“We can turn double-somersaults, bounce on a tire”
Artist: Andrew Lloyd Webber and T.S. Eliot
Album: Cats: Original Broadway Cast
I find that I face deep, deep skepticism when I recommend my favorite Broadway soundtrack. Some of it’s for good reason. Cats is best known for “Memory”, a completely unrepresentative, ultra-solemn ballad with cliched lyrics. “Memory” itself, though quite well-crafted, reminds one too easily of Lloyd Webber’s bloated and humorless Evita. YouTube has recent clips of Cats songs available, but while I might be hopelessly biased by my love of the original, I believe the performances have gotten much worse over time, damaging what should be great free publicity. Some of the skepticism’s for bad reason, like “It’s a bunch of songs about cats”: sure, I guess, but poet T.S. Eliot’s lyrics are detailed, adroitly rhymed, sometimes sad but mostly quite amusing stories. The feline characters are stars of tall tales.
Andrew Lloyd Webber, whatever one might attack him for, is superbly trained – he began writing musicals as a Royal College of Music school project – and for Cats his music made the perfect accompaniment. He and Eliot were both masters on holiday, taking their schooling out for trots and romps and climbs and rides. Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats starts with woodwinds in tentative wordless conversation before the singers start peppering you with questions, then passing you confident answers; the drama of Giorgio Moroder disco easily slips into Beethoven-by-way-of-ABBA-by-way-of-the-Village-People triumph, which backs into a shanty, then into an outgoing hymn which becomes a jolly musical-comedy showstopper. The Naming of Cats, spare and spooky, is easy to like even though it could almost slip onto a CD by Non Credo, a duo who are reliably filed under “Experimental/Avant-Garde”. The Old Gumbie Cat controls mood and tempo by stitching together three different sorts of pre-rock hit song stylings. The Rum-Tum Tugger swaggers in a way that’s part marching band, part barrelhouse piano, and part cabaret. Grizabella, the Glamour Cat is a quiet hymn for a ominous strings plus small jazz combo. Just the first half of the Jellicle Ball easily merges Arabic tunings and rhythms; chants and spoken word asides; slinky bassoon and piano runs dodging ’round corners; a chase scene of minor-key fanfares; a jaunty major-key transformation of all of the above; gentle chamber strings; and full-orchestra power. The music evolves and tells stories as the words do.
The melodies are big and catchy; the singers have breath control, pitch control, power, and slyness; the instruments not only have hooks to play, but know their power as underlines and punctuation. I want my life to have real cats, but that’s completely separate from wanting it to have expansive comic-book legends of cats. Which I didn’t know I wanted … prior to Andrew Lloyd Webber showing me that of course, of course I do.
– Brian Block
Technical note for those interested: the *real* flaw in Cats is that it’s sold and priced as a double-cd, for no good reason: several tracks are pure padding, musically redundant excuses for the dancers to dance more. So when it was time to replace my vinyl copy I chose to buy, 99 cents at a time, a 14-song single disc MP3 collection that gets rid of the shameless duplications. I recommend the resulting tracklist:
- Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats
- the Naming of Cats
- the Old Gumbie Cat
- the Rum Tum Tugger
- Grizabella, the Glamour Cat
- Bustopher Jones
- Mungojerry and Rumpleteazer
- Old Deuteronomy
- the Jellicle Ball
- Gus: the Theatre Cat
- Skimbleshanks: the Railway Cat
- Macavity: the Mystery Cat
- Mr. Mistoffelees