by Kevin McDonnell
On September 10, the longest running show in Broadway history is scheduled to close. After 18 years and more than 7,397 performances, the departure of "Cats" will leave the Winter Garden Theater dark and the familiar, block-long billboard above Broadway blank. But more than just a show will be gone: The entire landscape of New York theater will have changed. Even though touring companies have performed the musical before 40 million people worldwide, "Cats" has become as much a part of New York as the Yankees, Nathan’s Famous or poor subway service. However much New Yorkers may like to pretend they’ve ignored it lo these many years, "Cats" has left an indelible mark on the city. If it ever was, "Cats" is no longer merely a play, it’s an event, like a trip to Great Adventure. More than 10 million people have seen "Cats" on Broadway—more people than presently live in all five boroughs. Many of them have seen "Cats" more than once: Call them repeat attenders. There are people, like Hector Montalvo, who have seen the show literally hundreds of times. There are people who see “Cats” in their hometowns and then rush to the Winter Garden to see the show again when they come to New York. Kids have their birthday parties at "Cats."
The reliance of "Cats" on spectacle and stage effect made it the ideal event for those who wanted an undemanding evening: They could enjoy the glitter, the music and the drama without worrying about following an elaborate storyline. Thus, late-marrying, late-spawning boomers who wanted to include their kids in the Broadway experience found in "Cats" the perfect multigenerational bonding experience.
Then why is the show closing? Now, 15 years later,the boomers' offspring have grown up and are consumers in their own right—consumers more daring in their popular-culture choices and less intimidated by the newly domesticated New York. Indoctrinated by "Cats" when they were children, they're now Broadway’s target audience, in the crosshairs of focus groups who report that more of them are going to the theater in New York than ever before. But they aren't boomers, and they want a riskier Broadway experience. Accordingly, where theaters once relied on blockbuster Hollywood names splashed across marquees to lure in the crowds, the newer, "edgier" ticketbuyer is drawn to indie staples like William Macy, Parker Posey, Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly.
Indeed, things are getting downright saucy on Broadway. "We're seeing the beginnings of a trend toward more adult, less family-oriented entertainment," comments Jed Bernstein, president of the League of American Theaters and Producers. Nudity and sex abound on Broadway: This season, there's been not one but two stagings of "The Wild Party," both featuring nudity, debauchery and urination on the stage (with sound effects). Even long-running successful revivals—"Cabaret", "Chicago", "Fosse"—are darkly stylish, cynical and very, very sexy.
But while there may no longer be room for "Cats" on this new, hip, depraved Broadway, ironically, "Cats" seems to have bred a litter of new sexed-up, youth-oriented musicals which bear a striking family resemblance to the mother of all smash successes.
Hoping to secure a little brand loyalty from fans who have outgrown "Beauty and the Beast," Disney has spent $15 million on Elton John and Tim Rice's "Aida," based on the Verdi opera and "cannily aimed at teenyboppers," according to Variety. But "Cats" had neither sex nor opera spicing it up: What did keep it going for 18 years—and will another show ever manage to match it?
What set "Cats" apart from other shows, according to George Wachtel, president of Audience Research & Analysis, is, anticlimactically, its "unusual appeal to international audiences." A show like "Cats" isn't hampered by any language barrier. Because of the non-narrative format and the relative unimportance of the text that also made it a hit with kids, Wachtel says 50% of "Cats"' audience are visitors from outside the country, as opposed to a mere 12% percent at other shows. The lure is the spectacle and, claims Wachtel, the show's self-perpetuating fame itself. On the new Broadway, that fame ensures that when a show reaches the 1,000-performance benchmark, its status as iconic production is almost certain. It's an old equation, but one that "Cats" perfected: Nothing succeeds like success.
And, until September 10, who’s to say that "Cats" will even really close? The Sunday after the closing was announced, box office receipts totalled $380,000, up from the usual $20,000, just going to prove that everything looks better at closing time. In a city of perennial "going out of business" sales, rumors abound that the show will eke out yet another life—it's already been extended once from the original June 25 closing date.
But if it does close, then what? Broadway will go on. The Shubert Organization, which owns the Winter Garden, says that the theater will be closed for several months before another show moves in, which is good news for the carpenters and electricians who'll be restoring the theater to its pre-"Cats" look—if anyone can remember what that is. Ex-cats can return to temping or take a much-needed rest.
Life without "Cats" will be harder for some than for others. Donald from United City Ice, the company that’s been providing fog-making dry ice for "Cats" since it opened, will feel the show's closing as "an emotional loss." A teenage girl who's been to the musical eight times already in her young life remarks that "seeing it close is really upsetting." And a tearful Montalvo, who's famously seen the show almost 700 times, says that he "was devastated" when he heard the news. But hardcore fans can take heart: If they can’t get to London, where the show is still being performed, they can visit the Smithsonian Institute, which has expressed an interest in acquiring "Cats" memorabilia. As for the rest of us, well, "Cats" is dead: Long live "The Lion King"!
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