Please check your hat, coat, and heterosexuality at the door.
Cats began as in a series of letters written by T.S. Elliot to his niece in the 1930s, making up pretty much off the top of his head the nightly adventures of his many pet cats. This is similar to how Lewis Carroll created Alice in Wonderland, though he had slightly different intentions in mind. In 1939, Elliot published these poems as the Book of Practical Cats, under the pseudonym "Old Possum," which one can only assume was the early 20th century equivalent of "Allan Smithee."
The book was a favorite of Andrew Lloyd Webber in his childhood, and in 1980, decided to adapt the poems into a musical. And by "adapt," we mean "copy the book word-for-word, and not even try to add a discernable storyline." Arguably the least heterosexual experience ever created, it was described in Kevin Smith's Jersey Girl (c'mon, surely someone else out there must've seen it?) as "...the second worst thing ever to happen to New York." For all it's many faults, the show was immensely popular. At the time of it's final curtain call in 2000, it held the record for longest running play on Broadway (that title was later claimed by Webber's The Phantom of the Opera) and longest running musical show in the world (that title was lated claimed by Les Miserables).
The Jellicle Cats
The Jellicles are a "tribe" of alley cats who make their home in a London junkyard. Almost all of these names were orignally created by Elliot, who probably made them up while he was inhaling paint thinner:
Munkustrap: The show's de facto narrarator. Old Deuteronomy's second-in-command, and most likely his son. He fights Macavity when he crashes the Jellicle Ball.
Jennyanydots, the Old Gumbie Cat: (What the hell is a "Gumbie Cat"?) She is the unofficial Queen, who looks after all the kittens. Her poem describes her as basically just sitting around her human's flat all day, and in her boredom keeping mice & cockroaches as pets.
The Rum Tum Tugger: Described by Webber as a feline version of Mick Jagger. He is the most overtly sexual performer, a trait which has only increased over time.
Mungojerrie & Rumpleteazer: Cat burglars. There is strong debate (online) as to wether they are twins or they are mates. Many fan fiction writers ask why can't they be both. The big finish to their song is the "Windmill," where they hold eachother in 69 position and cartwheel across the stage. Rumored to be agents of Macavity.
Old Deuteronomy: The patriarch of the tribe. He was born sometime prior to the time of Queen Victoria. According to Munkustrap, he's buried at least nine wives, though the real number is probably closer to 99. Except where otherwise noted, he is the father of all the other cats. He was originally played by Brian Blessed, who my fellow 80s junkies proudly remember as Prince Vultan of the Hawkpeople in 1980's Flash Gordon.
Mister Mistoffolees: "The Original Conjuring Cat." Long before the name "Edward Cullen" was first written in hearts on the back of some fat middle-school girl's trapper keeper, Mistoffolees was the object of affection of every girl to ever take Drama in high school. After a recording of the show was released on home video, Broadway performer Jacob Brent has endured more obsessive fan-girls on his very best day than Robert Pattinson could on his very best. In the opening number, he is referred to as "Quaxo" sparking endless debate online from what were formerly normal people as to wether or not they are two seperate cats, if that is simply his first name, or if it's some Two-Face like split-personality disorder. For his grand finale, he performs 24 fouettes en tourant (generally considered to be the most difficult maneuver in all of ballet) in a row. That may not sound like a lot, but the world record is only 36.
Macavity, the Mystery Cat: Not a Jellicle. Also known as "The Hidden Paw," he is the show's only real villain. Every descpription provided is lifted from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's description of Professor James Moriarty in The Adventure of the Final Problem. Macavity has reported broken every human law there is, and even possess the power of levitation (effectively "breaking" the law of gravity). Again, internet fandom rears it's ugly head, with many fan-fiction writers portraying him in a sympathetic light akin to Elphaba in Wicked. When he first appears, he acts menancingly to Demeter, provoking a fight with Munkustrap and prompting many more romantic writers to suggest they were formerly lovers.
Gus, the Theatre Cat: Full name "Asparagus." He is a very old cat, confined to a wheelchair and suffers from a feline version palsy that gives him tremors in his paws. Approaching the end of his life, he reminisces about being a theatre performer in his youth, his most famous role being a pirate called "The Growltiger."
Bustopher Jones, the Cat About Town: Also known as the "Saint of Saint James Street." His entire song is about him being proud of what a fat slob he is ("He's a 25-pounder... and he's putting on weight every day") and shamelessly admits that one of the few things that can get his fat ass moving is the possibility of a plate-ful of curry. He spends most of his time lounging about various Gentlemen's Club.
Skimbleshanks, the Railway Cat: Has appointed himself the conductor of all the train's in London, and believes that without his presence they cannot run. Curiously, a stray cat has recently taken to boarding random trains on the London Underground, not bothering anyone or making a mess, but just going along for the ride. However, confused news writers have named him Macavity.
Grizabella, the Glamour Cat: Aside from Mister Mistoffolees, probably the most well-known amongst people not familiar with the show. She is the only main character not lifted from Elliot's book, instead created by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Originally, she was to be played by Dame Judi Dench. However, M broke her ankle during the very first rehearsal, and was replaced by Elaine Page. For reasons never quite explained (Webber has the storytelling abilities of Michael Bay), Grizabella was exiled from the tribe many years ago. Now, she just wants to be loved. Awww...
