This song was cut from the ubiquitous video version of CATS, leaving it slightly more obscure among the younger generation of fans whose exposure to the show was largely limited to that video. The most obvious reason for this is that this number is presented as a flashback to Gus the Theater Cat’s glory years, and it is traditional for the actor playing Gus to play this role as well. In the video, they had famed British actor John Mills playing Gus for the sake of the obvious real-world parallels, and obviously Mills could never have pulled off such an athletic and vocally demanding part as Growltiger at his age. Other factors might have been that it is the only number in the show that requires an extra set beyond the junkyard background that serves in the rest of the show, or that it comes across as rather politically incorrect to a modern audience. The Siamese Cats are portrayed fairly respectfully from a character perspective, given that they are essentially the heroes of the story, but there is a lot of stereotypical language used in connection to them…at one point the word ‘chink’ is even uttered, although truthfully it wouldn’t be all that hard to neutralize this problem with some slight rewrites (if “It Depends on What You Pay” from The Fantasticks can be salvaged, surely this song can too). In any case, its deletion from the video is a real shame, because it really is one of the highlights of the show’s already marvelous score. The poem it is based on goes through several extreme changes in mood while sticking to one very simple meter throughout, making it inherently difficult to turn into a song, but Webber was up to the challenge. He managed to create a dark, stormy sea chanty, an exquisite lyrical ballad, an eerie Eastern-inflected theme for the Siamese, a Puccini-esque opera spoof, and a glowering march for the finale out of the same simple repeating melody. This was, of course, something that Webber had to do throughout CATS, since the T.S. Eliot children’s poems he was working with generally featured simple, repetitive meters, but nowhere is it more impressive than in this elaborate narrative set piece. In the original London production, the song also included an interpolated setting of another Eliot poem, “The Ballad of Billy McCaw”, and while this song has disappeared from future productions (it was replaced with the aforementioned opera parody), it is as exquisite as the rest of the sequence, and deserves to be better known among the show’s fans. This sequence as a whole constitutes one of Webber’s greatest achievements, and an impressive testament to his skill both as a melodist and a musical dramatist, and despite its relative obscurity, it stands as one of the show’s most magnificent moments.
Leave a Reply