Friday, July 26, 2019

Making Sense of the CATS trailer: A Noble Attempt

A week ago, two things brought me great joy.

First, the trailer for the upcoming film adaptation of the immensely popular Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, CATS, dropped on the internet.

Second, I got to listen to a grown man scream his head off as he watched this trailer.

If you, like countless others, have felt a similar sense of dread at the thought of computer enhanced cat/human hybrids taking over the world, then I am here to help. I consider myself uniquely qualified to speak on the topic. CATS was the first full-scale musical I saw on stage, back when I was nine years old. Seeing the show required a full-day trip to Vancouver for our family. In addition, the critical portion of my Master's Thesis project included discussion and analysis of CATS, as well as the children's poems it was based on, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, by T.S. Elliot.

So lay your head on my shoulder, child. Let me tell you the story of CATS.

Adapting an Adaptation

Film adaptations are always a little tricky, but let's start with one basic premise most people can agree on. Any time you are changing mediums, expressing the same concept through a different artform leads to change. Some are inherent to the artform itself (ex: film is more visual than the novel) but some conventions are really only that: conventions of storytelling that we've grown used to and expect now. When those conventions are broken, the art itself can feel broken, even if nothing but tradition is what tells us this ought to be so.

I won't go into the whole long list of conventions film follows, but for the purposes of this discussion, I want to focus on one very important factor: Movies cost way more to produce than books, which means they need to be consumed by/appeal to far more people if they want to make a profit. This has given rise to a particular plotting style commonly referred to as Three Act Structure. I won't go into the full scale description of it here, but loosely, it goes like this:

Act 1: Establish the protagonist, where they are from, what their problem is and what tragic flaw keeps them from solving their problem
Act 2: The protagonist attempts to solve their problem (unsuccessfully), gradually learns the problem is bigger or different than they first thought, and then experiences great failure, leading to their lowest moment.
Act 3: From that low moment, the protagonist finds the fortitude to overcome their flaw, attempts to solve the problem once more and in the climax, either solves it (victory!) or fails (tragedy!). Closing image, fade to black.

Three Act Structure is so ubiquitous, it's tempting to see it in everything and assume it's the only way to tell stories. Today, most commercially viable books also follow this structure. Heck, The Hunger Games worked so well as a movie because it already read like one in book form. But go back pre-Hollywood, and the dominating power of Three Act Structure begins to collapse. It's not the defining structure of Beowulf or The Canterbury Tales. It's not what drives Alice in Wonderland.

And if we move outside of the landscape of novels, it disappears altogether. Short stories don't always have the time to bother with all that structure foofaraw. Or look at picture books. "Everybody do the Barnyard Dance!" might be your plot. Or maybe you've picked up The Book with No Pictures, which is much more about making adults say weird stuff than it is about following character growth. But both those books are stories. They're recounting of events for the purpose of social bonding. Can't get more "story" than that.

And so returning to CATS (finally, we are returning to CATS), I think it's worth asking the question: what type of story is the film adapting? If it had only ever existed as a film, had always been a film, then it would be much, much harder to explain the weirdness going on in that trailer. But CATS not only is an adaptation, it was also never a novel, the most common source of film adaptation.

The problems become clear the moment you realize there are multiple steps in this process, and that those steps never bowed down to Three Act Structure.

Before CATS was a film, it was a play, and before that, it was a book of children's poems.

Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats

T.S. Eliot is considered one of the greats in poetry of the Twentieth Century, and rightly so. His work was beautiful, lyrical, thought provoking, and still gets quoted like crazy in Young Adult novels all these years later. That his work shows up in YA points to the fact that he understood something about young people, whether he was explicitly writing for them or not.

Also recommending him as a human: he liked cats. He wrote a bunch of poems about them for his godchildren. Eventually, he had enough, he was like, "hey, I think this might make a good book of poems" and so he published them, and therefor, little Andrew Lloyd Webber grew up reading them.

And despite what others might tell you, it doesn't just have a story, it has many! There's the story of Rum Tum Tugger, the cat who just wants to annoy you constantly. Or there's Mongojerrie and Rumpleteazer, the kittens who play with everything until it gets lost. One of my favorites is Skimbleshanks, who harkens to the tradition railways had of keeping cats aboard in Britain. See? So many stories! All more adorable than the last!

Importantly, those stories are also intensely relatable. As someone who owns pet cats, I can see my animals mirrored in the poems of cats more than I can in dozens of other stories that feature cats. I've lived with a Rum Tum Tugger and a Jennyanydots. Much of the success of those poems come from how well Eliot captures the lives of real domestic cats.

However, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats does not have an underlying through line other than "aren't cats great?" As a poetry book, this is just fine. Poetry is much more about evoking emotions or ideas in the reader than telling a character growth journey. Story itself is optional in poetry, so in that respect, the poems here are much more conventional "stories" than other poetry books might be. Still, if it were directly adapted into a visual medium today, the most logical would probably be YouTube meme compilation videos. I'd like to think in some alternate universe, there's a poem by an internet era Eliot that goes a little like...

Miss Melarosey rides round on a Roomba
Cleaning the house while the other cats slumber

You get the idea.

When Webber began adapting the poems, he wasn't initially trying to make a whole musical out of them. Instead, he used them as a personal challenge, to compose something where the lyrics were set and couldn't be bent to fit the needs of the music. The project eventually piqued the interest of Eliot's widow, and she passed on to him some poems that Eliot cut from the collection, including Grizabella the Glamour Cat, which Eliot had worried would be too sad for children. But that sad poem was the final spark Webber needed. To him, the bleakness of that poem helped contrast with the jovial, goofiness of the other cat characters, and he felt he now had the makings of a full musical on his hands.

But a musical about what???

Guys, I can't believe you're still asking. It's about cats.

CATS as Broadway Royalty

In CATS earliest days, there were a lot of people working on the show who were deeply confused by Webber's vision for the production. They tried to turn it into something more recognizable. Something that would work with conventional story telling structures.

"Maybe it's a satire of British politicians?"

No hun, it's about cats.

"What if we make this a chamber piece, with minimal effects and a small ensemble?"

Cats deserve better than that, Karen! We will have strobe lights and a cast of dozens because cats are worth it!

"Okay, so who is our hero? What cat are we following? What are they trying to accomplish?"


Eventually, Webber got his wish, though not without sacrifice. The production scared so many investors away, he literally bet his house and all his money on it, just to finance it. I'm sure his family and loved ones shook in fear for him. But Webber was the one left laughing because the public ate CATS up. It became the longest running and most profitable show of all-time, only to be surpassed in that title by Andrew Lloyd Webber's later work, Phantom of the Opera.

And in my opinion, Webber was right to put his foot down every time someone tried to make CATS about something other than cats. The whole reason the show works is because it's driven by poetry, music and movement. Those things leant themselves more to the subject matter than a plot did, because real cats almost never experience character development. They are what they are, and they either annoy or entertain us. Since Eliot's poems were originally about recognizable, normal cat behaviors, this was the truest way of bringing these poems onto the stage.

In addition to Eliot's poems and some of Webber's best music, CATS also has some of the best dancing on Broadway. A lot of time was spent developing how the performers would move and emote in the show, and how the more cat-like motions they performed would be mixed with ballet and modern dance choreography.

It's actually because the show has so little plot that it can revel in the things that make it strong. It's about nothing more than a gathering of cats, who have come to strut and show-off to each other. They can spontaneously break out into dance sequences without it feeling jarring. They can switch tone and focus character song to song, because, like real cats, they don't have the attention span to have a protagonist.

What little through-line there is for the play was eventually developed based on theme, rather than a plot. Trevor Nunn, the poor soul who got tasked with directing and helping develop CATS into a full show with Webber, tried his best to piece together themes of death, rebirth and the folk tale that all cats have nine lives. It wasn't a plot, but he hoped that viewers sensed a kind of progression through ideas, that would keep them engaged.

And there is another reason it worked, and that is because CATS was intended for the theatre, not film.

Writing for Film and Theatre

At first glance, theatre and film seem like very similar mediums. Some people never go to the theatre, because it's expensive, and they don't understand what it could offer them that a film can't. Aside from the thrill of a live performance, is there any real reason to see Hamlet on stage as opposed to in a film adaptation?

As something written before the advent of film, Hamlet might seem like an odd candidate for suiting film, but in many ways, it's early inception is one of the reasons it is so adaptable. In Shakespeare's time, theatre was the primary way of sharing stories with the mass market. Not everyone could read, but everyone could see plays, which were cheap. As a result, Shakespeare's plays often fall into that comforting, digestible Three Act format mentioned earlier, Hamlet included.

For hundreds of years, theatre was the primary venue for social gathering and experiencing stories. But when film came along, the balance of power shifted. Films were potentially more expensive to make but they were so much cheaper to distribute worldwide. You no longer had to go see Hamlet put on by the yokels at the local theatre. You could see Laurence Olivier in the role, without ever leaving your hometown.

In order for theatre to survive commercially, it had to identify who its real audience was and what they wanted. Two particular groups of people are still interested in theatre.

