What do Dame Judi Dench and former Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger have in common? They were both cast as Grizabella in the hit musical Cats.
Dench, however, took the traditional theatrical blessing to ‘break a leg’ too literally. She snapped her Achilles tendon during rehearsals prior to the 1981 premiere, and Elaine Page stepped in to become a musical superstar instead.
Scherzinger, making her West End debut, is unlikely to have any such problems. Long before she became a singer, and judge on the UK's popular TV show X-Factor, she majored in theatre and dance at university in Ohio.
In its day, Cats was the longest-running musical both in the West End and on Broadway, until supplanted by Les Misérables. But though it’s now nearly 34 years old, and last stalked the West End stage in 2002, Cats is a long way from using up its nine lives. It’s been playing round the world, having been translated into 20 languages, and returns to London Palladium from 6 December after a well received UK tour.
As composer and producer Andrew Lloyd-Webber recently said, when asked if it wasn’t a bit lazy to stage a revival, 'I don’t think that is necessarily true, because if you said that we wouldn’t have a lot of room for Shakespeare.' He is also updating or rewriting several songs, and the role of Rum Tum Tugger is being transformed.
When Cats was first announced, no one expected it to be a hit. It was based on a collection of poems by TS Eliot that Lloyd-Webber loved as child. It was directed by Trevor Nunn, who for the previous 13 years had been Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company—not an obvious West End hit-maker.
At a press launch for the revival this summer, Trevor Nunn chuckled at the memory. ‘Can you imagine? You get the phone call from Lloyd-Webber, and his previous work has been a story about the death of Jesus [Jesus Christ Superstar], and then a story about dictatorship in South America [Evita], so I thought oh my god, what is he going to be doing? It’s going to be The War of the Worlds, or the fall of the Roman Empire, something gigantic. And he said, “Do you think it might be possible to make a show about Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats?”’
Nowadays, of course, with the whole of the Internet run on videos of cats, the idea seems a lot less far-fetched. And with the star power of Nicole Scherzinger, graduating from Pussycat to Glamour Cat, London is sure to be feline groovy.