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On Stage: The History Of 'Cats'


Andrew Lloyd Webber composed the score for Cats in 1977, setting to music the poems from T.S. Eliot's “Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats,” published in 1939. Cats began life in 1980 as Practical Cats, a song cycle, which is a set of individual songs that are meant to be performed in a particular order as part of a whole, each one contributing to the central theme.

Producer Cameron Mackintosh called in choreographer Gillian Lynne and director Trevor Nunn to help bring Lloyd Webber's cycle into a full-fledged musical. It was a mighty struggle. Perhaps the most famous song from the show, “Memory,” did not have lyrics until previews had already begun. Nunn finally wrote the lyrics, basing them on the Eliot poem, “Rhapsody on a Windy Night.” It was also left to Nunn to cobble together a story that united the separate pieces. Cats debuted in the West End at the New London Theatre in 1981, and in 1982, the show made its way to Broadway.

Andrew Lloyd Webber literally bet the house on his idea: When financial backers reacted with doubt to the concept of a musical based on the works of an English poet, Lloyd Webber underwrote most of the show himself, and took out a second mortgage on his house to do so. The rest of the capital came from small investors, who were rewarded by a rate of return that has been estimated at more than 3,500 percent. 

Cats is onstage at Century II from Oct. 14 to Oct. 16.

Sanda Moore Coleman received an MFA in creative writing from Wichita State University in 1991. Since then, she has been the arts and community editor for The Martha's Vineyard Times, a teaching fellow at Harvard University, and an assistant editor at Image. In 2011, she received the Maureen Egan Writers Exchange prize for fiction from Poets & Writers magazine. She has spent more than 30 years performing, reviewing, and writing for theatre.