Social commentary, like cats, shows up in the oddest places. Superficially, the popular musical production Cats,created by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Trevor Nunn, appears to be all fur and flash, a light-hearted show founded in spectacle only. However, closer examination reveals a deeper layer to these singing felines. Amid their cavorting and warbling, the cats reflect themes of the “Other,” people marginalized, or rejected, by dominant social forces. The term “Other” is used by postcolonial theorists such as Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak to describe people or qualities that are seen as the opposite of dominant social groups. In my analysis, I draw on both this concept of the Other and the musical-theatrical criticism of Jacquelyn Fox-Good. Cats’ commentary on the issue of Otherness is achieved primarily through weaving musical and visual commentary around the feline antics T.S. Eliot first described in his poetry collection, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. Music is as fluid and enigmatic as cats, eluding concrete definition to say many things at once. Though the cats and the music continue to reflect the society that gave rise to them, their fluid nature allows them to flip and twist the words they carry into new subtle narratives on the experience of Otherness. Although it does not deal with racial Otherness fully, the musical Cats integrates social Others through musical and visual inversion and transformation of T.S. Eliot’s poems.
The music-centric structure of Cats indicates a trend towards reversing typical patterns of marginalization. Compared to iconic Rogers and Hammerstein musicals such as The Sound of Music and Oklahoma!, in which musical numbers are interspersed with dialogue, Cats is characterized by a near absence of dialogue and a predominance of song. This latter style, described as a “through-sung” musical as opposed to a “musical play” by John Snelson in the Grove Music Online dictionary (“Musical”), is intriguing considering Jacquelyn Fox-Good’s analysis of the role of music in her essay, “Other Voices: The Sweet, Dangerous Air(s) of Shakespeare’s Tempest.” Observing that “music exist[s] in the margins” of The Tempest, she claims this characteristic linked it to marginal voices within the play (254). Cats inverts the role of music from marginal to central, suggesting it may do the same for Other characters or aspects within the play. Thus, the centrality of music reflects an underlying theme of reversing dominant structures.
Some evidence that the musical Cats inverts the colonial suppression of Others can be seen in Macavity the Mystery Cat. Macavity shares several of the features that Fox-Good evaluates in Shakespeare’s character Prospero. Fox-Good observes that while Prospero “sometimes ‘commands’ or ‘requires’ music, [he] never performs it himself” (254). Likewise, Macavity does not sing, but his presence and actions stir the other cats to sing about him. He is a powerful cat, described by the lyrics in the music folio Cats: The Songs from the Musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber as “The Napoleon of Crime” (Webber and Nunn with Eliot 95-6), who controls and directs the heists of many criminals, and who has “powers of levitation” (89). Both recall Prospero’s ability to command the island spirits in The Tempest through his magical powers, and his drive towards power is evident when he impersonates Old Deuteronomy, the Jellicle leader (Mallet 1998). However, while Prospero is the dominant speaker and protagonist of Shakespeare’s play, Macavity is the antagonist. He is heralded as “a fiend in feline shape, a monster of depravity” (Webber and Nunn with Eliot 92), making him sound more like Caliban than Prospero. He does not sing, but he does not speak either; he only laughs and attacks. He is not a colonial subject since no one can subjugate or even catch him, but he is not welcome in the larger cat society. Macavity is an inversion of Prospero, a dominant figure rendered into an alternate Other as the conventional Others take the stage.
Cats still has a central, but less domineering, authority figure in Old Deuteronomy. Like Macavity, Deuteronomy has qualities in common with Prospero. He is an elder, paternalistic figure described by actor Ken Page in Andy Picheta’s feature “What’s a Jellicle Cat?” as “probably the father of many of [the cats]” (Mallet 1998). He also functions without a female partner, established by Eliot as having “buried nine wives/And…I am tempted to say, ninety-nine” (Verse 1.lines 5-6), compared to the singular “absent wife” of Prospero (Fox-Good 258). Yet Deuteronomy too is an incomplete imitation of Prospero, for he does sing and takes both dominant and supporting roles when he does so. Though many of the cats scramble to assist him, he never forces them to bend to his will, and he possesses no visible power over the other cats. He is a leader whose true power is the status and influence given to him by those he leads, not a ruler whose power is maintained through punishment.
