"Unashamed Felinity" – Cats the Musical and My Queer Journey through the World of the Jellicles
Updated: May 14, 2021
Before I knew really anything about myself, I knew I was a Jellicle Cat. I would obsessively watch the VHS of Cats (the 1998 stage recording) in our basement and learn all the choreography and songs. I built costumes from my mom's worn-out legwarmers and my sister's ballet tights, and I would style my bouncy, curly-ish blond hair to give the impression of ears. My mom surprised me one day with a white cat wig – it was the perfect mix of David Bowie and Jennifer Grey – and on our porch I performed the entirety of the musical, blasting the soundtrack from a small boombox. One afternoon my mom snapped a picture of me in full Jellicle-attire, legs crossed, hand holding my cheek – I’m smizing at the camera. I was somewhere between three and four years old, and that image actually does capture for me the essence of how I recognized myself in a musical that celebrates "the mystical divinity of unashamed felinity."
Shortly after I posed for that picture, my older sister was cast in a Broadway show, which brought us to NYC often. While my sister was in tech rehearsal at the Marquis Theatre, my mom told me she was taking me to see Cats. It was time. I brought my getup, including those legwarmers, which gave me so much joy, and makeup. I sat in my sister's shared dressing room inches away from the mirror as I put on my makeup slowly and delicately. Ensemble members in her show who were in the original company of Cats helped me prepare.
We sat in the orchestra and my mom had me sit on the aisle. And from the very beginning when the music crept in, the members of the cast came up to me, touched me, spoke to me, even danced with me. I don't know how my mom knew to sit me on the aisle, but it was transformative. I had always felt a connection to Cats and the world of the Jellicles, but seeing the musical live and having such an intimate experience with the performers formed for me an indelible connection to theatermaking.
As a director and choreographer who leads with my queer identity, I find myself returning to that VHS again and again (though now its a streaming link), and as I get older and deeper into my career, new layers of the piece's emotional depth and craft reveal themselves to me.
JELLICLE-NESS re: MY BODY When the Jellicle touched my arm with the back of her hand when I was 4 or 5 years old, something electric lit up in me – a similar electricity to what I feel now when someone I have a crush on reaches for my hand. Intimacy in Cats is lifegiving – touch is the pulse of the community. Through the language of intimacy, Cats offers us a reflection of our own world with a heightened awareness of how intimacy is a necessary force for survival. In Cats, rituals of positive intimacy are respected and protected. In the original, the Jellicles melt onto and inhale each other – to be intimate with another Jellicle is to recognize each other’s existence and dignity. "Touch me," as Grizabella sings, is simultaneously a command to be seen and heard as well as a prayer for survival – that someone, anyone, will recognize and affirm her existence and her need for healing.
Languages of physical intimacy are necessarily nonverbal and thereby the act of staging and choreographing intimacy demands nuanced specificity and intentionality for every move. Whenever I return to the original Cats, I am routinely swept up by the sense of freedom in how the Jellicles move in their bodies and with each other that seems to go beyond a conventionally gendered script. The bodies onstage do not adhere to codified and traditional gestures that tend to signify masculinity/femininity. Instead, they move with a specific "felineness" that lets go of a gender binary – this was and still is, to an extent, new terrain for a musical theater choreographic vocabulary. Jane Desmond writes in her essay “Making the Invisible Visible: Staging Sexualities through Dance” from the collection of essays that she edited, Dancing Desires, that “Theatrical dance history can be seen, in many instances, as a response to, or negotiation of, the injunctions against same-sex desire and the conflation of theatrical dancing with ‘the feminine.’... Homophobia, the dark background of dance history, is actually the constitutive ground of a great deal of what we know as the ‘canon’ of dance history.”
When I first read Desmond’s essay in college, I was completely moved by the ways in which her words made me reflect on how, when I was in dance school, I could literally feel a sense everyday in class that I needed to forge my queer body into conventional masculinity. This made me all the more aware that I carried my queerness in my body (from a very young age), and that this was something I needed to work on changing. But in Cats, the Jellicles moved like how I moved – I learned about my queerness through the great Gillian Lynne’s representation of feline-ness – and as I watched I could envision a world in which I could move with the same sense of abandon as the Jellicles. Desmond’s essay makes me think of another 80's era musical Footloose, whose narrative embodies this fear that entangles homophobia and dance in which dancing in the narrative is deemed dangerous for its potential power to inspire sinful behavior rooted in transgressive sexual desires that could veer into queer territories. Desmond’s writing provides a framework for us to understand Cats as a reaction to traditional forms of theatrical dance and choreography as, in Cats, the conventional gender binary is not the organizing principle for the choreography. Instead, when I watch Cats I feel Gillian Lynne drawing on vectors of desire, intimacy, and communal strength for building the physical life of the Jellicle world.
