Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber's absurd musical Cats, once the longest-running musical on Broadway, is coming to the big screen this holiday season. There are expensive names behind the project: Academy Award-winning director Tom Hooper, of Les Misérables and The King's Speech fame, is directing the film, and movie mogul/Netflix hater Steven Spielberg is one of its executive producers. The cast is crawling with celebrities I never imagined would star in Cats: real, actually talented stars like Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Judi Dench (the Queen), Jennifer Hudson (Effie), Idris Elba (the internet's James Bond), James Corden (man in car), Jason Derulo (Jordin Sparks's ex), and Taylor Swift (🐍).
According to Entertainment Weekly, the filming of Cats wrapped up last week, and I think we all should be worried. Not worried that it'll be bad—it's very easy to joke about how bad and weird Cats is—but worried that it'll be good, maybe even Academy Award-winningly good (Hooper's Les Misérables won three Oscars), and that we're going to end up admitting things adults shouldn't admit, like "Cats made me cry" and "I really think Jennifer Hudson should win the Acadamy Award for her portrayal of Grizabella the Glamour Cat."
First, what the fuck is Cats?
It's a hairy thing to describe. Premiering in London in 1981, Cats is a musical based on T.S. Eliot's book of poetry about cats, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. But plot is not Cats' strong suit, because there is no plot. There are only adults pretending to be cats. Sexy cats. Old cats. Singing cats. Fat cats. It's all legwarmers and backbends.
When Stranger Print Editor Christopher Frizzelle and I saw the touring company of Cats perform at the Paramount a few weeks ago, we overheard someone aptly describe the show afterward, saying, "It is kind of astonishing, mostly in that it doesn't stop." It's a long show. At four different times during the evening, audience members were seen leaving, desperate not to run into any performers-dressed-as-cats in the aisles. We accidentally left early because the bows go on for, like, twenty minutes. It's endless.
While bad or mediocre productions of Cats are the epitome of cringe theater, the musical itself is actually sort of… great? Also, very gay. Andrew Lloyd Webber's music is clearly strong. The choreography is ambitiously athletic. The cats' aesthetics pull from glam rock and disco and even hair metal. It should have been a cult classic, but somehow the show has captured the attention of the mainstream for almost forty years.
The best example of Cats is the only film we currently have of it, which is this direct-to-video film of the stage production:
This 1998 film was my introduction to Cats. When I was a teen growing up in rural Idaho, my first gay friend (although we were both "straight" at the time) took me into his bedroom (which was filled with wall-to-wall Cats memorabilia), sat me on his bed, and made me watch this version of Cats. We did not hook up while watching it (again, we were both "straight"). We just sat there, sternly, watching the entire thing from start-to-finish in silence. It was one of the most confusing experiences of my life, with the most confusing element being my enjoyment of Cats.
This wasn't the first attempt at a Cats film. In the '90s, Steven Spielberg's animation production company Amblimation, which created Balto and Fievel Goes West, was working on an animated Cats until the studio abruptly closed in 1997. The only public relic from that project is its concept art, which is really cool. I wish that film got made. A year after it was officially a bust, the stage film was released.
Is this new Cats going to be animated? What type of cats are we talking about here?
Since Spielberg is one of the main producers of this new Cats, a person could expect that this will be animated like his original project. But the information we have available is… confusing. Last month, Idris Elba revealed that they "will not be clad in head-to-toe leotards," like in the stage production:
"Leggings? No," Elba said with a laugh. "I think it's going to be incredible to see. I don't want to give too much away, but I think that the way that they're visually making the cats into humans is going to be not seen before."
This makes me picture the Cheshire Cat with Idris Elba's face. Not good.
And then, last week, we got more details. From Thrillest:
The cats in Cats will be portrayed the size of real cats. That means that the scenery is apparently very big. Because cats are small! However, it still seems like the cats may not look fully like real cats, but some haunting human-cat hybrid created via motion capture technology. "These are people but they're cats and it's kind of blowing my mind," James Corden said in a promo played at the event.
So, like, tiny cat bodies? Furry? With human faces?! Please don't let this be like the Genie/Will Smith mashup!!!
We really have no idea what to expect with the animation in Cats, because it's unlike anything we've ever seen before if we're to take the stars at their words. Anticipate creepy hell cats, but who knows. We'll have to put a pin in that for now.
Let's get to the cast: Judi Dench! Ian McKellen! JENNIFER HUDSON!
The thing that makes me suspicious that this film could actually be good, maybe even really good, is its cast. First, the big guns: Dame Judi Dench and Sir Ian McKellen.
Dench is playing Old Deuteronomy, the Prospero of Cats. Fun fact: Dench was cast in the original production of Cats, but reportedly had to drop out due to an injury. I had no idea Dench could sing but she can, sort of!
McKellen is playing Asparagus the Theater Cat, an old theater cat with palsy who is very cute:
Of the two big pop stars in the project, I'm most interested in Jason Derulo, of "Talk Dirty" and "Wiggle" fame. At first, it may seem like odd casting to tap Derulo for an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, but the man has 11 platinum singles and is a trained dancer and opera singer. This will be his film debut, and he'll be playing the sexy cat, Rum Tum Tugger:
Derulo's performance at the 2018 MTV European Music Awards showed he definitely has the chops for the Jellicle Ball:
This is a side of me that’s been burning within for a long time. I was trained classically (operatically) & have sang classical music since I can remember. Mom cried happy tears last night. The reception has been amazing! Should I do a classical project one day? #mtv #mtvema pic.twitter.com/ObSCYZkrjW
— Jason Derulo (@jasonderulo) November 5, 2018
The other pop star of note here is, well, Taylor Swift. She plays Bombalurina, a mean-girl-cat who talks shit about the tired-ass-showgirl-cat Grizabella (played by Jennifer Hudson) and hot-villain-cat Macavity (Idris Elba). She also hits on Rum Tum Tugger (Derulo) who turns her down. Most of Bombalurina's singing is split with a cat named Demeter, who will be played by professional musical theater performer Daniela Norman. So, Swift is mostly in Cats to be a snake and tear down performers who are better than her. She's basically typecast.
And finally, Jennifer fucking Hudson.
Hudson is playing Grizabella the Glamour Cat, the cat who sings "Memory," the song that has single-handedly made Cats relevant for almost four decades. It is one of Andrew Lloyd Webber's best songs—arguably the only memorable song in Cats—and notably made famous by Barbra Streisand.
Hudson is an American treasure. Do you remember when she placed seventh on the third season of American Idol? And then won an Academy Award, a Golden Globe Award, a BAFTA Award, and a Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Supporting Actress in her FILM DEBUT next to BEYONCÉ in Dreamgirls? If she gives "Memory" even an eighth of what she gave Dreamgirls' "And I'm Telling You," Cats will continue to be in the popular imagination for at least another decade.
Oh? A PREVIEW?!
Now imagine her doing all of this but as a creepy little cat. Move over Barbra. I think we have a new definitive version. And goddamnit. I think Cats is going to be good.
The beast is expected to hit theaters on December 20.