Of Rats and Cats

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Last night — after 24 years — I went back to Cats. I first saw it in 1984 in Tokyo with my parents and sister; this second trip was in Tampere with my wife and daughters. Some things have changed along the way.

Not everything has changed, by any means. It’s the same music and (sort of) the same words. I was actually a little nervous about this. Before going to the show, I listened to the soundtrack, and Andrew Lloyd Webber has not aged well. His specialty was always bombastic themes and lots of repetition, and those don’t sound great next to modern shows that are more complex or at least feature classic pop music. My wife said later that she couldn’t understand the show from the soundtrack, and I can hear what she means.

I had nothing to worry about, though. Cats doesn’t just benefit from performance — it works because of it. The dancing and acting complete the music. Even with simple staging, the performances and lighting transport you into the cats’ world.

(That’s especially true when the cats break the fourth wall. They don’t just acknowledge the audience. They pause to inspect the front row, and even leave the stage to crawl over audience members in their seats. The girls loved it.)

The show’s appeal remains universal, too. I haven’t actually seen Cats in English — the first time was in Japanese and this trip was in Finnish. We had subtitles to help us this time, but it didn’t really matter. The plot is incomprehensible even in English, and the characterizations are universal.

cats and rats
Wait, who’s that there on the left?

Rat Among the Cats

There’s something unique about the Tampere version, though — a new character. The rat (“Rotta”) has become the signature element of the production. He’s featured on the posters around town and referred to in a projection on the scrim before the show.

“Once a rat dreamed of being a cat…”

The rat is the first character on stage, preparing for bed as the overture plays. He shaves his tail, brushes his teeth, brushes the teeth of his stuffed cat teddy bear, uses the chamberpot and goes to sleep. The cats appear, and he “wakes” to join them.

Rotta appears on and off throughout the show, usually in the background. As a waiter, he drinks most of Bustopher Jones’ martinis. He dances (badly) with the cats at the Jellicle Ball. He carries the front of the train during “Skimbleshanks” and even drives Deuteronomy onstage for the finale.

As a rude mechanical, the rat creates a new contrast in the story. He’s a working-class commentary on the mostly lithe and elegant cats. But he also works as a framing device. If the whole production is truly the rat’s dream, then the nigh-incomprehensible plot is just part of the chaotic nature of dreams.

The dream framing also sets up the rat as the author of the story. He and the audience observe the cats together, but the audience is also observing the rat creating the story for himself. This leads to a poignant moment at the end as the cats depart and the rat apparently wakes up. He cries out his one line in the entire production, a disappointed “No!”

With the rat in the narrative, Cats becomes more grounded by being presented as a fantasy. It also gains a tinge of regret as the fantasy ends. There’s something very Finnish about that, and I rather liked it. Cats is an artifact of its time, but it still works, and it turns out there are still new things under the Jellicle Moon.

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