People joke that Cats is about a series of Cats introducing themselves. To that, I say: it is. The Jellicles declare who they are and why they are the way they are, and often they speak about their own personal traumas. The opening lines of the musical are direct questions to the audience about whether or not the audience understands themselves to be Jellicles: “Are you blind when you’re born? Can you see in the dark?...Because Jellicles can and Jellicles do...” The Jellicles, in a sense, declare their Jellicle-ness to us from the very beginning. This mode of declaration connotes Desmond's notion that “Sexualities," as she writes, "are not immediately readable from the biological sex, as categories of gender and race are most often presumed to be, yet they are tightly tied to notions of physicality—of what one does with one’s body. Sexualities must be rendered visible through performative markers of speech, movement, fashion, or subcultural cues. They must, in a sense, be declared..." Jellicle cats are like any other cats. But their interior knowledge of their Jellicle-ness, just like the interior knowledge of our sexualities, must be externally declared.
Desmond writes later in her essay about how a dance space itself is uniquely designated for the interior knowledge of our sexualities to commingle with our externalized declarations. She writes that, "Dancing on the stage (and even in the sanctioned spaces of gay/lesbian clubs) can provide a liminal space, a safe in-between where the immediate material consequences of non-normative sexuality (such as danger, gay bashing, economic and psychic discrimination) are held in abeyance. In these safe spaces varieties of sexuality and desire can be symbolically rendered through the play of the imagination combined with the articulation of the body—the staging of looks, movement, sound, touch, and spatial manipulation.”
By bringing together the declarations of Jellicle identity in Cats with Desmond’s ideas on the ways in which we declare our sexualities through our bodies, I suggest that Cats invites an audience to have an experience of seeing, reading, and declaring their own sexuality through the prism of Jellicle identity. People ask me, “what does it even mean to be a ‘Jellicle’ cat?” When I was pursuing my degree in Gender and Sexuality Studies, friends and family asked me a similar question, “what does it mean to be queer?” I think I'm not alone when I suggest to those asking – and to myself at times – that “queer” resists definition and holds specific meaning to each individual who claims it as a way of orienting away from the normative. As the opening number tells us, that is the very principle behind what it means to be Jellicle. Entering the world of Cats from a queer point of view allows the piece to stand in its own territory and offer us a vision of our world in which we all have the capacity to draw deep awareness into how each of us operates on an individual relationship to our sexualities and our gender identities, whether we move through the world claiming it or not. The Cats declare that they are Jellicle Cats, and they ask the audience, are you one of us? And through a direct invitation to choose empathy, Cats presents Jellicle-ness as a way of thinking about how each of us is an outsider somewhere, subversive in some manner, and moves along some unique strand of transgressiveness to norms and hegemonic structures set in place by the generations that precede our current existences. And I suggest that this experience is rooted in our sexualities because to sit in a theater and watch Cats and ask the question, “what does ‘Jellicle’ mean – to me? Do I belong here? Do I desire to be Jellicle?” gives way to thinking critically about how desire leads each of our bodies to move through the world and move through time.
TO (FOR)GIVE In my sophomore year of college, I read Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales as part of a survey class required for all English majors. The Canterbury Tales preceded the rise of the novel, yet even though it is a collection of tales, there is an overarching structure: a collection of people from different places, occupations, classes travel together on a pilgrimage to the shrine of the martyr Thomas Becket in Canterbury, and along the way they pass the time by telling each other stories. And whoever tells the best story, to be judged by “The Host,” will receive a free meal. The stories are a mix of fantasy and memories from their lives that convey their values and perhaps too their underlying reasons for going on this journey. And though it’s not explicit, the very nature of a religious pilgrimage has within it the implication that each seeks to experience God through their prayers of gratitude and forgiveness. In The Canterbury Tales, each of these people come together from their very different lives to seek connection to the higher powers that determine their current existences as well as their fates.
When I read The Canterbury Tales (circa 1400), it helped me think more deeply about the structure of Cats, which is based on a collection of poems by TS Eliot, "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" (1939). Like The Canterbury Tales, Cats also brings together a diverse array of characters from all corners of the earth, and they come to this place where they will share their stories – a mix of fantasy and memories – and based on their stories, one of them will be granted the opportunity to be reborn into a new life. Most people associate Eliot with his epic poem, “The Waste Land” (1922), and I think there is much to be mined in how we engage with Cats by noticing its DNA in “The Waste Land.” Here is a quote from that epic poem which sticks with me whenever I re-encounter Cats:
Ganga was sunken, and the limp leaves
Waited for rain, while the black clouds
Gathered far distant, over Himavant.
The jungle crouched, humped in silence.
