Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — One of English composer Andrew Lloyd Weber’s earliest memories is of her mother reading T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” during bedtime.
In 1978, Weber found himself turning these poems into music. For that year’s Sydmonton Festival, which happens in his estate, he presented the poems as a concert piece. He had invited T.S. Eliot’s widow, Valerie, and unbeknownst to him, she brought an unpublished poem, titled “Grizabella The Glamour Cat.” The poem, she said, was too sad to be published on children’s books.
After reading the poem, Weber knew that he had to bring the poems to theatre — he had already done shows like “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and “Evita” prior to this. This encounter was the beginning of what we know as the musical “Cats,” a widely loved theatrical piece that has since won countless Tony and Olivier awards, and is now the fourth-longest running Broadway show, following “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Chicago,” and “The Lion King.”
The production has travelled across many continents for over almost four decades, and was first staged in Manila in 2010, starring Lea Salonga as Grizabella, together with an Australian touring cast. This month, the show comes to Manila; now, brought by the U.K. production company David Ian Productions.
“[Manila] is a city that loves its musical theatre,” says David Ian, the chief executive of the production company. “Carlos [Candal, producer] had told me of the shows that had been here and that had been successful. I knew ‘Phantom of the Opera’ had been here recently and was extremely successful.”
Asked about why “Cats” has been so successful worldwide, Ian says: “I think that Cats is timeless and I think you can either be eight years old or you could be 80 years old and you can enjoy Cats.” He adds, “Regardless of where you come from, what nationality you are, what language you speak, you can enjoy the show.”
The show is about a tribe of cats called Jellicles, who are all busy preparing for a ball, called Jellicle Ball. For the media preview, the cast performed “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats,” the opening production number for the musical. The stage is filled with an amalgam of objects — a dilapidated oven that is scaled to seem bigger than the cats, a worn out car, piles of garbage, and a dirty button-down shirt, among others.
The number starts with a cat caught in car headlights; then, one by one, the Jellicle cats appear, singing lines that describe a Jellicle cat. This soon builds into an entire song and dance routine, and later, they go into a pyramid that resembles a choir, only to be interrupted by a fallen boot (also scaled to be bigger than them).
The Jellicles — namely Rum Tum Tugger, Bustopher Jones, Mungojerrie, Rumpleteazer, Jellylorum, Skimbleshanks, Mr. Mistoffelees, Munkustrap, and Grizabell, among others — each have a performance of their own, where they are able to show off their distinct talents through music and dance. At the end of the ball, a Jellicle cat will then be chosen to be reborn.
The main character — a lonely, scabby cat called Grizabella longing for her glamor, beauty, and youth — is played by Filipino actress Joanna Ampil. Grizabella is Ampil’s dream role, a dream she’s imagined since she was 17. While she says that she’s quite nervous to be doing it in Manila because of an audience that is very particular in how singers perform, she says that she’s most comfortable doing this role. “I’ve been doing it for years so I know it well,” she explains. “I know it inside out. I know the story of Grizabella really well, so komportable na. Kampante na.”
In the same preview, Ampil sang the most popular song in the musical, “Memory,” with such gravitas that it can move audiences to tears. It’s a melancholic song, speaking about yearning for a good, decent life that is no longer present; but also ends in hope, that despite all misery, a new day is bound to come.
When asked about belting out this iconic song, Ampil says: “Having to sing ‘Memory’ every night, it's one of the most beautifully written songs in musical theater history, so that's a privilege in itself.”
“Cats” runs from Nov. 6 to Dec. 1 , 2019 at Solaire Theatre.