others' worthiness for the right to transcend their current cycle of life after life down here in this alley. These songs are to show how one cat or another has achieved some sense of cat-hood apotheosis, perhaps in stealth, or badass attitude, or tricksterishness.

The one song that does not fit into this pattern is, of course, "Memory". In this song, Grizabella does not try to impress Old Deuteronomy with her accomplishments. She does not really even realize she is participating in the Jellicle Ball, so lost is she in her memories of happiness. And that is exactly what Old Deuteronomy is looking for in a candidate for ascension. He even says at one point:
The moments of happiness 
We had the experience but missed the meaning [emphasis mine, because it's so goddamn ironic.]
And approach to the meaning restores the experience 
In a different form beyond any meaning 

He is looking for the one cat who has achieved enough sophistication to find meaning in their memories of a happy past.

That is why these cats are prancing around in the moonlight. They want to get out of this garbage-strewn alley, and move on to (what they've been taught to believe is) their reward in the sky. If they don't sing well enough, or leap high enough, or push themselves far enough in their performances before Old Deuteronomy, then the wrong cat may achieve immortality, and the Jellicles' entire spiritual system of heavenly rewards will be brought down. This not just a "fanciful tale". There are metaphysical fucking consequences.

That is what I want to have communicated to me as an audience member.

Now, admittedly, Cats is a really difficult show to do, at any level but especially in high school, where you have a unique blend of practical and hormonal factors complicating the rehearsal process. I'm not talking about the wigs. I'm talking about getting that meaning across; Cats does not make this easy, so well-buried is its meaning and themes behind Eliot's arch-modernist poetry and Weber's angular score.

That is what makes it a poor choice for a high school show. It's hard to make this meaning plain to an audience full of parents and community members. I believe that one should pick a show based on how well they think the meaning can be communicated with the resources at hand. I would strongly recommend against shows which make heavy use of irony or abstract symbolism. These are difficult to support in the hands of even the world's most experienced artists. Unless you have an exceptionally gifted student body, you want a show which gives you a fighting chance.

Below I have made some suggestions (fill in my gaps in the comments). I want to demonstrate that there are plenty of beautiful and deep musicals which are appropriate for high school, which nonetheless wear their meaning on their sleeve and are more likely to slam-dunk in a high school auditorium.

The thing to remember is that Cats is not about cats, and Carousel is not about a carousel. Fiddler on the Roof is not about a fiddler on the roof, but the difference with Fiddler is that the very first song tells you exactly what the show is going to be about: "Tradition".

My point is that significant consideration must be given to the meaning of any show, at any level, in any venue, because without it, the audience is left with banality and empty spectacle. Let us not teach our children that this is what theatre is supposed to be.


Good (irony/subtlety content low)

  • Phantom of the Opera

  • Rent

  • Oliver

  • Oklahoma

  • Most Gilbert and Sullivans, but not The Mikado

  • Shrek: the Musical

  • Jesus Christ Superstar

  • The Music Man

  • West Side Story

  • Anything Goes

  • Fiddler on the Roof

Bad (irony/subtlety content high)

  • Cats

  • Carousel

  • Chicago

  • Evil Dead

  • Young Frankenstein

  • A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

  • The Mikado

Packing material

Big Heat in a Big Crowd