Michael Coveney: Cats changed British theatre forever despite teething troubles

As ”Cats” prepares to re-open in the West End after a 12 year hiatus, our chief critic reflects on the show’s bumpy beginnings

When Cats opens tonight at the London Palladium, the occasion will mark a lot more than a spruced up version of the recent touring production. It re-launches one of the jazziest, bluesiest musical vaudevilles of modern times, the first British dance musical and reunites the original creative team behind the most unexpected and revolutionary musical show of our postwar theatre.

This was the show which transformed the fortunes of Cameron Mackintosh, working as a producer with Andrew Lloyd Webber for the first time. They had both loved Trevor Nunn's RSC production (with John Caird) of Nicholas Nickleby in 1980; in turn, Nunn had collaborated with choreographer Gillian Lynne on several of his RSC Shakespeares, notably a Comedy of Errors with a full-scale musical finale. And he also insisted on having designer John Napier and lighting designer David Hersey (who had lit, brilliantly, Evita for Hal Prince).

It's hard to credit it now, but the show nearly never happened at all. Lloyd Webber, who had become obsessed with turning T S Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats into a musical (to the disappointment of Tim Rice, displaced as a lyricist by the dead poet, who set off on a different path) couldn't raise the investment and re-mortgaged his house. Investors and friends were offered little chunks of a few hundred pounds, some of them pleaded with to participate. It was touch and go right up to the first preview.

Nunn was at first thinking in terms of a small "words and music" show set among potted palms in Fitzrovia, a piano tinkling in the background. Composer and producer squashed that idea pretty quickly. Lloyd Webber told Nunn about the New London, then a white elephant home of failed productions and boring conferences and the hitherto unused revolve in Sean Kenny's radical architectural design; this was the key to the show's visual signature. Napier, in many ways Kenny's successor, went berserk for the opportunity of an endlessly moving rubbish tip, with celestial and metaphorical potential on the Heavyside Layer in the vasty auditorium.

The opening was delayed because Judi Dench (whom Nunn had brought to the table as Grizabella) had fallen off the stage in rehearsals and aggravated a previous injury sustained in the show's rehearsal period; Elaine Paige was drafted in, last minute, to sing "Memory". One actor damaged a cartilage, another was fired, choreographer Lynne stopped in her tracks for two days with exhaustion, and there was a row over billing, with Wayne Sleep – dubbed by the godmother of British dance, Dame Ninette de Valois, "the greatest virtuoso dancer the Royal Ballet has ever produced" – storming off in a huff, before storming back once he had been given another dance and his name on the poster; the other billed names were Paige, Paul Nicholas (as Rum Tum Tugger) and Brian Blessed (as Old Deuteronomy).

"Memory" had a great tune – Lloyd Webber asked his musician father Bill if it sounded like Puccini; "No, more like ten million dollars," was his reply – but no lyrics. First, the Liverpool poet Roger McGough had a go, then Don Black wrote a couple of drafts, Tim Rice was approached once Paige (with whom he was conducting a well-documented affair) was on board, and she sang that Rice lyric at the first preview. But Nunn preferred his own last-ditch effort, filleting Eliot's "Rhapsody on a Windy Night" in Prufrock, and binding in snippets from other Prufrock poems.

Opening night at the New London on 11 May 1981 was unforgettable. It wasn't just the visual experience – it was "site-specific" in Kenny's liberated space, a mix of the Epidaurus-inspired Olivier and the rackety old Roundhouse, and fully "immersive" with androgynous felines in bits of fur and body stockings climbing through the audience, bottoms proud, claws primed – it was the sound. And not just the dynamic dance rhythms and melodic curlicues, the musical hall panache and narrative intensity; there was a sad, twangy, synthesized but not synthetic quality in the air.

Not only was the stage technology highly advanced, so was the sound system, deploying the first polyphonic synthesizers imported to this country from Los Angeles by Rod Argent, one of Lloyd Webber’s closest collaborators in his early career, founding member of the Zombies and indeed Argent. The result was a night-time jangled howl of all these moggies and kitties on a cold steel corrugated roof, glanced by that glistening cascade of the spangled synths. I remember thinking on the night, this marked a change of gear towards fantasy and romance. Phantom and Sunset Boulevard were still ahead; thus far, ALW-wise, we’d had the school play (Joseph), the rock concert (Superstar), the Latin opera (Evita) and the English musical comedy (Jeeves).

The first night reception was wild, bordering on crazy. But the standing ovation was cut off at the knees as Brian Blessed stepped forward with a raised hand and asked the audience to leave quickly and quietly as there was a bomb scare. The scare was a telephone hoax and the call had been received at the stage door just before "Memory." The stage doorkeeper couldn’t find anyone who was authorised to stop the show, so it continued to the conclusion. Who knows what would have happened after an interruption…

As we now know, of course, Cats ran at the New London for twenty-one years. When it opened at the drastically altered and gutted Winter Garden in New York in October 1982, the new level top price ticket was $45 and the all-time record box office advance, $10m. Then it went global. The new alliance of Mackintosh and Lloyd Webber basically kept Broadway afloat for the next ten years. But there have always been the nay-sayers, nastiest of them all Robert Brustein (a great critic but totally unreliable, and intellectually defensive, as most great critics are) who averred that Cats could have been an effective small cabaret piece "with the help of talent, imagination and a little taste." That’s more of a "miaow" than a purr, and it will be fascinating to see how a new generation responds to a show business phenomenon that has always been a critical snob victim of its own brilliance and popularity.