1) People who value the visceral, live aspect. The joy of seeing something staged and knowing that all the pieces have to exist and move together in real, human space is exhilarating. Dance, as a result, thrives in theatre, because it can be very hard to capture the full three-dimensional nature of movement in film, especially for large crowd numbers. Film flattens the image and even 3D technology struggles to recapture the depth of movement theatre can provide. Dance looks better on stage. I've never seen any film that successfully convinced me otherwise. By a similar token, music does often sound better, or at least more emotive, live. Again, there's that visceral component of the experience that you can't get from film. Little surprise, in the wake of the rise of film, musical theatre thrived and took over Broadway.
2) People who like experimental, weird stuff that doesn't suit commercial Hollywood film making. I'm by no means suggesting that film can't be experimental or that theatre wasn't before film put pressure on it. But that pressure still matters. Most cinemas make their money off of digestible blockbusters. Theatre isn't going to grab that crowd anymore though, so it might as well cater to people who want to see a naked boy on stage with a horse. There's a reason it's the theatre club that has the reputation for housing weirdos, not the film club.

And CATS ticks the box for both groups. For a big, flashy spectacle musical, it's surprisingly experimental with it's unconventional story structure, reliance on theme to drive forward progression and lack of protagonist. It's more committed to exploring what it's like to be a cat than it is to examining the human condition. Lest we forget, CATS started off as an experiment. Webber wanted to see what would happen if he wrote music for pre-established poetry.

In recent years, Andrew Lloyd Webber has become a figure that the musical theatre community likes to make fun of. He was such a phenomenon in the 70s and 80s with CATS cat-apulting him from respected, working composer to mega-star. That fame only grew with the release of Phantom, and soon it felt like he was everywhere. Unfortunately, that meant that when his less successful work of the late 80s and 90s came around, he was a highly public figure whose flubs were likewise highly public. It was very easy to slide into mocking him as the weird cat guy. Or the guy who made a play about dropping a chandelier onstage.

But I do think we can be a bit unfair, because often, Webber's strength was being that weird cat guy. Theatre needs weirdness if it's going to survive and thrive. He understood and recaptured the spectacle of theatre better than he told stories or understood the human condition. He needed a good lyricist, like Tim Rice, if he was going to say anything profound or develop characters convincingly. Better to leave the heartfelt, emotional musicals to the likes of Sondheim and let Webber make silly things about dancing cats and chandeliers.

But with the crazy costumes, expressive dancing and energetically scored poetry, CATS did capture something real. As a nine-year-old, seeing that play was a highlight of my brief existence. I've often wondered if one of the reasons we're so hard on CATS as a play is also because of it's intended audience. As a play based on children's poems, it still is intended for children. I've spoken with so many people who struggle with the idea that something can be beautiful or artistic or profound and still be understood by a child. It's been my experience that some of the most beautiful things are those that resonate with children. Children are deeply sensitive to beauty, because they haven't learned to be cynical about it yet.

Cynical, like some of us might be about a certain movie trailer.

And so, that Trailer...

Look what you made her do

Like a lot of you, my initial reaction to the trailer was one of... horrified curiosity, let's say. It does look weird. Film, in it's over fascination with computer graphics, has turned the painted faces and lycra bodysuits of the original CATS world into photorealistic fur. What was expressive in the theatre is now rendered uncanny on film. Some people have suggested it would have been better animated in a more stylized way, like a traditional hand drawn musical. But I do empathize with the film makers, because that would have lost the dancing, and dance is one of the primary reasons to go see CATS.

If I'm being honest, what actually concerned me is the dialogue. CATS the musical gave up on having a plot, but the film seems to be trying to pull one out of the emotive, theme driven material that Trevor Nunn cobbled together. The proportion of singing to spoken lines in the trailer is way off of what it was in the musical and that... concerns me. Concerns me that someone involved in the film's production got confused and figured CATS was actually about Grizabella's quest to ascend to the heaviside layer.

For the last time, guys. It's about cats.

But this is a multi-million dollar film that needs multi-million dollar ticket sales and so, following the logic of Hollywood formula, some poor screenwriter seems to have been tasked with shoving Three Act Structure down CATS throat at last, like a pill from the veterinarian that your pet is just going to regurgitate in a few minutes anyway.

Maybe the transition will work better than I think. Maybe some of the experimental nature will still shine through in the film, or they'll at least capture some of the joyous spectacle and dancing that made the musical worth seeing. Or maybe it will be a ghastly, expensive train wreck, fueled only by a cash grab at our nostalgia for the musical.

Either way, I kinda want to see it. With it's giant franchises and carefully plotted Blockbusters, Hollywood takes so few risks any more. Whether it succeeds or fails, CATS was a risk. And at least there's singing. At least there's dancing. At least most of the leads are actual singers and dancers.

And I, for one, am curious how they picked a protagonist. Just which cat did the dart hit when they threw it at the board? And what character journey are they going to take us on between Taylor Swift shaking catnip over a crowd from a bejeweled canister?

I have only questions. No answers. And with that, I need to go feed my cat.

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