When the news of the ‘Cats’ casting dropped, the star-studded lineup of big names like Dame Judi Dench, James Corden and Idris Elba was a huge catalyst for mammoth expectations and speculation. Being a one-of-a-kind theatrical experience, enthusiasts of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Broadway musical were justified in being suspicious of how such a production could be translated to screen.
And predictably, when the first trailer dropped after much hyping up of the inventive CGI, Twitter was strife with very extreme reactions. The cats replicated the “not quite cat, not quite human”-like aesthetic of the original, however the suspension of disbelief that can be achieved with a costume makes the spectacle of Cats on Broadway far less jarring than viewing something like it on film; the ever-expanding technology involved in filmmaking has made us accustomed to digestible visuals, no matter how fantastical it may be, in contrast to the outlandish realm of potential that the stage still allows for. On stage, you can see the strings and the gears change, but the very platform of film gives its creators a responsibility to cut out the illusion-breaking elements that remind the audience of it being a work “composed”.
It is this very issue that runs at the heart of the outrage that comes with stage-to-film adaptations. A recent example of this is when Dominic Cooke recently announced that he would be directing a film adaptation of ‘Follies’ after his 2019 run at London’s National Theatre: the response has generally been excitement, but with a tangible underlying anxiety, especially from vocal fans of the Sondheim musical. This sentiment can perhaps be verbalised in The Hollywood Reporter writer Tyler Coates tweet: “this could be my favorite movie or the movie I hate the most, TREAD LIGHTLY” [sic]. In a similar vein, Sondheim’s Broadway classic West Side Story is now receiving a new life on screen with Steven Spielberg at the directorial helm. Releasing in December 2020, Spielberg described the creative process as “walking in the footsteps of four giants: Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, Jerome Robbins and Stephen Sondheim”, and this new version will also feature the 1961 film’s heroine Rita Moreno in a brand new role. From what we’ve heard about the upcoming film, this adaptation seems to attempt a simultaneous venture into preserving the original and surprising its audience, however, this is where the real challenge arises.
Circling back to Cats, which attempts to tread on a similar path of balancing the original’s brilliance with a new-age novelty, this challenge has been much trickier to navigate. The suspension of disbelief that seems so accessible with a stage production is almost sacrificed in the CGI realism of the screen, and therefore, placing this whimsical musical into the narrative format of a movie seems entirely moot. However, perhaps by forcing its audience to bring the same level of suspension of disbelief to the cinema as they do to Broadway, Cats takes a risk in experimentation that could be extremely rewarding. Apart from the bewildering CGI, Swift and Webber have collaborated on new music for the adaptation: the new song Beautiful Ghosts is a powerful counter-perspective to the heart-wrenching lamentation in Webber’s Memory. This decision offers some ammunition against the sceptics, and is one of the risks in experimentation that has clearly paid off – the original song has been warmly received by critics, even those of the unforgiving Twitter variety.
Ultimately, while Cats stands as an extreme instance because of its adapting material from stage remains a risky business despite the success stories. Plays and musicals possess a loyal following who are rarely easy to please, and they’re not going anywhere. However, at the same time, these adaptations don’t seem to be ceasing either. Even Broadway moguls are partaking in the sustained momentum of stage-to-film, like Lin-Manuel Miranda, who will be making his feature directorial debut with Tick, Tick … Boom!, slated to release on Netflix. Stage performance has always been the heartbeat of film, and despite the cries of purists everywhere, we’re going to be retelling and reinventing these stories for ages to come – such is the very nature of human creativity.