Other cats that make up the chorus include Bombalurina, Demeter, Jellylorum, Jemima, Victoria, and roughly two-dozen others whose names change from various productions in American and Europe.
Under the light of a full moon, the Jellicle cats enter the stage, some from behind the curtains, others crawl through the audience. Our opening song, Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats, various cats introduce themselves and explain the personality traits that make cats great. The word "Jellicle" is said more times in the next five minutes than Dennis Hopper was said the word "fuck" in his entire career." Munkustrap announces that the Jellicle Ball has begun, and that tonight, Old Deuteronomy will choose which cat will ascend to the "Heaviside Layer" and be re-born into a new life. Is this to suggest that all cats are immortal, and they can only die when given permission? It is never explained.
Mukustrap then introduces Jennyanydots. She at first is wearing what can be described as a fatsuit, but discards it in favor of a 20s-style flapper dress for her big tap-dancing number. The Rum Tum Tugger then makes his own boisterous entrance. Munkustrap seems a little peeved at being interrupted, but The Tugger doesn't care "for he will do as he do do, and there's no doing anything about it." He is fawned over and groped by the female chorus cats, particularly Bombalurina.
A sad, shabby, rather pathetic looking cat meekly approaches the group, all of whom immediately turn away and shun her. She reaches out to the kittens, but they are shielded by Jenny. Demeter & Bombalurina explain that she is Grizabella, once the most beautiful cat there was, who now wanders the streets alone and unloved.
As Grizabella returns to the darkness, the music turns upbeat. Bustopher Jones enters the spotlight, dressed in tails & spats. He endures some lighthearted ribbing from the chorus cats about his weight, jovially laughing if off as he proceeds to sing about the various foods that make his mouth water (there's a lot of them). Everyone's joy quickly turns to fear when the sound of glass shattering is heard. Demeter cries out in terror "Macavity!" prompting the other cats to run and hide amongst the audience. Fortunately, it is not Macavity, just Mungojerrie & Rumpleteazer playing a joke. Rather than being outright criminals, they're more or less mischief-makers who enjoy messing with humans.
Old Deuteronomy makes his grand entrance, much to the delight of his numerous progeny. In some more advanced productions, he relates a story to the audience to back in the early days of the tribe. They lived in the shadow of a gang of vicious dogs known as "Pollicles," until one day they were chased away by the Great Rumpus Cat. The Jellicle Ball offically commences, and we're treated to a rather lengthy dance number. At the end, Grizabella once again tries to join the festivities, but again is left alone to her own miserable existence.
When we return, Old Deuteronomy sings about what happiness is. Gus shuffles on-stage, accompanied by Jellylorum. He remembers how in his youth, he was once a great actor (a thought that has surely crossed many of these performers' minds). He dreams back to the time of his greatest role as the Growltiger, the Terror of the Thames. We are then treated to a flashback of the Growltiger's romance with Griddlebone. Depending on his age, either the actor playing Gus or one of the male chorus cats will quickly change into a pirate costume. This is also true for the actress playing Jellylorum. In this side story, Griddlebone has been cat-napped by Growltiger's rival, a
Siamese Persian named Genghis Gilbert, who is referred to in the song as a "chink" "the enemy." As with Old Deuteronomy's story at the end of Act I, this part is normally ommitted from amateur productions.
Returning to the present, Skimbleshanks brags about how important he is, in that without his presence, none of the trains can run. As he leaves for the midnight ride to Glasgow, another crash is heard, accompanied by evil laughter. It's Macavity! He pounces towards Demeter, but is chased off by Munkustrap and the other tomcats. Demeter & Bombalurina explain to the kittens the many evil deeds Macavity is responsible for, but like Professor James Moriarty, is always able to avoid detection and capture. Old Deuteronomy returns, putting everyone's minds at ease. But he throws off his coat, revealing Macavity in disguise! The female cats scatter into the audience, but the toms have returned. Munkustrap and Macavity proceed to have the most convincing fight since Zach fought Slater in that Very Special Episode. When he gains the upper hands, the other toms pounce all at once, only to discover that Macavity has once again disappeared.
Why Macavity wanted to kidnap Old Deuteronomy is unexplained. Maybe he's just a dick. Rather than actually going out there to look for their father figure, the Rum Tum Tugger suggests they simply ask Mister Misoffolees to work some of his magic. Misto does a wave of his cape and *poof* they've got Old Deuteronomy back. He announces that he has made his choice as to which cat will have a new life: Grizabella. Yes, despite allowing her to be treated like a leper for the past two hours (and apparently many years), Deuy apparently has had a change of heart. In her greatfulness, she sings/violates the Geneva Convention by subjecting us to Memory. This is the hammiest, most over-the-top, overplayed song ever recorded. It has been sung ad nauseum in every vocal competition on the face of this planet in the past 30 years. If you're hearing it for the very first time, it's beautiful. Every time afterward, you'll want to smash your speakers Gallagher-style.
Grizabella finally finishes singing, and ascends into the Heaviside Layer. While you would think that it's simply just a stand-in for Heaven, the Heaviside Layer is actually the name of one of the outer/upper shells of the Earth's atmosphere. How a group of animals living in trash cans are familiar with meteorlogical terminology is a mystery. The rest of the tribe bids their final farewells, as Old Deuteronomy re-adresses the audience to remind them that cats are a proud race, and must always be treated by their humans with utmost respect.
Or something like that. I think. I don't know, I was trying to beat the traffic.