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‘Cats’: A last meow

Lloyd Webber tuner ends historic run in London

LONDON — In the end, “Cats” at the New London Theater had 8,950 lives.

That’s the total number of perfs racked up by the record-breaking musical behemoth, which called its quits May 11, the night of its 21st birthday, bringing a historic West End run to a rousing finish.

And if a cheering public was left wanting more, how much better it always is, producer Cameron Mackintosh said after the event, for people to think, “Why is the show coming off, rather than why is it going on — which is what they say about most shows.”

“People go, ‘Because it’s run a long time, it must be old-fashioned and just one of those things that people make jokes about,’ ” Mackintosh told Variety May 13. “But the reality is the show is still very fresh.”

The company certainly was up for the closing perf, even if “Cats” regulars — among them 72-year-old Bob Martin, who saw the show 795 times –probably could have cited superior inhabitants of virtually all the roles. (Chrissie Hammond’s quavery Grizabella, for instance, was no match for the ravaged if steely-voiced Glamour Cats I have seen before.)

But the occasion — which had touts peddling tickets for as much as £750 ($1,080) — was not about individual turns but the totality of a phenomenon that redefined the West End, proving a seeming contradiction in terms, a British dance musical, could find a global audience.

The closing show’s souvenir program billed itself as “the last night of the first life of ‘Cats’ ” and proffered various reasons for the tuner’s longevity against the odds. “In a mysterious way,” noted the show’s director, Trevor Nunn, “cats allow us more clearly to see ourselves.” The less grandiose explanation may simply be that “Cats” has always been unique: “I remember how the show was when it first came out,” Mackintosh says, “how remarkably different it was.”

While a mostly invited theater aud of 1,100 took one last look at designer John Napier’s somewhat faded environmental junkyard, a crowd of 5,000 gathered amid the drizzle in Covent Garden Piazza to watch a live video relay of the performance al fresco. Achieved at a cost approaching $90,000, the hookup with the New London marked a rare theatrical instance of the sort of feat traditionally left to the Royal Opera House.

Inside the theater, invitees nibbled cat-shaped biscuits with dip served out of Whiskas cans; pre-show and intermission libations included wine “mis en bouteille” courtesy one C. Mackintosh, according to the label.

Following a standing ovation in the first act for the Jellicle Ball number, the aud roared their way through a closing 20-minute curtain call that flooded the stage with nearly 200 onetime kittens, with original Old Deuteronomy Brian Blessed (now in “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”) reprising “The Ad-dressing of Cats” that ends the show. (“He sang in tune for once, which was good,” cracked Nicholas Allott, a director of Cameron Mackintosh Ltd.)

After the show, the Waldorf played host to some 1,250 partygoers, among them “Mamma Mia!” producer Judy Craymer, who was an assistant stage manager on “Cats” back in 1981, as well as Sharon Lee Hill (a onetime Mrs. Nunn), Finola Hughes and Ken Wells, just three “Cats” veterans who had flown in from various continents for the gala.

How will the “Cats” closing affect “Les Miserables” and “The Phantom of the Opera,” the prevailing British behemoths from the 1980s, now that “Starlight Express” and “Miss Saigon” also have gone? (Both “Les Miz” and “Phantom” continue to have advances around the £1 million mark, nearly a fifth the advance for Mackintosh’s newer “My Fair Lady” revival, which reopens May 20 with its new leads.)

Said the producer: “I think only time will tell; I’m sure people realize these shows don’t run forever.”