The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
48. Cats & A Chorus Line

Copyright 2001     Jason Manning     All Rights Reserved
Cats opens on Broadway, 1982

It opened in May 1981 and quickly became London's hottest ticket. Based on T.S. Eliot's Old Possum's Books of Practical Cats, a 1939 collection of fourteen poems written for children, Cats was a rousing transatlantic hit that epitomized fundamental changes occurring in live theater during the 1980s. Directed by Trevor Nunn of the Royal Shakespeare Company and composed by Broadway wunderkind Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cats was a 2-1/2 hour musical extravaganza that cost $4 million to mount when it came to Broadway's Winter Garden Theater, and featured feline characters like Grizabella, the washed-up glamor cat, a dipsy charmer named Old Gus, the theater cat, and Rum Tum Tugger, the cool cat of rock -- along with more than two dozen others:
Practical cats, dramatical cats,
Pragmatical cats, fanatical cats,
Oratorical cats, delphicorical cats,
Skeptical cats, dyspeptical cats,
who come together for an annual junkyard ball during which a deserving cat is selected to ascend to the Heaviside Layer and be born again. All song and dance -- scarcely a word of spoken dialogue was incorporated -- the play set a new record in advance sales ($6 million.) A Grizabella number, Memory, was already a hit single for Barbara Streisand. Cats would remain on Broadway through the decade.
As the Eighties opened, some pundits were predicting that rising costs and shrinking audiences would significantly impact Broadway. In 1982, the Great White Way saw box office receipts decline 13 percent from the previous year, while attendance dropped to four million, down about 23 percent. Of the 40-odd Broadway theaters, more and more were going "dark" -- without shows. It seemed that only multi-million-dollar musicals like Cats, A Chorus Line (playing on Broadway since 1975), Nine and Dreamgirls could draws crowds. Escalating costs were blamed in part on union rules which often forced productions to employ more crew members than were needed. Best Little Whorehouse in Texas required only six onstage musicians but had to pay for 25; producer Stevie Phillips estimated that non-performers were paid $1.6 million during the show's 4-1/2 year run. Print and television advertising was more expensive; theater rentals were typically $30,000 or more a week; and the insistence by most involved in a production -- from producer, author, choreographer, theater owner to star -- that they get a cut of the gross profits raised ticket prices to an average of $40. Dreamgirls cost $4.6 million when all was said and done, and such astronomical outlays meant investors were less likely to gamble on avant-garde plays, as they had in the past. This bottom-line mentality had everyone scrambling to find the next Broadway blockbuster.
There were some, though, who continued to take chances. In 1981 Nicholas Nickleby opened at the Plymouth Theater on Manhattan's West 45th Street, a presentation by the Royal Shakespeare Company that was 8-1/2 hours in length and cost theatergoers a whopping $100 a ticket. Nickleby featured 39 actors in 250 roles and was directed by Trevor Nunn. This historic phenomenon was taped for showing as a TV miniseries in 1983, and had been a smash hit in London, but there was concern that the play was too long and the ticket price too high for Nickleby to break even, since it cost $4.4 million to mount in New York. In the end, the entire run was sold out, with scalpers commanding $170 a ticket. Another ground-breaking Broadway production of the decade was La Cage aux Folles opening at the Palace Theater in August 1983. La Cage was the first successful gay musical. (1982's Torch Song Trilogy was the first gay play to make Broadway, and won the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for drama.) Based on a Jean Poiret farce that ran in Paris for most of the 1970s, La Cage was the story of Georges and Albin, middle-aged homosexual lovers whose relationship is threatened by the desire of Georges' son to marry the daughter of a strait-laced moralist. The play was a hit, as was the French feature film, which became the most successful foreign-language movie in the U.S., spawning a popular remake, The Birdcage, in the Nineties.
Still, conservatism reigned on Broadway during the 1980s. Nothing exemplified this more than a rash of musical revivals -- West Side Story, Camelot, Brigadoon, The Music Man, Porgy and Bess, Mame, Showboat, My Fair Lady and Fiddler on the Roof among them. The Pirates of Penzance came sailing onto Broadway from New York's prestigious Shakespeare Festival on the crest of great Gilbert and Sullivan tunes sung by the likes of Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt. One had to look elsewhere for innovative drama. Zelda Fichlander, founder of Washington D.C.'s nonprofit Arena Stage, claimed in 1984 that "American theater has been engaged in a revolution;" in 1983, over 400 such off-off Broadway venues put on 2,600 productions with 14 million tickets sold. (By comparison, new Broadway productions had declined from about 200 a year in the 1930s to only 20-30 a year.) Serious drama, like Glengarry Glen Ross and Children of a Lesser God, had to start in noncommercial theater and prove itself before graduating to Broadway. (Children, which opened at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, would go on to Broadway and win a Tony for best drama, along with numerous other awards.) According to Kyle Renick, artistic director of New York's WPA Theater in 1984, a production that cost $1 million to mount on Broadway would cost $425,000 off-Broadway and only $25,000 off-off-Broadway. One of the most influential venues for dramatic productions was the annual Humana Festival in Louisville, Kentucky, called "the greatest single source of important new American drama" by the Atlanta Journal and Constitution. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Crimes of the Heart was just one of several productions that debuted at the festival and went on to become national hits.
In fact, few and far between were the plays that actually originated on Broadway and succeeded there. One such was Agnes of God (1982), a religious mystery benefiting from a stellar cast that included Geraldine Page and Amanda Plummer. Star power was not always enough, however. When film director Robert Altman returned to the stage with a play called Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean with Cher as the headliner, the curtain came down for good after only a month's run. The presence of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton could not save a 1983 production of Noel Coward's Private Lives. On the other hand, Lauren Bacall wowed audiences and won critical acclaim in Woman of the Year.
By the mid-Eighties, Broadway's plight had, if anything, worsened. In 1984 only 28 productions opened on the Great White Way, and critics found little cheer about other than David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, called a modern counterpart to Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman -- which was also revived in '84 with Dustin Hoffman starring. Then there was Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing, featuring Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close. The Real Thing won a Tony for best drama while both of its leads won awards as well. By the following year the major performance categories for the annual Tony awards were actually reduced for lack of nominees. Even diehard optimists were conceding that Broadway was in poor health. No more evidence was needed than the absence of a single hit musical in 1985 -- though A Chorus Line, the story of dancers locked in fierce competition for parts in a musical,  was celebrating its tenth anniversary that year. (The film version, starring Michael Douglas, was released in 1985.) Broadway legend Harold Prince saw his $5 million production of Grind, starring Ben Vereen, die a quick death. After four straight opening-night flops, Prince quit Broadway and went to London, where his fortunes were restored after staging Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera. 1986 witnessed the fewest shows ever produced in the history of the New York stage, with only 26 productions during the season. Of these, six were successful.
Help was on the way. New life was breathed into Broadway with the coming of Les Miserables in 1987, which sold $11 million worth of tickets in advance -- the biggest advance sale in U.S. theatrical history up until that time. Meanwhile, Webber's Starlight Express opened at a cost of $8 million, making it the most expensive production ever on Broadway. Though panned by critics, it was showing a profit within six months. And January 1988 saw the arrival of Webber's The Phantom of the Opera, fresh from its spectacular run on the London stage, and breaking the advance sale record with a total of nearly $20 million in the till prior to opening night. Of course, Cats was still running; it would become the most profitable and longest-running Broadway show in history, finally closing in September 2000 after 7,485 performances.. Drama made a stunning comeback, as well. Originating at the Yale Repertory Theater, Fences won a Pulitzer Prize and proved to be the best drama of the year, due largely to the extraordinary performance of James Earl Jones. Broadway was declared fully recovered when 21 new productions opened in the last three months of 1989 -- the most for that period since 1982 -- led by the Tommy Tune-directed and -choreographed Grand Hotel, Tom Stoppard's ingenious Artist Descending a Staircase, and a hit revival of the musical Gypsy, with Tyne Daly in the role made famous by Ethel Merman, that of a mother who relentlessly pushes her daughters to stardom. The Great White Way had survived the Eighties, and entered the 1990s on a high note.