The theme music of Cats also resonates with an aim towards transforming traditional artistic structures. Its discordant melody is enough to create a haunting, uncertain feeling, but a closer look reveals the piece to be written in Lydian mode. Modes are the systems or tonal patterns to which all notes in a piece of music must conform. As folk musician Stewart Hendrickson notes in “Of Scales and Modes,” his column in Victory Review, “[i]n our modern western culture we are used to hearing music played mostly in the traditional major or minor” modes (16). All modes besides the major are created by raising or lowering the pitch of notes in the major pattern. They can be identified by music that is marked as being in one key, but with notes that are transformed with the sharps and flats of a different key. In the Cats “Overture,” the theme music is written in the key of C, but several notes are consistently flatted, making it sound more like the key of D flat (Webber and Nunn with Eliot 5). Just as Fox-Good asserts that shifting chords embody a transformative process in “Full Fathom Five,” the Cats theme “enacts transformation” (253) through its altered, Lydian structure. The notes themselves change, organizing into new patterns and new sounds. With its shifting theme music, Cats establishes a tone conducive to transformation.
The play does, however, falter slightly in its theme of transformation with the lyrics of “Growltiger’s Last Stand.” Though not performed in the film, the song’s presence in the folio indicates that it is used in other versions of the musical. Not only do the Growltiger lyrics include the racial epitaph “Chinks” (Webber and Nunn with Eliot 70), but they also describe Siamese cats in “their sampans and the junks” (69). Both are artifacts of Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism, which paints a picture of the Orient as the exotic antithesis of the West (1991), not just through racism but through a general “reiterating European supremacy over Oriental backwardness” and difference (1995). Ironically, there are minor lyrical adjustments between poem and song, with a pronoun changed to a name and two lines omitted, yet “Chinks” remains. Keeping the provocative word allows the Orientalist attitudes behind it to persist, enforcing rather than reversing Euro-centric power structures.
Without the racial slur, the song still contains Orientalist implications, yet there is also an attempt to push against these implications. The ballad ends with Siamese cats killing Growltiger, who is set up as harboring strong racist beliefs by the line “to cats of foreign race his hatred had been vowed” (Webber and Nunn with Eliot 66). The European cats applaud his death, with celebration in Brentford as well as Bangkok (Webber and Nunn with Eliot 73), which makes it appear that racism is harmful to both communities. However, their celebration raises the question of why the British cats did not do the deed themselves. Said would likely say that they left the act of murder to their less civilized “surrogate and even underground self” (1993). Growltiger illustrates the complexity of Othering by portraying the most Orientalist character in the song as a widely hated villain while the European cats still display a degree of Othering in their unwillingness to handle Growltiger themselves. Cats does not fully integrate the racial Other in the case of Growltiger, but it makes an effort to explore the problems of racial Othering.
Although Growltiger is left out of the film version of Cats, the marginalized racial Other surfaces again in the form of a chorus cat named Exotica. Her name alone links her with the exoticism featured in Orientalism. She has the darkest coat of all the cats, and her minimal make-up seems to emphasize the fact that she is portrayed by a black actress (Mallet 1998). She plays no active role in the musical, an often silent presence reminiscent of “the subaltern,” explored in Gayatri Spivak’s book, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason. Spivak explains that a subaltern may or may not be “a member of an ethnic minority” (2207), but is generally unable to make him- or herself heard (2202). Exotica displays both features. While song is the dominant mode of expression in Cats and Exotica does sing, she is not granted an independent voice. Most of the cats who lack individual songs are allowed to sing occasional solo lines, but Exotica sings only as a supporting player, never to express her own truth. Combined with her dark coloring, Exotica’s lack of individual expression sets her up as a symbol of the suppressed racial Other.
Unlike the Siamese cats in “Growltiger’s Last Stand,” Exotica is less a negative racial representation than a lifelessly sanitized one. Most of the cats are active, sensual beings. This was an intentional feature of the show, Andrew Lloyd Webber confides in “What’s a Jellicle Cat?” Webber explains that he modeled the cats after a magazine called Hot Gossip at the approval of Eliot’s widow, Valerie (Picheta 1998). Fox-Good notes that music and Others, particularly female Others, are frequently associated with “either [the] divine (ineffable) and/or [the] bestial” (255). As a sleek female who is also a racial Other, Exotica could be expected to be one of the most sexualized cats, but instead she is among the least. She assumes no suggestive postures besides reclining in the background, sitting out the acrobatic dances and walking on two legs even when many cats slink on all fours. Politically correct to an extreme, she displays no stereotypically Other behavior, but as a consequence does very little. The film removes both the bestial and the divine from Exotica’s portrayal, but neglects to fill the void left behind with any substantial characterization, leaving her to act as little more than a living prop.
