The holidays have oddly aligned this year. Today it’s Hanukkah, tomorrow is Christmas Eve/Mom’s Birthday, Wednesday it’s Christmas, and we (pun intended) wrap it all up on Thursday with Boxing Day/Kwanzaa. And let’s not forget that Saturday was the winter solstice, containing the longest night of the year, followed yesterday by a festival marking the return of the sun (and the long, slow ebbing of Brad’s Seasonal Affective Disorder.)
I hope that whatever you celebrate on each of these days, it turns out to be the sort of celebration you want to have: a house crammed with relations or a cozy dinner a deux, pulling crackers before tucking into the roast yak and figgy pudding or sharing popcorn at the movies after a nice Chinese dinner.
Oh, and I have a gift for us all. I’m not going to see Cats.
Sonny and me.
This will prove disappointing to some, but not to me. My friend Matt posted on Facebook, “I want to watch you watching it.” But you see, I know exactly what will happen if I go, and I choose to avoid it.
I hate Cats, almost as much as I love cats. I saw the musical in New York when it first came out. I paid a lot of money for that ticket because as I was standing at the box office of the Winter Garden Theatre, trying to see if there was any slim pickings left for any performance during my week-long stay in the Big Apple, some dude came along and returned his orchestra seats for that evening’s performance. I bought one of that man’s tickets on the spot. I saw the show and he didn’t. Who, I ask you, was the lucky one?
Mimi (or “Mommy” or “Ma”)
The house in the Winter Garden had been set up so that there were wide aisles though the orchestra. This was because at certain points the cats -let me put the actors in italics so as not to confuse them with the delightful animal companion we all love – the cats would come out into the audience and sing. This occurred during an irritable number called, “The Naming of Cats:”
- The naming of cats is a difficult matter
- It isn’t just one of your holiday games
- You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter
- When I tell you a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES
This isn’t completely untrue. For example, I call Mimi “Mommy” or “Ma,” and I call Sonny “Buddy” or “Sonny Bear.” I call them other things, too, but I don’t call them “Rumpleteaser” or “Mungojerry.” These sound like bad 60’s pop singers. But I’m digressing.
On this particular evening, the actor playing Skimbleshanks, the Railway Cat made his way down the aisle to delight the audience with his presence during “The Naming of Cats.”
- When you notice a cat in profound meditation
- The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
- His mind is engaged in a rapt meditation
- Of the thought . . . of the thought . . . of the thought . . . of his name
Per direction, Skimbleshanks came to a stop at his prescribed point in the aisle, directly facing a young man slumped in his chair . . . . deeply . . . profoundly . . . asleep. When I woke with a start, I was staring into the heavily made-up, deeply disdainful face of Skimbleshanks. It may have been the most direct connection I have ever made with an actor onstage. I believe he actually sneered at me.
I believe I yawned back.
The late, great Beau, aka “Bodie,” “Boojie” and “Boo”
I’m not trying to convince you that Cats is bad. We all have our tastes. I have slept through a small, eclectic mix of shows. I slept through Stomp, which is basically two hours of drumming. I slept through The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940. I slept through In the Heights, which is a wonderful show, but it wasn’t my fault: that day I had been in a three-car collision and I was in shock. (My car wasn’t in great shape either.)
Oh, and I did fall asleep during a Neil Simon play called Jake’s Women: unfortunately, I was seated in the first row, in front of a part of the set representing a living room bar, and when I woke up, Alan Alda was glaring at me as he manipulated a cocktail shaker. To this day, I believe this is why I have never had a career in professional theatre. Alan Alda blackballed me.
Oh dear, did I digress again?
Sonny Bear, aka “Lover Boy” aka “Calm down, you scary cat!”
Tonight, I have been invited to join a group of theatre folks at a movie theatre to watch Cats. I believe that over seventy-five people have already joined. Most are theatre folk, and their claws will be sharpened to a fine point. Our hostess is a former student of mine, a supremely talented actress who once played Grizabella in Cats (“Memory”) to perfection, but who has the intelligence and razor-sharp wit to be prepared for what awaits her at the Daly City Cinemark tonight. I know what will happen, too, and I’m not going. You see, a few years ago, I went with a large group of friends to see the film adaptation of Les Miserables.
My relationship to that musical is different from Cats. In 1985-86, my baby brother was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to attend a prestigious London theatre school for a year. I made my first trip to England to visit him over the winter holiday, and of course, I wanted to take in as much theatre as I could.
I couldn’t have chosen worse shows if I had tried. I saw Guys and Dolls, starring the one and only Lulu (“To Sir, With Love”) – except Lulu was out that night and the show was abysmal. I saw Andrew Lloyd Webber’s latest “hit” Starlight Express with skaters representing trains who raced on a track in a full circle around the theatre; I ended up with a horrible crick in my neck, which at least prevented me from falling asleep to such lyrics as
- “Starlight Express
- Starlight Express
- Are you real? Yes or no
- Starlight Express
- Answer me yes
- I don’t want you to go.”
I saw The Mousetrap, but there were eight other people in the audience and it was . . . dull. I complained to my brother: “I thought London theatre was good!” He sighed and said: “I saw this musical, and I think you’ll like it. I bought us tickets. It’s based on a novel by Victor Hugo.” Oh, really?
The London production of Les Miz was fabulous. Colm Wilkinson, Patti Lupone, Frances Ruffelle, the whole megillah. Beautifully staged, and in my dim memory we had fabulous seats. When I saw the show again in America a few years later, I was less entranced, but there is plenty to love about Les Miz, and I went to the movies with my friends with a heart full of love. And director Tom Hooper took my heart and stomped on it with all the fervor that I imagine the drummers in Stomp must have performed (except I was asleep when they did it.)
This is either Sonny or me during Cats.
That movie didn’t work for me, and I believe Russell Crowe owes me a personal apology for “Stars.” The most important lesson I got that evening, however, was that sometimes watching a train wreck with a group of dear friends isn’t as fun as you thought it would be. We all went out afterwards to discuss, and our opinions were mixed. Had we all hated it, we could have spent the evening trying to top each other with our insults, but some folks liked the movie. I can disparage someone for liking Donald Trump because he’s dangerous to our planet. But art is art: the response is deeply personal, and there’s no point in trying to tell someone that what they like isn’t good. Well, except for the people who like Cats . . .
I’ve seen different trailers for Cats and I’ve read snippets of reviews. All of this suggests to me that there is nothing for me there but a foundation to lay my snark on. And I’m starting to develop a new relationship to snark. I’ve always been good at it (“I want to watch you watching this . . . “) and now, on the verge of some big changes in my life, I think I want to move on and focus my energies on being good at other things. I want to be a better, more prolific writer. I want to be better at bridge. Most of all, I want to be better in the relationships in my life and, hopefully, forge some important new ones.
Thus, I ask myself on this first night of Hanukkah, why subject yourself to something you know you’re going to hate only so you can find amusing ways to express that hatred to other people? The last three years have been exhausting and full of hateful rhetoric by people who should know better. I’d rather not contribute to the toxic environment.
If the cats in Cats looked like this, then maybe . . .
And so, dear Cats, I’m letting you off the hook. But don’t stick around for too long: there are other, better movies that need the space.