Mungojerrie, Rumpleteazer and the ever-magical Mr Mistoffelees must be curious, despite the well-known dangers such a stance poses for their species. “Why,” the stars of hit musical Cats will be (cautiously) wondering, “has our creator deigned to introduce a rapping feline to our ranks?” It stinks – and not in a nice fishy way – of modernisation.
Earlier this week, West End wizard Andrew Lloyd Webber announced that one of his most popular productions will be returning to the London stage for the first time in 14 years. Based on TS Eliot’s poetry collection Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, it has been performed in roughly 250 cities around the world and already taken more than £100m (€125m) at the London box office.
Lloyd Webber is, understandably, stepping back onto terra firma after his most recent effort, Stephen Ward the Musical, sank without a trace. Quite why a story about an osteopath involved in a 1960s political scandal that most people have either forgotten about or never heard of didn’t capture the public’s imagination is anyone’s guess. More fathomable is the return to a tried-and-tested classic – but why the meddlesome modernising?
“I’ve come to the conclusion, having re-read Eliot, that maybe [he] was the inventor of rap,” said Lloyd Webber, at a stroke becoming the first and last person to put those words together in a sentence. That Rum Tum Tugger will now be freestyling his way through the show is of no personal consequence; the most interest I've ever had in musicals came when I played Danny Zuko in a school production of Grease. However, if I was a purist, I can only imagine I’d be pulling my whiskers out in anguish.
Even if I was a kid seeing Cats for the first time, I don’t think I'd emerge from the theatre to say, “Yeah, I was nonplussed to start with but then the rapping kicked in and wow: I suddenly felt like Rum Tum Tugger was speaking directly to my whole generation. Can I have another ice cream?”
Clearly, modernisation is redundant. OK, there are exceptions: medical techniques, schooling methods and sewerage systems generally benefit. Then there’s the opposite end of the spectrum, where there’s no argument that you shouldn't even attempt to give cave paintings or fossil collections a contemporary twist.
But then there are the things that people are always trying to modernise despite a repeated lack of success: opposition governments, the Church, public-transport systems and Test cricket, for example. And worst of all: modernisation that isn’t actually modernisation at all but a codeword for something unpleasant. Take Dalton Philips, the CEO of UK supermarket chain Morrisons, who said last month, “This is the right time to modernise the way our stores are managed.”
So, those 2,600 people who will lose their jobs thanks to this particular form of modernisation can essentially blame Andrew Lloyd Webber for the fact that all they’ll be left with is memories… all alone in the moonlight, I can smile at the old days, I was beautiful then…
Dan Poole is Monocle’s chief sub editor.