“The beautiful is as useful as the useful." He added after a moment’s silence, "Perhaps more so.”
If you've hung around theatre fans, then at some point, you'll have approached the topic of what I like to call “punchline shows.” A punchline show is one you'll hear be the butt of a joke, a joke that's often accompanied by a sneer and a condescending attitude that says, “How did this sad excuse for a 'musical' ever make it to Broadway?” In the theatre community, there is often a common, silently agreed-upon list of such shows, many of which tend to be musicals that, for one reason or another, seem to have a silly premise or shallow story that doesn't particularly leave audiences rethinking their worldviews or reconsidering the way they approach life. In short, if a musical is considered “mindless fluff,” then it's deemed worthy of ridicule.
One such musical is one you've surely heard plenty about. How many times have you heard a snide remark made about “dancing cats in tights”? How many parodies of “Memory” have you listened to? How many clever jabs at Andrew Lloyd Webber have included the fact that his feline-focused, smash hit of a musical doesn't actually have a plot?
“There's no real story!” people will snicker. “Nothing really happens in this show! There's nothing to get! There's no substance!”
Yes, it's true. Cats, in all its joyful, bouncy messiness and pure, 80's cheese, doesn't have a conventional plot. It's goofy. It's primarily two and a half hours of talented dancers spinning and prancing around onstage in little kitty ears and Hot Gossip-inspired leg warmers. There isn't really anything of “substance” to be found within the text. But I have to ask: Isn't that the point?
The thing about Cats is that people often mistakenly assume this show is claiming to be more than it is. Many theatre fans who come out sneering will bemoan the fact that there isn't much that makes you think in the material. There really isn't much going on other than “dancing cats on a stage,” and for some reason, that makes people upset. I mean, what exactly did you expect when you went to see a show called Cats? Was there anything in the advertising that led you to believe this show was a hallmark of tackling societal ills? Did the production photos of leaping cat-people promise a game-changer in one's journey of self-discovery? If I may be so bold, there is nothing that Cats promises ahead of time besides exactly what audiences receive when they see the show. All the production photos, all the clips on the Internet, all the bouncy music found on the cast recordings showcase a fun, romping good time with the Jellicle Cats, and this show only assures you that you'll hopefully leave the theatre happy, grinning from ear to ear as you reminisce over the strange yet endearing world of the whiskered characters who welcomed you to escape from the stressful reality of life.
And you know what? Sometimes, when I go to the theatre, all I'm looking for is a fun escape. Sometimes, when I go to the theatre, what I'm craving is a pleasurable piece of fluff that doesn't force me to think. It's relaxing. It's a break from life. It's good for my mental health. It makes me happy when I just need harmless silliness to brighten my mood.
However, that's not to say shows that don't offer an escapist experience aren't welcome. There is always a place in theatre for deep, difficult stories that encourage you to embrace unique, marginalized, and alienated aspects of society. In today's world, we need shows like Fun Home to discuss sexuality, or Hamilton to force us to consider race in regards to our country's history, or Next to Normal to tackle issues surrounding mental illness and coping with a devastating loss. These kinds of shows are absolutely crucial and, ultimately, healthy for the growth and nurturing of our ever-evolving society.
But I also think shows like Cats deserve to have a place, too, and I mean a place without scathing ridicule. Everyone hits their fuse at some point, and everyone needs a break every once in a while. After all, constant work and never-ending emotional labor will take their toll on one's physical and mental wellbeing if one is never given a chance to rest and recover. Where Dear Evan Hansen addresses the tragedies of suicide and depression and forces audiences to think hard about these issues, Cats presents the friendly conflict of cats taking part in an annual competition to be chosen for Kitty Heaven. Dear Evan Hansen is wonderful in its goal to reach audiences with its central themes, but what about audience members who have lived through suicide and mental illness and don't want to sit through a lengthy reminder of these issues? There are plenty of theatregoers who wish to treat their tickets as a way to immerse themselves in positivity, and I think the theatre fan who chooses to cope with depression by finding joy in a shamelessly goofy competition between talented felines is just as valid as the theatre fan who chooses to cope with depression by embracing this theme in a heavy narrative about suicide.
Please don't misunderstand; I'm not demanding that everyone like Cats. Not every show will be enjoyed by everyone, and differing opinions in the community are what we're trying to encourage with this site and what allow conversations to flourish. However, what I am requesting is that we let go of the idea that Cats and other musicals like it are “undeserving” of their place in the theatre canon and have no business being on Broadway. Shows that are openly unapologetic in their lack of “depth” or “substance” often offer an outlet for audiences to give their minds a chance to relax and heal under the blissful numbness of a catchy score and ridiculous premise. Not every musical needs to Make A Statement, and not every musical needs to be a thought-provoking masterwork.
Let your fellow fans have their escapist theatre. If Rum Tum Tugger's rubbery tights and blooming mane are what plant a smile on a friend's face, then who are we to deny them of that joy?
(Photo by Richard Termine)