“Cats” is roaring back.
The musical — truly for now and forever — that millennials around the world grew up with made its way back to Broadway Sunday, opening in a theater culture the original show helped create.
“It was certainly one of the most influential shows in Broadway history for no other reason than it created a family audience,” said Laurence Maslon, an associate chair and arts professor at the graduate acting program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. “It was so successful in that regard that obviously Disney got into the act. It’s returning to a landscape that it created in 1982.”
For many, the musical, famously complicated and about nothing all at once, colored their childhood. And over the years Andrew Lloyd Webber’s show, which ran for 18 years on Broadway, has been graced with stars, including notably Elaine Paige as Grizabella in the original West End production and then Betty Buckley taking on the role on Broadway.
Singer Leona Lewis, at 31 years old a millennial in her own right, will take over the historied role. But it’s not Lewis’ first bout with the musical.
“I went to the show with my mum in London when I was younger but I was really quite young,” Lewis said in an email interview. “I remember it feeling magical and like I’d stepped into a whole different world.
“I think Andrew Lloyd Webber had a big impact on me growing up in music,” Lewis added. “I was just in awe of the beauty he created with music. I grew up listening to ‘Memory’ ... I think I sang it for the first time when I was 9. That love for the big mega ballad has never left me!”
And Lewis is far from alone. Jeffry Denman, who played the role of Munkustrap from 1999 to 2000, when the show closed, said he grew up in Buffalo and first saw the show at about 10 years old in Toronto.
“For me it was pretty amazing, I just became a huge fan of the show. And knowing I was going into theater the thing that impressed me the most about it was how immersive it was at a time when there were not a lot of theatrical productions that were immersive,” said Denman, who now works as a director, choreographer and artistic director of the Denman Theatre & Dance Co. “It was one of the first recordings that I bought as a kid.”
Indeed, that element of nostalgia will help the new production because it is missing one element the older production had: surprise. Theater historian Jennifer Tepper said the original show existed in an era before social media, which allowed it to keep the set, especially, under wraps.
“The original cast in the early ’80s was this huge hit in London that everyone really eagerly anticipated in New York. It was a big deal that no one knew what it really looked like,” Tepper said. “It had an element of mystery ... this production is more nostalgia.”
As the stars lined up for opening night on Sunday, people posed with their hands shaped like claws and younger guests got their faces painted.
“I hope it’s theater magic,” Lloyd Webber said before the show.
Broadway star Laura Osnes said she had a lot of friends in the cast and crew of the performance. Osnes said she grew up with the show, and watched parts of the filmed version recently to brush up for Sunday.
“I was still mouthing along to all the words. They stuck all these years later,” she said. “I think it’s going to be a really special Jellicle night.”
Washington Heights resident Connor Russell, 26, recalled watching the video of the show “over and over again” while getting ready for school.
“It’s something close to my heart. I think it’s such a fun show,” said Russell, who grew up to be a Broadway actor — though not in “Cats.” “I enjoy the whimsy that the show presents. The show is not based in any reality we live in.”
Tepper said that while the show isn’t the only musical geared toward tourists and families anymore, it revolutionized the theater scene by appealing to those groups.
“You could understand or at least enjoy ‘Cats’ even if you didn’t understand English. Tons of foreign tourists flocked to it,” she said. “It’s a wonderful show with amazing dancing, but it really doesn’t take a lot of comprehension. It started gaining momentum as this phenomenon, and then it became a foreign phenomenon.”
Pam Nurrenbern, 58, headed to see a recent preview show while she was visiting the city from Louisville, Kentucky.
“When I noticed it was going to be here, I said I had to go,” Nurrenbern said. “I saw it with my mom and my son 20 years ago. I’ll probably tear up a little bit.”
The fact that the famed musical is making its comeback isn’t surprising to Denman, who recalled the show’s closing night back in 2000, and a speech by the show’s composer.
“I’m actually shocked that it didn’t come back sooner because he had every intention of bringing the show back and he should,” Denman said of Lloyd Webber. “I believe it’s a beautiful show.”