Today was Midori no Hi ‘Green Day’ in Japan, the first of a series of holidays that constitute Golden Week, a national spring vacation. In the spirit of the day, Ruth and I spent some time working on our guerrilla garden. Then, after lunch, we decided to take a long walk and wind up at the Pompei exhibit (frescos, sculpture, and furniture from the city buried by Mt. Vesuvius) now open at the Yokohama Art Museum. Our route took us past the theater where the musical Cats is playing. I had seen it once before, over twenty years ago, in German, on a business trip to Hamburg. I asked Ruth if she’d like to see it. We checked and managed to get two of the last available tickets to the 5:30 p.m. show (Saturday and Sunday were both sold out). So we saw the Pompei exhibit, then went back for the show. It was, as I had remembered it, spectacular. The singing, the dancing, the costumes and the staging were all superb. But Cats is not only a spectacle. It was also deeply moving, and looking around me at the almost entirely Japanese audience, I could see that I wasn’t the only one moved.
So now I m home, and the anthropologist in me is wondering, how did this happen? How did this musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, based on T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats become so popular that since its first production in 1981, it has been translated into twenty languages, and continues to be performed in the year 2010 to full houses in Yokohama, Japan? Sometimes we anthropologists talk about different cultures as if they were literally different worlds and wonder how worlds so different can ever communicate with each other. But here is a cultural performance that appears to strike common chords and affect audiences widely separated in time, space, and culture in much the same way. What does this tell us about our common humanity?