I began setting Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats to music late in 1977, partly because it is a book I remember with affection from my childhood and partly because I wanted to set existing verse to music. In my associations with lyricists it has tended to be the case that once a dramatic story line had been agreed, the lyrics are written to music I compose. I was very curious to see whether I could work the other way round.
Very luckily Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats contains verses that are extraordinarily musical; they have rhythms that are very much their own, like the “Rum Tum Tugger” or “Old Deuteronomy” and although clearly they dictate to some degree the music that will accompany them, they are frequently of irregular and exciting metre and are very challenging to a composer.
I wrote some settings in late 1977 which I began performing at the piano for friends, but I never progressed the idea seriously until after I had composed Tell Me On A Sunday. This was performed on BBC TV in the early part of 1980 and I began to think of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats as a possible concert anthology that could also be performed on television. With this in mind, some of my settings were performed in the summer of 1980 at the Sydmonton Festival. Valerie Eliot fortunately came to the concert and with her brought various unpublished pieces of verse by her husband; one of these was “Grizabella the Glamour Cat”. The musical and dramatic images that this created for me made me feel that there was very much more to the project and that I needed the support of another to encourage me to re-work my settings and to see if a dramatic whole could be woven from the delightful verse that I was now to be allowed to develop.
Thus in the late summer I had my first meeting with Trevor Nunn. Soon after Valerie Eliot produced various other uncollected poems, three of which we have incorporated into Cats in their entirety. She also gave us a fascinating rough draft of an opening poem for what appears to have been conceived as a longer book about cats and dogs. This poem was not appropriate for the stage but it inspired us to write a lyric with the same intention of celebrating the supremacy of Jellicle cats. We have been able to include lines from the end of Eliot’s draft poem which now introduce “The Naming of Cats”. But what was most thrilling was to find a reference in one of Eliot’s letters to a coherent, albeit incomplete structure for an evening; he proposed that eventually the cats were to go “Up up up past the Russell Hotel, up up up to the Heaviside Layer”.
Trevor Nunn, who I discovered has a taste for tackling theatrical problems that most people consider insoluble, set to work immediately with me in combing Eliot’s works and we were reminded of the many references to cats in the main body of his writing.
I have enjoyed working on Cats as much as on any show on which I have worked. My gratitude will be undying to Valerie Eliot, without whose encouragement the musical could never have taken its present form.
Andrew Lloyd Webber
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