T. S. Eliot was one of the greatest poets of the last century. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948. Upon the occasion of his death, he was interred in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey in London alongside the likes of Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens. His poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is considered to be one of the foundational poems of the Modernist poetry movement. And yet, there are some who would argue that T. S. Eliot’s greatest contribution to the world of art and literature was a book of nonsensical lyrical poetry called Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.
Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats is considered to be a form of poetry called light verse, meaning short poems that were meant to be humorous and read for pleasure. In this collection of poems, T. S. Eliot created short poems about a series of cats. Each featured cat possessed a certain personality trait such as vanity, cruelty, boastfulness and so on. The poems were written in a lyrical style, possessing a rhyming scheme that made the poems easy to read aloud. In 1954, a composer named Alan Rawsthorne viewed these poems as possessing a musical quality, and so he set about taking six of them and composing a score to accompany each so that they could be performed aloud as a set. A decade or so later, one of the people who took in a recital of Rawsthorne’s musical poems was a young boy who would grow up to become one of the most important and influential people in the history of musical theatre…that young boy was Andrew Lloyd Webber. Not only did Webber enjoy Rawthorne’s production, but he also enjoyed reading Eliot’s complete Book of Practical Cats. Andrew Lloyd Webber agreed with Rawthorne that the poems lent themselves to being presented as songs, but he also thought that the characters presented in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats acted as a form of social commentary on the nature of the composition of the society in which he was living. Even though he was still young, Andrew Lloyd Webber viewed this all as a play. As he grew into adulthood, he developed his idea into one that ended up becoming one of the most respected and revered musical plays of all time…Cats!
Cats premiered in London in 1981. It has gone on to be one of the longest-running and most successful musicals ever in the West End with almost 9,000 performances to date. While many people have heard of Cats, not everyone is familiar with the plotline of the play. The musical centers around a tribe of cats called Jellicles. Each year, all members of the tribe gather at an event called The Jellicle Ball. At this ball one of the cats is chosen to go to the Heaviside Layer (which is a form of Heaven). To the cats, being chosen is an honour and represents an opportunity to experience a form of rebirth and renewal. In order to warrant being chosen, each cat must appear before the assembled gathering and state their case as to why they should be considered the chosen one. When they state their case, the cats do so by singing the poem that T. S. Eliot wrote about their character in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. Interwoven amid the individual speeches of the candidate cats is the politics of moment…the currying of favours, the process of lending support to a cat who appears to have a chance to be selected, the splintering of the gathering into competing factions, the petty jealousies and much more.
In theatre circles, there is a term known as an eleven o’ clock song. Traditionally, evening performances ended not long after eleven o’clock so, the big, emotionally-driven grand finale song that wrapped up the storyline of the musical was usually placed near the end of the play and would be performed just before closing time. When Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote Cats, he decided that none of T. S. Eliot’s poems had sufficient dramatic impact to serve as his play’s eleven o’clock song. So, he asked his friends to each submit a song of their own creation. Award-winning director Trevor Nunn submitted a song entitled Memory. This song was meant to be sung by a character named Grizabella who was a cat, who in her day, was quite glamorous, but who had fallen onto hard times and was a mere shell of her former self. When Andrew Lloyd Webber heard Nunn’s song of redemption and compassion, he knew he had found his eleven o’clock song and that his musical was now complete. Memory was first performed on stage by an actress called Elaine Paige. Her rendition of the song was given the Ivor Novello Award for Best Lyrical Composition in 1981. Even though Memory has been sung to great effect by singers such as Barbra Streisand, it is Elaine Paige’s rendition that is held up as the standard by which all others are compared. Not only that, but Memory is generally considered to be one of the most memorable songs in the entire history of staged musical productions anywhere in the world.
So, it is with great pleasure that I present the enormously talented Elaine Paige singing the hit song Memory from the musical Cats. Enjoy.
The link to the video for the song Memory as sung by Elaine Paige from the musical Cats can be found here.
The link to the official website for the musical Cats can be found here.
The link to the official website for Andrew Lloyd Webber can be found here.
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