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The Curiosity of Cats

When the musical opened on Broadway, 25 years ago, few predicted its amazing success—or what it would mean for composer Andrew Lloyd Webber

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Even for Broadway, it was a grand opening—and a grander gamble. As audiences poured into the Winter Garden Theatre on the evening of October 7, 1982, for the American première of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats, they knew they were getting a first look at the hot new dance musical that had swept London. Many even knew that the show was opening to the largest advance sale in Broadway history—$6.2 million. For months, they had been bombarded by publicity, with a cat's-eye logo peering out enigmatically from T-shirts, watches and billboards. "Isn't the curiosity killing you?" asked the voice-over on a television commercial before the show opened. And the answer was yes.

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Still, they had no idea that the show they were about to see had already saved Lloyd Webber from financial peril and was about to transform him into the laird of a theatrical realm that, at its height, commanded stages from London to New York to Hamburg to Vienna to Tokyo. By the time Cats closed, on September 10, 2000, after 13 previews and 7,485 performances, the "megamusical" had been born and Andrew Lloyd Webber's domain had become the latter-day equivalent of the old British Empire, upon which the sun never set.

Twenty-five years later, the miracle of Cats continues to resound. On its propellant, Lloyd Webber became the first composer ever to have three shows running simultaneously in the West End and on Broadway, a feat he accomplished twice. Knighted in 1992, he was given an honorary life peerage five years later as the Right Honourable the Baron Lloyd-Webber of Sydmonton Court, his estate about 90 minutes west of London. In personal wealth, he has vastly eclipsed his boyhood idol, Richard Rodgers, with a fortune estimated at more than a billion dollars, homes in London and Sydmonton, a castle and horse farm in Ireland, an apartment in the Trump Tower in New York City and a villa in Majorca.

(A note about the hyphen: as a young man, Lloyd Webber's father, William, added the "Lloyd" to his name to distinguish himself from W. G. Webber, a rival organist at the Royal College of Music. And while the young Andrew occasionally hyphenated his name in correspondence, his baronial title is the only place it is hyphenated today, as British titular custom mandates a hyphen when there is a double surname.)

The day of the blockbuster megamusical—defined by Jessica Sternfeld in her excellent study, The Megamusical, to include such larger-than-life shows as Lloyd Webber's Cats, Starlight Express and The Phantom of the Opera; Boublil and Schönberg's Les Misérables and Miss Saigon; and Chess, by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus of ABBA, and Tim Rice—may at last be over, but Lloyd Webber's transmogrification from skinny, long-haired counterculture icon to well-fed and tonsured Tory peer personifies the triumph of the baby boomer as few other careers do.

But as the pussycats frolicked on that autumn evening in New York, most of this was still in the future. No one could have predicted that Cats, which had begun life very modestly as a song cycle performed in the composer's private theater in a converted chapel at Sydmonton, would prove to be the longest-running show in Broadway history (later surpassed by Phantom). Nor could anyone have foreseen that it would represent such a conflict between art and commerce—a Hobson's choice that has bedeviled Lloyd Webber ever since.

The show's fate was far from assured. A dance musical based on minor poems by T. S. Eliot? And what did the British know about Broadway-style dancing? That was America's preserve, lorded over by Gower Champion and Bob Fosse and Jerome Robbins. As for Lloyd Webber, he was best known as the other half of the Tim Rice partnership. They had had a hit record—and a Broadway flop—more than a decade earlier with Jesus Christ Superstar and a succès d'estime, under the steady hand of Hal Prince, with Evita, which also had started life as a rock album.

So the prospects for Cats were not great, as Lloyd Webber knew. "I can give you the objections, and they sound a convincing lot," he would recall. "Andrew Lloyd Webber without Robert Stigwood [the flamboyant impresario who had produced Superstar], without Tim Rice; working with a dead poet; with a whole load of songs about cats; asking us to believe that people dressed up as cats are going to work; working with Trevor Nunn from the Royal Shakespeare Company, who's never done a musical in his life; working in the New London, the theater with the worst track record in London; asking us to believe that 20 English people can do a dance show when England had never been able to put together any kind of fashionable dance entertainment before. It was just a recipe for disaster. But we knew in the rehearsal room that even if we lost everything, we'd attempted something that hadn't been done before."

In 1980, the year before Cats opened in London, Lloyd Webber had mortgaged his beloved Sydmonton Court for the second time (he had bought it with the fruits of the Superstar album's success) to raise nearly $175,000 for his own show. Cats' young producer, Cameron Mackintosh, needed $1.16 million to stage it, but no one with means wanted to back it. So Mackintosh advertised in the financial press, soliciting small investments—750 pounds (almost $1,750) was the minimum. In the end, 220 people put up money for the show, including a man who wagered his life's savings of just over $11,000. They all profited handsomely, Lloyd Webber most of all.

Going into the London tryouts, however, Cats lacked the crucial ingredient of all successful musicals: a hit song. Mackintosh needed it. Nunn, the director, demanded it for Grizabella, the bedraggled Mary Magdalene cat who achieves her apotheosis as she ascends to the Heaviside Layer at the show's climax. It was up to Lloyd Webber, the composer, to write, borrow or steal it—even if only from himself. Thus was born "Memory."

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