Then spoke the thunder DA Datta: what have we given? My friend, blood shaking my heart The awful daring of a moment’s surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract By this, and this only, we have existed Which is not to be found in our obituaries Or in memories draped by the beneficent spider
Or under seals broken by the lean solicitor In our empty rooms
Eliot, who so deeply contemplated the experiences of mourning, of existing to await death, of being forgotten – he also wrote the poems that form the backbone of Cats. I think Cats circles the question: what have we given? Grizabella (“the Glamour Cat”) was not originally one of Eliot's cats, but rather, is an Andrew Lloyd Weber adaptation from Eliot's early poem, "Rhapsody on a Windy Night" (1911). In Cats, she sings about becoming invisible, fading not only into memory but into a receding darkness in which her existence ceases to have any mark on a living world. She is ultimately chosen among the others to be reborn and, though it’s not explicitly described why she is granted such forgiveness, it seems that she is chosen because she newly seeks to live with a purpose – to give – and is deeply terrified of wasting away the potential of her life by isolating herself in wealth.
Poetry, in particular, has a way of getting under my skin and touching some kind of nerve inside me that I do not completely get. I often need to read a poem over and over, and then something happens where I understand the poem on a visceral level, even though I could not necessarily be able to articulate what a poem is about. I think Cats has persisted in our culture because it gets under our skin. And, for many, it instigates feelings of anger – it brings out the bully. The recent film, it seems, only brings about more bullying.
DIGITAL FUR I was kinda excited about the film – or at least curious. I was particularly interested in seeing how the film would interpret Macavity. In the musical, there is always the awareness of Macavity – a terrorist – who seeks to cause harm to the Jellicles. And the song that bears his name is not sung by him, rather, all the women in the company gather to sing about how they each live their lives everyday fearing that he will jump out from the shadows to harm them. It is of note here that gender in the original Cats production is understood not necessarily through codified gestures, but rather, by who is most vulnerable to violence. The women in Cats collectively sing about and pass along advice to the audience on how to live their lives in such a way as to protect themselves from violence (embodied by the force of Macavity.) And in this #metoo world, there is an opportunity to delve into new layers of gender and violence in Cats, particularly since a 2019 audience is primed with a point of view that is informed by the #metoo movement.
And then I saw the film. From the very beginning, the Jellicles asked Victoria, "the White Cat," are you one of us? as opposed to asking me over there in the audience. A seemingly simple change to make the film easier to make. But this change completely did away with any kind of direct intimacy between us and the Jellicles. Instead of inviting audiences to have a deep awareness of their bodies and their desires, the film invited us to disappear into a kind of disembodied psychedelic trip (see this article in the Washington Post about audiences getting "high out of their minds" before seeing the film.) Direct address did not happen until the very end of the film in a startling, disorienting manner – and part of me accepted this choice to omit direct address because of the nature of film adaptation. But then I thought about Phoebe Waller-Bridge's television adaptation of her one-woman show Fleabag (originally released in 2016), which is driven by the main character’s relationship to the audience through the camera lens. And then I started imagining the version of a Cats film adaptation by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Would the incredible queerness of the Magical Mister Mistofolees – a gay icon and famously athletic dancer who literally saves the day in the musical – would that character’s queer magic and transcendent dancing be sapped away so that he could become the clumsy, sheepish love interest of Victoria? Would we have gotten a textbook white savior narrative between Victoria and Grizabella? And wow that Macavity number definitely went in the opposite direction of where I had hoped it would go...
Most people now know Cats from watching Rebel Wilson and James Corden dance and piss on its grave at the Oscars. With Gillian Lynne gone, I don't really know who – if anyone – was trying to take care of the legacy of her delicate genius. I’m saddened to see Cats exist in our culture now as a joke as opposed to a revolutionary work of art that, in particular, is a celebration of theater. It makes me sad because the sense I get is that the creators of the film did not really allow themselves to surrender to the poetry of the world of Cats and the DNA of its original poet who penned “The Waste Land,” which is so deeply in the bones of the characters, music, and movement. Instead, the film seems to employ a sense of a plot by layering in, among other things, a formulaic heteronormative love story. And the digital fur technology suggests to me, quite frankly, that the creative team was more interested in the fun of seeing celebrities perform clumsy cat behaviors like lapping up milk and eating insects – as if they were drawing inspiration from YouTube cat video sensations – as opposed to delving deep into how “unashamed felinity” as a larger notion for leading one's life could be manifest poetically and theatrically. There seems to be a lack of trust in the rich imaginations of audiences to surrender themselves fully to the experience of Cats, which the original production so wonderfully cultivated. And it makes me sad because this film, I fear, will replace the video recording of the original Broadway production, which I think beautifully captures the essence of the experience of seeing Gillian Lynne + Trevor Nunn's Cats live.
**May 14-16, 2021** This weekend, the 1998 video recording of Cats on stage will stream on YouTube for free (head here.) So I do encourage returning to that original video recording of Cats, share it the children in your life. And as you watch, surrender to it.
You can purchase Jane C. Desmond's collection of essays Dancing Desires: Choreographing Sexualities on and off the Stage on Bookshop (a site that supports independent bookstores) here.
The passages by Desmond which I have quoted from above are from her introductory essay, “Making the Invisible Visible: Staging Sexualities through Dance.” Introduction to Dancing Desires: Choreographing Sexualities on and off the Stage, 3-32. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001.