Brow Beat

FAQ: Cats

What are Jellicles? How, exactly, did T.S. Eliot inspire this? All your questions about the musical, answered.

Photo illustration: A cat from Cats with some ??? in the corner
They’re cats?
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Universal Pictures.

I just watched the Cats movie trailer, and I’m feeling some conflicting emotions.

Don’t worry. You’re in good company.

I’ve always heard that Cats has no plot. Does Cats have no plot?

Not exactly. Cats was adapted by Andrew Lloyd Webber from the poems of T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (as well as some of his unpublished drafts and private letters) and follows a group of Jellicle cats on the night of the Jellicle Ball, as they wait to find out which of them will be allowed to ascend to the Heaviside layer and be reborn into a new life.

I don’t understand, like, half of the words you just used. Let’s go one by one: What, pray tell, is a Jellic … le?

I’ve read Eliot’s poems, I’ve listened to the 1981 cast recording, and I’ve watched the 1998 direct-to-video movie, and frankly: I still don’t really know. Eliot says they’re small and black and white, but that doesn’t track with the cats in the musical, which are all different colors and sizes. Most of other stated qualities of a Jellicle—they’re blind when they’re born, land on their feet, tense up during storms—are also qualities possessed by any old cat, while others are cat stereotypes or legends, like “looking at kings” (as the saying goes) and riding on broomsticks. At one point during the musical, the cats even single out a guy in the audience and playfully roast him for wondering what a Jellicle is, but then they fail to actually explain.

Thank you for not roasting me. I think what you’re saying is: They’re cats?

Basically.

Then why do they call them Jellicles? Why don’t they just call them cats?

It’s supposed to be a play on “dear little,” as in a poem Eliot wrote to his 4-year-old godson, and the canine equivalents are “poor little dogs,” or “Pollicle dogs.” (Brits sometimes use ickle as a cutesy way to say little.) It has also been argued that the name was chosen as a pun on angelical, emphasizing the cats characters’ mystical qualities.

OK, what about the … [scrolls up, resumes the question confidently] Heaviside layer?

The Heaviside layer doesn’t appear in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, though Eliot does mention it elsewhere, such as in drafts given to Webber by Eliot’s widow and in his play The Family Reunion (which is not about cats, Jellicle or otherwise). The short answer is: It’s heaven. The long answer is: It’s complicated. There is a real Heaviside layer in Earth’s ionosphere, which technically fits the musical’s description of being located “up, up, up, up past the Russell Hotel,” the tallest building in London in Eliot’s day. At the end of the play, the chosen cat literally ascends, but it’s generally accepted as more of a metaphor.

So Cats is about reincarnation?

Yes! Well, probably. We don’t really know what happens to the cats once they reach the Heaviside layer, whether their new life is on another plane or they return to the world we’re familiar with.

Why is it called Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats? What do possums have to do with this?

It’s not a real possum. “Old Possum” was Eliot’s nickname, given to him by Ezra Pound and inspired by Joel Chandler Harris’ “Uncle Remus” stories. The two poets liked to mimic the dialect used in Harris’ stories in their correspondence to each other. You may know Harris’ work from Disney’s notorious adaptation, Song of the South.

Uh-oh.

Indeed. Cats, the musical, has had its own problems with racism over the years: “Growltiger’s Last Stand,” based directly on Eliot’s poem of the same name, used to feature actors putting on accents to play Siamese cats and included an ethnic slur. It has since been cut. Anyway, there are no actual possums in Cats.

How about humans?

None that appear onstage, but humans exist. Macavity, the show’s villain, has “broken every human law,” and the props and backdrops of Cats are extra-large so that the actors appear cat-size in a human world. (The setting is traditionally a junkyard, though Tom Hooper’s movie looks like it’ll expand the world beyond a trash heap.)

I read somewhere that in the movie Taylor Swift is playing someone named “Bombalurina”? Why are all the cats’ names so weird?

There’s a whole song about that. Eliot was really into whimsical names for cats.

I need some examples.

There’s Marmaladium, Ipsofacto, Snugglecrampus, Young Leviticus, Mussmouzer, Dr. Whiskersnout, Frumparella, Joe Schmo Blowy, Cauliflower—

Those can’t all be real.

You’re right, I made all of them up. The real names are Jellylorum, Etcetera, Mungojerrie, Old Deuteronomy, Rumpleteazer, Mr. Mistoffelees, Grizabella, Rum Tum Tugger, Asparagus—

Asparagus?

He’s the theater cat being played in the movie by Ian McKellen. (All the cats have a “thing,” whether it’s love of theater or doing magic or being a fat aristocrat.)

Do they ever explain why the cat who’s really into theater is named Asparagus?

No. They do call him “Gus” for short.

So all of these cats—sorry—all of these Jellicles perform songs explaining who they are, and then it just sort of ends?

More or less. Macavity eventually kidnaps Old Deuteronomy, the O.G. cat, but he gets caught and Old Deuteronomy returns in time to decide who gets to go to the Heaviside layer. That’s called the “Jellicle choice.”

Of course it is. Obviously I know “Memory,” which was in the trailer. Are there any other bangers in Cats?

“Memory” is far and away the most famous song. As for whether any of the others are worthwhile, well, that’s largely a matter of taste. I confess I’m partial to “Mr. Mistoffelees,” which is actually mostly sung by Rum Tum Tugger and the rest of the company.

Don’t take this the wrong way, but how did this become so popular?! All this sounds a little bit silly.

It is a little bit silly, and that’s part of why it’s been so successful. People don’t go to see Cats for the plot—they go for the dancing and the spectacle. Andrew Lloyd Webber had some momentum when Cats opened: He’d already written the music for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Evita—the latter of which taught him the value of licensing his shows around the globe while maintaining close creative control. That, plus savvy marketing, helped propel Cats to become the longest-running musical on the West End and Broadway for many years. (Lest anyone doubt Webber’s knack for appealing to the masses, the Broadway record was eventually seized by The Phantom of the Opera, another of his musicals.)

Most crucially, Cats is uncomplicated, a true crowd-pleaser that anyone can understand regardless of age or language barrier. Frank Rich predicted its longevity back in 1982, writing in his review for the New York Times: “Whatever the other failings and excesses, even banalities, of Cats, it believes in purely theatrical magic, and on that faith it unquestionably delivers.”

Are you saying Cats is good?

Well, no. It’s almost as hated as it is beloved. That’s why I’d recommend that instead of listening to the cast recording, you watch the 1998 direct-to-video Cats movie. It cuts a lot of unnecessary filler to get the run time down to two hours, plus it features BBC star John Partridge as Rum Tum Tugger—quite possibly the only person to look cool while performing in Cats.

At the end of the day, the show is best enjoyed if you’re not thinking too hard. If I may quote another landmark work of theater: “Cats! It’s about cats. Singing cats. You’ll love it.” Or maybe you won’t. That’s Cats.

Correction, July 23: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this post misspelled the title of T.S. Eliot’s landmark 1922 poem. It’s “The Waste Land,” not “The Wasteland.”