What is it about Cats (the musical, that is)

by johnmccreery

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?

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3 Comments to “What is it about Cats (the musical, that is)”

  1. It’s an interesting question. I’ve never been much of a show guy, and I haven’t seen “Cats.” I wonder what that tells us about my relationship to our common humanity…. In part, the issue is that I don’t enjoy feeling manipulated into those feelings, but I understand that lots of folks do and even actively seek it out.

  2. I mean, obviously we’re talking about collective effervescence in Durkheim’s sense. And as he says, it’s a moment when we transcend our mere individuality and connect to a feeling of being part of something bigger than ourselves. Which can be awesome, and may be the only way to live a life you could describe as awesome. The problem for me is that once you connect with that emotional transcendence it demands that you turn off your self-reflexive critical faculties and make a commitment to a group. And once that happens there’s no clear way to distinguish between sports fandom, nationalism, theatrical catharsis and Nazi rallies.

    I realize that in practice getting weepy or frightened or jacked up by a piece of popular culture can be bracketed pretty easily from the more substantive sections of our being in the world; in fact part of how those performances work is by creating their own imaginative localizations that don’t demand any kind of carryover into ‘real life’. But then isn’t that a point here? That a great show is great because it effectively creates its own little world, which is what enables it to cross cultural borders?

  3. To me, “Durkheimian effervescence” is weak concept. It evokes things like the madness of crowds and provides no handle on the differences between mob excitement and highly structured events like complex rituals and theater. Here is my reply to Philip Swift, who on OAC suggested that music is more cross-culturally portable than other elements of culture, making musical theater easier to transport around the world than non-musical forms of theater. I might have raised an eyebrow and said, “Shakespeare?” but this is what I wrote,

    While there may be something to the notion that music is more culturally portable than more language-and-culture-bound theater, I don’t think that’s the whole story here. The basic plot device of Cats turns on the figure of Grizabella, a shabby, aging, female cat who is rejected by the other cats during the first act but accepted and taken up to heaven at the end of the second act. In the production we saw yesterday, she is costumed in a way that makes her look like one of the homeless who haunt Japanese railway stations. That she also has the most powerful and operatic voice of all the cats and gets to sing “Memory,” the most memorable song in the show, sets up a dramatic conflict rooted in what seems to me a universal theme: the outsider at first rejected and then accepted by a group when something divine is detected in her. This theme may have a particular resonance in Japan, where exclusion from the group is treated as a particularly terrifying form of punishment.

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