May 12: Let the memory live again…

Mark ShentonInclude in homepage slide?, Thought of the dayLeave a Comment

But should other shows be reappraised or even cancelled?

There’s hardly a more insistent ear worm of a song in all of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ear-wormy repertoire than Memory, the breakout hit of his 1981 musical Cats, which last night celebrated the 40th anniversary of its premiere at the then-New London Theatre (now itself renamed for Gillian Lynne, the choreographer whose work on the show ignited a revolution in global musical theatre, and accidentally created the West End’s first authentic dance-based musical).

Memory, all alone in the moonlight
I can dream of the old days
Life was beautiful then
I remember the time I knew what happiness was
Let the memory live again

Every street lamp seems to beat
A fatalistic warning
Someone mutters and the street lamp sputters
And soon it will be morning

Daylight, I must wait for the sunrise
I must think of a new life
And I mustn’t give in
When the dawn comes, tonight will be a memory too
And a new day will begin

It’s a strange, sad song in a frequently strange — as in surreal — musical that is otherwise anything but sad.

In it, its character Grizabella — the Glamour Cat, now fallen on hard times — recalls better days and yearns for her spiritual re-birth, which provides the denouement of the show, when she ascends to the “heaviside layer” (aboard a giant tyre on hydraulics that lift her skywards).

I said it was surreal. Explain this ‘plot’ to someone and they’ll think you’re batshit crazy. But somehow in the theatre it all made perfect sense: we surrendered ourselves to this mysterious, mystical world of prancing felines, represented in variously augmented and accessorised dance leotards, who all had names that sounded like an early version of adjectives the Spice Girls used to differentiate themselves with: there’s Macavity, the Mystery Cat; Gus, the Theatre Cat; Victoria, the White Cat; Jennyanydots, the Gumbo Cat, as well as Grizabella, the Glamour Cat.

Critics have forever tried to grapple with its darker mysteries. When it was last revived on Broadway in 2016, Jesse Green (then theatre critic for New York magazine’s Vulture, who has since ascended to his own Heaviside layer as chief theatre critic of the New York Times) wrote of “Memory” and how it has had such a large life outside of the show, from Streisand to Manilow and all points in-between:

“It was eminently extractable, having almost no function except to bind the silliness of the rest of the show with a glob of Puccini-esque pathos, is probably why it became one of the last theatre songs to cross over to pop success until Hamilton recently reopened the bridge. But unlike songs from Hamilton, it didn’t need you to understand English. Nor did the show as a whole; in fact, it probably helped if you didn’t.

The secret to Cats, for all its exalted lineage, lay in its suppressed, lowbrow hysteria. It anticipated and exemplified the vapid, overstated American Idol emotive style that would soon become dominant both on stage and off. Early Grizabellas such as Elaine Paige, Betty Buckley, and Laurie Beechman – all theatre creatures – were able to tame the loud, rangy bombast, making it seem both intimate and anthemic and thus providing the show with the suggestion of a heart. Unfortunately, in this production, the season-three The X Factor winner Leona Lewis brings to the underwritten role only a few unsubtle top notes, which she offers ritually, as if they were dead mice.”

Another review of that revival in Time Out New York by David Cote (now of the New York Observer) was keen to put his own hipper credentials on the line:

“My gateway show was not Cats – nor was it Les Mis or Phantom. I grew up, like any self-respecting theatre snob, disdaining such tourist trash from afar. Lacking youthful nostalgia for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s synth-heavy score and the trademark image of actors writhing about in leg warmers, hissing through face paint, I’ve now seen the real thing live and up close. It blew my mind a little – like experiencing someone else’s deja vu. Mainly I’m shocked that this ran from Reagan to Clinton. Most 12-year-olds have terrible taste; you can’t blame them, they’re only kids. They probably didn’t say to themselves: ‘This show is amazing, but is it any good?’”

I realise that this is much like my generation — a little older than David — feels when it is watching Hair, the 60s counter-revolutionary hippy musical. It doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense, either; but like Cats, you’d do best to just surrender and surf its wild, trippy excesses.

And that’s probably why I didn’t hate the 2019 Tom Hooper film version of Cats as much as others did. I already knew it was crazy; I didn’t EXPECT realism. But Hooper’s strange attempt to impose some kind of reality by CGI’s the live actors with cats-like characteristics, actively undermined it. Especially when that CGI was apparently rushed, and errors appeared on its first release, like revealing Judi Dench’s human hand complete with her wedding ring, that led to the unprecedented step of the studio issuing an updated Digital Cinema package with “some improved visual effects”, urging cinemas to replace the current print as soon as possible.

Of course it’s a show that’s easy to mock: my favourite in this genre of withering disapproval comes from John Guare’s 1990 Broadway hit Six Degrees of Separation, in which a couple of cultured New Yorkers discuss the show, and the wife tells her husband:

You said it was an all-time low in a lifetime of theatregoing. You said Aeschylus did not invent theatre to have it end up a bunch of chorus kids wondering which of them will go to kitty-cat heaven.”

But its a show that’s easier to enjoy, bathed in the irresistible glow of Lloyd Webber’s tuneful score, the visual spectacle of John Napier’s immersive sets (complete in London with the front part of the audience seated on a revolving turntable, so we moved as the stage did — a trick which is seems Lloyd Webber and his production team are going to reprise for Cinderella when it opens at the same theatre in July), and especially the physicality of Gillian Lynne’s exhilarating choreography, modelled partly on the actual movements of cats themselves.

