I read T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats last year and found out it was the book on which the musical Cats was based. I didn’t think I would get to see the musical on its Manila run because the tickets are fabulously expensive, but a couple of orchestra tickets magically fell into my hands on Friday afternoon, courtesy of my boss (thank you! thank you!), so my sister and I got to watch the musical that same night.
Cats is one of the longest-running shows in the history of musical theater. Its composer, Andrew Lloyd Webber, counts Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats as one of his favorite childhood books, and most of the musical is based on the cats in Eliot’s verse, except mainly Grizabella the glamor cat (who has grown old and gray) and a few other cats, who (presumably) were written in to tie the story together.
In Cats, the Jellicle cats are a group of felines that gather in an old junkyard one night, for it is the night when Old Deuteronomy chooses a cat to be reborn into a new life. One by one, the Jellicle cats are introduced — Jennyanydots, Rum Tum Tugger, Grizabella, Old Bustopher, Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer, Asparagus (who also plays Growltiger), Skimbleshanks, Macavity, Mister Mistoffelees, etc. Grizabella appeals to the Jellicle cats to be the “chosen one” and Old Deuteronomy finally sends her to the “Heaviside Layer.”
I’d never seen the musical before except for some songs on video, so having read the book helped, because I was able to explain to my sister the parts she didn’t understand. It’s funny, because some of the cats in the musical looked like the cats Edward Gorey drew for the book.
Despite the lousy sound system of the Cultural Center (really, I think they should invest in better acoustics; when I watched Zsazsa Zaturnnah last year it was quite unintelligible!), I really enjoyed the razzle-dazzle show. I liked the numbers on my favorite parts of the book: The Naming of Cats, The Old Gumbie Cat, Rum Tum Tugger, and Macavity. Friends warned me I’d fall asleep around the part of “The Awefull Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles,” but it was quite amusing; I think this is one of the parts people don’t get, it’s actually about a dogfight acted out by the cats! Growltiger was just marvelous, and Mister Mistoffelees lived up to his reputation. It was great seeing these feline characters come alive onstage!
And of course, as expected, Lea Salonga makes a stellar Grizabella. The quality of her voice is just on a whole new plane altogether (the clarity even transcends the acoustical problems of the theater!), and I’m glad I got to watch her perform again.
I’m reposting a portion of my book review here, in case you’ve seen Cats and want to look up the book. I know they’re selling the paperback copy at around P400 at the bookstores (that was a couple of years ago), but rummaging in the bargain bins (as always) did the trick for me; I have a hardcover with dust jacket that I got for P30!
I discovered Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats upon reading about T.S. Eliot in the book The Archivist by Martha Cooley (ugh, I did not appreciate the psychodrama in that one either!). Apparently T.S. Eliot went by the name “Old Possum” and wrote this assortment of whimsical poems about cats in letters he wrote to his godchildren. It’s a great compilation of funny poems about cat, which any cat-loving (or even not so much cat loving) reader would appreciate, and this particular edition by Harcourt Brace is beautifully illustrated by Edward Gorey, one of my favorite illustrators!
There is a little introductory poem entitled “The Naming of Cats” and I love how the poem emphasizes the importance of naming a cat:
But I tell you,
a cat needs a name that’s particular,
A name that is peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he
keep up his tail perpendicular,
Or spread out his whiskers,
or cherish his pride?
A selection of poems follow the first, this time regaling the reader with the antics of several cats with very distinct personalities.
There’s Jennyanydots (“The Old Gumbie Cat”) whose owners think she is very lazy because she’s always found snoozing, but as soon as everyone is asleep, she rounds up the mice so she can teach them ”music, crocheting and tatting.” She also teaches cockroaches to dance.
Growltiger is some sort of pirate cat, living on a barge and wreaking terror along the Thames.
The Rum Tum Tugger is a fastidious cat who reminds me of my cat Tomas — ornery, hard to please, and with an inflated sense of self-importance!
The Rum Tum Tugger is a Curious Cat:
If you offer him pheasant he would rather have grouse.
If you put him in a house he would much prefer a flat,
If you put him in a flat then he’d rather have a house.
If you set him on a mouse then he only wants a rat,
If you set him on a rat then he’d rather chase a mouse.
There are also other cats with equally interesting stories, namely the Jellicles, Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer, Old Deuteronomy, The Great Rumpuscat, Mr. Mistoffelees, Gus the Theater Cat, Bustopher Jones, Skimbleshanks, and Cat Morgan.
Perhaps the most famous (and most interesting) of them all is the cat Macavity, the mystery cat, who is a master criminal who never leaves any tracks, reminiscent of the famous Sherlock Holmes nemesis Professor Moriarty.
I love this book because it capture the cat-ness of each feline character perfectly, while portraying them in humorous and highly imaginative situations. You can easily tell that T.S. Eliot was a cat lover and spent a lot of time observing their mannerisms and behavior to be able to write all these poems about them that personify them rather than pertain to them as mere animals.
The poetry has a very musical quality to it (perhaps the reason it inspired Andrew Lloyd Webber), making it a great book to read aloud to kids, to yourself, or to your cat, because as T.S. Eliot concludes:
You now have learned enough to see
That Cats are much like you and me
And other people whom we find
Possessed of various types of mind
For some are sane and some are mad
And some are good and some are bad
And some are better, some are worse –
But all may be described in verse.