Andrew Lloyd Webber
Born in England on 22 March 1948, Webber began writing music at an early age. At Westminster he composed for the school's plays. In 1964 he won a scholarship and transferred to Oxford. The following year he met Tim Rice, and shortly thereafter dropped out of school to pursue a career in music in collaboration with Rice, a talented lyricist. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat was first performed by students at the Colet Court School in 1968. Jesus Christ Superstar followed, opening on Broadway in 1971 and running for 711 performances. In 1975 Webber and Rice wrote Evita, which ran for 1,568 performances on Broadway. But it was Cats that catapulted Webber into superstardom. In 1984 Webber divorced first wife Sarah Jane Hugill and married Sarah Brightman, who sang the female soprano part in Webber's Requiem. The hugely successful The Phantom of the Opera, starring Michael Crawford as the Phantom and Brightman as Christine, came next. Webber was knighted in 1992.

The cast of Cats


Time, 22 June 1981, 5 October 1981, 7 December 1981, 27 September 1982, 18 October 1982,  29 August 1983, 26 March 1984, 29 April 1985, 14 September 1987, 7 December 1987

U.S. News & World Report, 13 December 1982, 28 May 1984, 11 June 1984

Britannica Books of the Year, 1981-1990
(Chicago: Encyclopedia Brittanica, Inc., 1981-1990)