Sidelined throughout the film version of Cats, Exotica’s most notable appearance is in the credits. Given the minor nature of Exotica’s role, one might expect her to receive bottom billing. However, while three chorus cats are omitted from the credits, Exotica is present. She is even listed before Cassandra, the second-darkest female cat who sings multiple solo lines, performs in almost every dance, and receives many close-up shots (Mallet 1998). This remembrance and near emphasis in the credits suggests that Exotica is not a minor footnote in the producers’ minds, and that she may be a symbol of exclusion and the assumption of Other-ism rather than just an instance of it. If so, her presence is her voice. However, Spivak observes that the Other who tries to speak “by turning [the] body into a text” may go unheeded for a long time (2206). Seeing Exotica in the credits helps audiences to notice her, but her presence is so subtle that it is easily ignored. For most viewers, Exotica remains a shadow, haunting the background of songs celebrating more prominent cats.
One of the central characters, Grizabella, is more in keeping with the theme of reversing marginalization. Though not a racial Other in the film, she looks different from the majority of the cats, a tattered old female with bedraggled human-like hair who is clearly unwelcome in cat society. In her initial appearances on stage, cats recoil from her, refuse to touch her except to scratch her, and yank curious kittens away from reaching out to her (Mallet 1998). Only Deuteronomy, having witnessed her singing “Memory,” sees the beauty hidden behind her shabby appearance. His resulting acceptance of Grizabella stands in contrast to Fox-Good’s description of the dynamic between Prospero and Sycorax in The Tempest. Fox-Good argues that the fear of women, the fear of the Other, led Prospero to supplant Sycorax by “demonizing and banishing her” (259). Deuteronomy reverses this pattern by choosing Grizabella as the cat who has learned and lived enough to ascend to the Heavyside Layer and begin another life (Mallet 1998). Although she is portrayed as marginalized, Grizabella becomes a main character whose story threads throughout the entire musical.
The reason for Grizabella’s initial marginalization is never directly revealed, but it appears to be connected to her status as a former Glamour Cat. The meaning of “Glamour Cat” is uncertain. Grizabella cringes at the line “who would ever suppose that that was Grizabella the Glamour Cat” (Mallet 1998), but in “Memory” she states, “I can smile at the old days, I was beautiful then” (Webber and Nunn with Eliot 100). This suggests it is not the fact that she was a Glamour Cat that led her to be ostracized, but the loss of her glamour, her beauty, that precipitated her rejected status. In pondering the connection between music and women, Fox-Good calls physical beauty the traditional quality “[t]hat chiefly defines, gives value to woman” (256). As the Glamour Cat, Grizabella stands as a metaphor for the woman valued solely for her beautiful body. Stripped of that quality by time, Grizabella is cast aside as worthless and even frightening, perhaps because she reminds the younger, still beautiful cats that they too could fade. The decision to place such a character in a starring role suggests a shift towards reintegrating the female Other by focusing on inner strength rather than outward beauty.
The Grizabella story was itself textually marginalized prior to Cats. No mention of Grizabella appears in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s note at the beginning of the music folio credits Valerie Eliot with bringing the unpublished poem “Grizabella: the Glamour Cat” into the light of the stage (4). In an essay entitled “Eliot’s Cats Come Out Tonight,” English Professor Janet Karsten Larson explains that the poem was excluded because, according to Valerie Eliot, the author thought it “too sad for children” (qtd. in “Eliot’s Cats”). Eliot’s poem “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” which Trevor Nunn claims as the inspiration for the lyrics of “Memory” (Webber and Nunn with Eliot 4), also includes a description of an old woman that mirrors the lyrics of “Grizabella: The Glamour Cat.” In a near word-for-word duplication, the woman’s “dress/Is torn and stained with sand” (Lines 19-20), and “her eye/Twists like a crooked pin” (21-22). These fragmented texts were grafted together to create Grizabella, reversing the fragmentation of the “powerfully absent” mother-figure Fox-Good finds in The Tempest (259). Rather than scattering the female Other into the margins and music of the play, the creators of Cats bring her out and onto center stage, concentrating her into one of the best-remembered characters in the play. The musical transforms Grizabella from a vague dream lying unacknowledged in Eliot’s scrap pile into the central action of Cats.
