‘Cats’: 5 Ways the Smash Musical Changed Broadway

After conquering Broadway, “Hamilton” will now try its hand at taking over the world — with upcoming productions in Chicago (this fall), L.A., San Francisco and London (in 2017). As it expands, Broadway’s latest juggernaut can follow a trail blazed by “Cats.”

Back in New York after 15 years, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1982 musical has returned to a Broadway landscape that in many ways it helped created. The show not only launched the era of the British megamusical (“The Phantom of the Opera,” “Les Miserables”), it more importantly cemented the model of a globe-conquering smash hit — a model refined by the likes of “Phantom,” “Les Miz,” “The Lion King,” “Wicked” and now “Hamilton.” Here’s how it changed the game.

1. It prowled the globe — and became a New York City landmark at the same time.

Cats” wasn’t the first show with global ambitions — Broadway hits like “A Chorus Line” and “Evita” also branched out to other cities and countries. “I remember back in 1971, when Robert Stigwood was my manager, Robert sat me down and said, ‘We have to get “Jesus Christ Superstar” around the world now, and we have to do it quickly,’” recalled Lloyd Webber, days before the new “Cats” opened on Broadway. “He said, ‘People are going to pirate it, and there’s nothing we can really do, so we must get out own productions up.’”

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When “Superstar” went around the world in the 1970s, it wasn’t staged in replica productions — but Hal Prince’s production of “Evita,” which ran almost four years on Broadway, did. Lloyd Webber said he kept that idea in mind as he and Cameron Mackintosh set about producing “Cats,” first in London, then on Broadway, then everywhere else.

While all those replica stagings made their way around the world, in sit-down and touring productions, “Cats” became what was, at the time, the longest-running show on Broadway, with an 18-year lifespan that made the show a city landmark. All of that together lent “Cats” an unprecedented international profile, not only for global audiences in their home countries but for tourists visiting New York (or London) as well. These days, the same can be said for the longrunners that followed in its wake, from “Phantom” to “The Lion King” to “Wicked.”

2. You don’t have to be fluent in English to get it.

A major reason “Cats” works so well for international audiences: There’s no language barrier.  For theater purists, that’s part of what they hate about the show– in their view, it’s a dumbed-down spectacle about kitties. But whatever you think of it, this new production and its hardworking cast will remind you that “Cats” is, first and foremost, a dance musical, with only the barest of plots holding together a feline revue. Like a ballet or any other movement-centric performance, you don’t need English to get the gist.

“Cats” was one of the first shows to truly exploit the global potential of that. Other Broadway musicals — in particular, universal crowdpleaser “Mamma Mia!” — followed suit.

3. It embraced its family appeal.

“Cats” is a well-established draw for family audiences — and as the Disney’s uber-successful musicals (“The Lion King,” “Aladdin”) illustrate, that’s a powerful demographic, capable of sustaining a show for years.

But the original production of “Cats” didn’t get that family-friendly reputation right off the bat. “Broadway didn’t have that sense of family audiences as a target demographic back then,” said Nina Lannan, the executive producer of the revival and the general manager of the original production. “Not the way we talk about family audiences now. Nobody thought that way.”

She estimated that the change happened following the ninth anniversary of “Cats” on Broadway. The production hosted a face-painting event in celebration, and the resulting TV ad, showing kids getting dolled up in feline makeup, turned the heads of parental ticketbuyers — and those all-ages crowds helped the show run another nine years. With that, Broadway had proof of the commercial power of appealing to young audiences.

4. That logo.

You know what it looks like. Yellow eyes with dancers inside them and a hand-scrawled title treatment against a black background, the logo has an iconic simplicity that gave “Cats” a internationally resonant brand identity akin to the Coke squiggle or the Nike swoosh.

That simplicity made a bare-bones ad relatively cheap to run on TV, where “Cats” advertised 52 weeks a year. “When we stopped advertising on television, there’d be a drop in business,” recalled Philip J. Smith, the longtime executive (and current co-CEO) of the Shubert Organization, a major producer of both the Broadway original and the current revival. “It was amazing. The cat eyes were so fantastic, and you were dealing directly to a children’s audience. ‘Hey Mommy, I want to go see “Cats!”‘ they’d say.”

Shows strive to establish that kind of instant recognition, and with good reason. After “The Phantom of the Opera” became synonymous with its broken-mirror lettering and half-mask image, Warner Bros.’ largely reviled movie adaptation actually revitalized the Broadway show — in part because the studio’s omnipresent ads for the film, using the same logo, doubled as advertising for the stage version.

5. Producers took control.

These days, it’s de rigueur for a hit musical’s original producers to have a strong hand in guiding the national and international rollout of a Broadway success. But in Smith’s recollections, “Cats” started that trend.

Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group meticulously parceled out production rights, Smith said. “They gave out the rights in sections as no one ever did before,” Smith said. “People had done similar things, but nobody really took it down to a science like they did. They really and truly programmed the rights.”

Lannan noted, “That was probably the first time a producer said, ‘I’m in control of all that.'”

Now, of course, it’s common. But “Cats” led the way.

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