And it ushered in the British invasion of Broadway during the 80s and early 90s that led to more Nunn directed, Napier designed Lloyd Webber shows like Starlight Express, Aspects of Love and Sunset Boulevard (all also scored by Lloyd Webber), plus the Hal Prince directed The Phantom of the Opera; then there was Les Miserables (co-directed by Nunn with John Caird and scored by Boublil/Schonberg) and Miss Saigon (again scored by Boublil/Schonberg, but this time directed by Nick Hytner).

As Jesse Green concluded his review of the 2016 revival of Cats, “To be fair, Cats is not quite as bad as cultural elites liked to suggest; there were far worse shows during its 18-year run.” But it did, he also said, do lasting damage to Broadway:

“This was, after all, the mega-hit that opened the door for the invasion of European pop operas that all but smothered the native product for two decades. Seeing it 34 years later, in a Broadway environment that has recently produced the likes of Hamilton and Fun Home, is to experience something milder and less dangerous than it once seemed.”

What was once radical and experimental had quickly become absorbed and assimilated into the mainstream. And the same is true today: even shows as recent and apparently radical at the time as The Book of Mormon (2011) and Hamilton (2015) are already being re-examined. In March, Baz Bamigboye reported in the Daily Mail that,

The creators of blockbuster musical The Book Of Mormon have agreed to go over the show with key actors to discuss points of unease — and possibly make adjustments — after black cast members wrote a private letter expressing concerns.

Twenty actors from the original and current Broadway cast signed their names to the letter, sent in the wake of protests over the killing of George Floyd, to the show’s devisers, including Matt Stone and Trey Parker (the brains behind South Park) and Robert Lopez (who co-wrote the songs for Frozen and Avenue Q).

They said America was being forced to evaluate ‘the systemic racism and racial inequality’ in every industry — and theatre was no exception.”

A workshop is being planned to look at planning and integrating changes. But as Robert Lopez, co-writer of the show with Matt Stone and Trey Parker, told Bamigboye: “What’s great about Matt and Trey is they’d rather close the show than make it feel PC and not funny.” And then he quickly corrected himself: “No one wants to close. We want to make it better.”

But actually, I personally think that if that’s what the times are demanding, then perhaps it is time to just let it go. The actors will be out of a job, of course, but perhaps they can seek other employment that better aligns with their values in the future. The creative team, producers (including the now disgraced Scott Rudin) and their investors have already made their tidy fortunes from the show; so why not just close it, and make way for newer shows?

Hamilton is even more interesting: it’s barely six years old, but is already being radically reassessed. Originally held up as an example of inclusive storytelling, doubts are now being expressed about just whose story it is telling. Thanks to the screening of its original Broadway cast on Disney Plus has brought it to an even wider public than ever before — who may have been excluded from seeing it both by the paucity of the availability of tickets and also by the extreme pricing of those tickets if you could actually get them — it has become a wider talking point than just one about musicals, but about who it is celebrating — and who is playing those roles, too, that can be subtly seen as an endorsement of them.

As a piece on Oprah Daily put it last July,

“Reaching a wider audience also brought a deluge of criticism amid the praise—including concerns about how the work lionized the United States’ slave-owning founding fathers and didn’t accurately portray history.”

Its creator Lin-Manuel Miranda even acknowledged some of the problematic concerns on Twitter:

And on Oprah Daily, even the show’s most revolutionary act — having a truly integrated cast — was directly interrogated.

“The fact the majority of the cast are people of color playing figures who were white in real life has been subject to debate as well—and not just by those claiming the productions’ casting call for non-white actors is ‘reverse racism’.

Basically what the supposedly colour-blind casting does, is it gives Hamilton, the show, the ability to say, ‘Oh, we’re not just telling old, white history,'” historian Lyra Monteiro said in a 2016 Slate interview. “‘This isn’t your stuffy old-school history that’s just praising white people. Look, we’ve got people of colour in the cast. This is everybody’s story.’ Which, it isn’t. It’s still white history. And no amount of casting people of colour disguises the fact that they’re erasing people of colour from the actual narrative.”

And then, as ever, the times they are a-changin’. As the piece notes,

“A lot has happened since the musical was first created and staged—aka, the years before the 2016 election. And in a time when non-Black people are being encouraged to consider our own roles in upholding structural racism, Miranda does seem to be trying to do that himself: On May 31 (2020), he apologized for not denouncing white supremacy and supporting the Black Lives Matter movement on the official Hamilton social media platforms earlier.”

In a Twitter video, he said,

As the writer of this show, I take responsibility and apologize for my part in this moral failure. I’m sorry for not pushing harder and faster for us to speak these self-evident truths under the Hamilton banner which has come to mean so much to so many of you. Hamilton doesn’t exist without the black and brown artists who created and revolutionized and changed the world through the culture, music and language of hip-hop, Literally, the idea of the show doesn’t exist without the brilliant black and brown artists in our cast, crew and production team who breathe life into this story every time it’s performed. While we live in a country where black people are under attack from emboldened white supremacy, police brutality and centuries of systemic anti-black racism, it is up to us in words and deeds to stand up for our fellow citizens, its up to us to do the work to be better allies and have each other’s backs.”

So now Hamilton is itself in danger of being cancelled. Just as it appears that The Book of Mormon could (and maybe should) be. But what would replace them now? The fact that these two shows have even provoked conversations like this is surely a testament to their influence and importance, power and point. There are no easy answers; but at least we’re no longer wasting hours wondering which of a bunch of chorus kids “will go to kitty-cat heaven.” That’s surely progress.