The cat religion to which Grizabella is inextricably linked by her ascension to the Heavyside Layer is also an invention of the musical. Karsten notes that, while the Heavyside Layer in the play appears to be the feline equivalent of Heaven, Eliot originally wrote the poem that became “The Journey to the Heavyside Layer” as a humorous piece describing cats and dogs in a hot air balloon (“Eliot’s Cats”). The music folio of Cats does not credit Eliot for the words explaining the “Jellicle Choice,” the annual ritual when Deuteronomy “[a]nnounces the cat who can now be reborn/And come back to a different Jellicle life” (Webber and Nunn with Eliot 22), with Grizabella the chosen one this year. These lines completely alter the atmosphere of the musical, evoking a complex cat culture outside the human one surrounding them. Reincarnation as a cultural artifact suggests the cats practice a religion outside the dominant form of Christianity, but it also metaphorically links them to the “continuous potential for change and rebirth” Fox-Good observes in music (253). The fact that rebirth is proceeded by “choice” further implies that the cat religion involves conscious reincarnation, conscious change. Along with Grizabella, the spiritual aspect of Cats creates a space for different ways of viewing society, in turn inviting the possibility of change.
Grizabella’s drive towards integrative transformation is most clearly seen in a verse from “Memory.” Here, she acts as the voice of all Others who wish to participate in the larger society. Singing for the first time in front of the entire cat community, Exotica included, she cries out:
Touch me. It’s so easy to leave me
All alone with the memory
Of my days in the sun
If you touch me, you’ll understand what happiness is
Look a new day has begun. (Webber and Nunn with Eliot 104)
Her cry is a plea to be re-membered, to be embraced and recognized as a living, dynamic being. Whereas Fox-Good claims that Prospero reaches out to Caliban in a drive towards “incorporation” (268) that acknowledges his physical existence, Grizabella desires more. Not content to be heard and seen as an object, she asks for the most intimate contact, touch, to bridge the gap between her and the cat community that has rejected her. She urges them not to take the easy way out, banishing her as a memory of the past because they would rather not deal with her. She pleads not only for herself, but for the wholeness of the community, which cannot know its full self nor true happiness if it denies her. Only when Grizabella, the Other, is accepted and even celebrated can a new day come for all.
Like the music that dominates it, Cats is difficult to pin down. Its musical structure and dramatic themes show an inclination towards reversing or changing past power structures. With Deuteronomy modeling a new, more flexible type of leadership against the power-hungry Macavity, that inclination is partially achieved. The attempt is imperfect, as there are still Others in the margins or untransformed texts that strengthen divides. Compared to T.S. Eliot’s original book of poems, however, the overall tone and spectacle of Cats reaches out to include rather than exclude. Particularly in the uplifting tale of the re-memberance and recognition of Grizabella, the audience is encouraged to walk forward, to imagine a new way of relating to Others.
Elliot, T.S. Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. 1939. 1st American ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009. Print.
—. “Rhapsody on a Windy Night.” Representative Poetry Online. University of Toronto. 24 March 2002. Web. 8 Dec. 2011.
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Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Chapter 3. History” from A Critique of Postcolonial Reason. Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism.1st ed. Ed. Peter Simon. New York: W. W. Norton & Co Inc, 2001. 2197-208. Print.
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“What’s a Jellicle Cat?: The Making of Cats the Video.” Dir. Andy Picheta. Cats. Dir. Dave Mallet. Perf. Elaine Paige, John Mills, and Ken Page. Really Useful Films,1998. DVD.
Kelsey Nakaishi is a senior English major at Washington State University. She wrote this essay to better understand her personal enjoyment of her favorite contemporary musical, Cats, as well as the production’s international popularity. Having previously studied piano, she applied musical as well as literary theories to her exploration of the play.