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Letting the Memory Live Again- How CATS Became a Phenomenon

The marquee in front of the Neil Simon Theatre encourages passersby to "let the memory live again." It's been almost thirty-four years since Grizabella, Mistoffelees and Rum Tum Tugger first bowed on Broadway, and now in 2016, the jellicles are back with a vengence. The impact that the show has had on audiences has been famously polarizing, and yet few other musicals in Broadway history have achieved greater success and notoriety than Cats.

In celebration of the show's return tonight, and in the spirit of the revival's slogan, let's rewind to a simpler time- before felines took over the Great White Way...

Here are the facts:

Cats began performances on September 23, 1982 at the Winter Garden Theatre, where it took residence through September 10, 2000. The show's eighteen year/7485 performance run spanned the terms of three US presidents, saw the release of seven Madonna albums, twenty-nine Tom Hanks films, and lasted longer than World War I, World War II, and the American Civil War combined.

From 1997 through 2006, Cats held the title of 'longest-running show in Broadway history,' but has since been surpassed by The Lion King (3), Chicago (2), and another Andrew Lloyd Webber hit, The Phantom of the Opera (1). Two shows with the potential to catch up include Wicked and Jersey Boys, both of which are still thousands of performances away from doing so.

The original Broadway company featured a large ensemble cast, which included: Terrence Mann, Ken Page, Harry Groener and of course Betty Buckley, who would become forever linked to the Glamour Cat who catapulted her to Broadway superstardom. Elaine Paige originated the role when the show opened in London in 1981, but Grizabella was initially played by Judi Dench, who had to drop out of the production during rehearsals due to an injury. Other notable Broadway performers who later took on the role included: Laurie Beechman, Liz Callaway and LiLlias White. The production launched the careers of dozens Broadway gypsies over the years, while one cat, Marlene Danielle, performed in the Broadway production for its entire eighteen-year run.

When the 1983 Tony Awards came around, the show's main musical competition was Blues in the Night, Merlin, and My One and Only. Cats was nominated for eleven awards, winning in seven categories for Best Musical, Direction, Costume Design, Lighting Design, Original Score, Book, and Featured Actress for Buckley.

The show's success is undeniable, but an important question remains- how did a musical based on T.S. Eliot's nonsensical poems gain such momentum in the first place? The short answer: there is no short answer.

The show received only lukewarm reviews from Broadway critics. Douglas Watt wrote in the New York Daily News: ""Cats" is as showy a show as one could wish for, and it is already eagerly sought after by a musical-hungry public. Yet the feeling is inescapable that it is an overblown piece of theater."

The New York Times' Frank Rich wrote in 1982: "It's a musical that transports the audience into a complete fantasy world that could only exist in the theater and yet, these days, only rarely does. Whatever the other failings and excesses, even banalities, of ''Cats,'' it believes in purely theatrical magic, and on that faith it unquestionably delivers."

Variety's Richard Hummler prophetically wrote: "It's certainly possible to cavail that too much has been made of Eliot's low-key book of light poetry, that "Cats" is closer to arena spectacle than a legit musical. The public won't think so, however, and will relish its size, scope and vitality. There may be an adventurous film in it, certainly a cable tv production, and a scaled down version can tour. Everyone is going to be considerably older before "Cats" scats from the Winter Garden."

Word-of-mouth seemed to prevail in the case of Cats. By the time the show opened on Broadway in the fall of 1982, it was already a year and a half into a successful run in London's West End. The Broadway box office had raked in over $6.2 million well before opening night- the largest advance sale in Broadway history at the time.

Despite the fact that American audiences were still an ocean away from Cats, most knew the show's most famous tune before it even opened on Broadway. Barbra Streisand released a cover of "Memory" in her 1981 Memories album. By 1982, it was also recorded by Johnny Mathis, Judy Collins and Barry Manilow (a version that eventually reached #39 on the Billboard Hot 100).

In October of 1982, Geffen Records' David Geffen told the New York Times: ''There's no question that a song that's on the radio has a tremendous impact in selling the show and increasing people's awareness. The American cast album won't be out until the end of the year, but we already have advance orders for 70,000 albums. I think the sale of the records has helped tremendously in promoting the show, because the records are heard by so many people.''

A masterful marketing campaign and press strategy also helped Cats. Months before the musical opened, the Winter Garden's mammoth marquee was simply painted with the show's now famous pair of yellow eyes. Much advance coverage was arranged in such publications as Esquire, Vogue and Life, along with airplane banners, a full-page ad in the New York Times, two pre-opening appearances on Good Morning America, and television and radio commercials that teased: ''Isn't the curiosity killing you?''

The success of Cats could be attributed to any of those things. Or perhaps more simply, a story about junkyard cats was what the world needed in 1982. Maybe the "fantasy world" described by Frank Rich was preferable to the realities of a time that is remembered by a Presidential assassination attempt, the HIV-AIDS epidemic, the Chicago Tylenol Poisonings, the Iran Hostage Crisis, and an economic recession.

Is 2016 the perfect time for a return of Cats? Only time will tell.

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From This Author Nicole Rosky