Sept. 18, 1998
"Cats" Breaks Ground on Video
By Leslie Carroll
The entertainment industry is witnessing a new ground- breaking. Seven-time Tony-winner "Cats," the longest- running Broadway musical and a worldwide phenomenon, is coming to home video.
On Oct. 27, PolyGram Video will release a filmed version of the musical, restaged and recorded with a specially augmented 100-piece orchestra. Shot on a custom-built set at London's historic Adelphi Theatre, the production includes 16 camera positions with multiple angles each, stereo surround-sound, and all new lighting.
The international cast is headed by two Brits: Elaine Paige reprising her role as Grizabella; the 90-year-old Sir John Mills as Gus, the Theatre Cat; and an American: Ken Page (recreating his original Broadway performance) as Old Deuteronomy.
The remainder of the ensemble features original cast members from both the London and Broadway productions, and from various international companies.
According to the promotional information, the video production, which was "reinvented and restaged" by music video director David Mallet ("Lord of the Dance"), features a song especially written for the video release; although a duet's tune was changed, nothing appeared to have been added from the original West End stage production.
The filming process took a month, and was produced by the show's composer, Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber. The marriage between PolyGram and Really Useful Films (Lloyd Webber's production company) aims "to recreate a live event," although the musical was filmed without an audience.
Care and Feeding
Kristen Foster, a spokesperson for PolyGram, was cagey about the kind of contract under which the video was produced, and about the project's actual budget, commenting only that "the actors were well-taken care of."
Speaking for Actors' Equity Association, Ken Greenwood told Back Stage that Equity was not involved with contract negotiations for its members, and that, to his knowledge, the video was produced under a London recording agreement. Any residual rights reverting to American performers would be governed by the terms of such agreement.
Greenwood had no idea of the number of American Equity members involved with the making of the "Cats" video, nor did he believe that their participation was connected with the international exchange program that exists between British Equity and Actors' Equity Association. In addition, Greenwood stated that Equity lacks jurisdiction over the PBS telecast of the video scheduled to debut on Nov. 2.
In The Catbird Seat
Cast member Jacob Brent, currently appearing in the Broadway company as Mr. Mistoffelees, informed Back Stage that he had been "hand-picked" by Gillian Lynne, the choreographer charged with the musical staging of the piece, to perform in the video. Brent and the other two Americans in the cast (Ken Page and Michael Gruber) negotiated their own contracts, which he believed were commensurate with the Broadway production contract rate; and according to Brent, it was a "buyout across the board." As far as he knows, Actors' Equity was not involved, and he "wasn't exchanged for anyone."
Apparently, the original plans for the video were to select half the cast from among American actors, and the other half from British performers, but that didn't happen, because Equity was reluctant to negotiate contracts and visas for so many performers.
"It's really a shame," Brent said, "because the American company is so good."
Brent provided Back Stage with an insider's peek at the production process. The vocals were recorded first in a studio, then two run-throughs of the show were shot with the 16 cameras, followed by weeks of close-ups and pick-up shots. "It was really weird to take what you've been doing for three years and not have an audience, but you get used to it after a few days," Brent said.
He characterized his experience as "great," reiterating that it was an "amazing time to be in London. Princess Diana had just died, and we shut down production for a few days."
The Lion's Share of Viewers
But who is expected to be the audience for this ground- breaking project? The video's promoters see their product as appealing to the mass market; however, the sales impact of a video (at $24.95), which costs one-third the price of an orchestra seat to a show which is still running on Broadway, remains to be seen.
In response to this question, Jed Bernstein, executive director of the League of American Theatres and Producers, drew upon another Broadway hit as an example of "building brands," a long-respected marketing tradition: "How many kids who see 'The Lion King' have seen the video?"
Bernstein believes that a well-established brand name like "Cats," that has continued to run successfully in New York despite the proliferation of touring companies, is proof-positive that people can't get enough of it. He views the video format of the musical as yet another way to expose audiences to the story of "Cats," and doesn't see video sales as a deterrent to Broadway ticket sales, nor will a video ever replace the experience of a live performance.
Citing the Disney example again, Bernstein chooses to see the PolyGram video as a way to potentially increase Broadway ticket sales: "Now you can see the characters you saw in the video, brought to life onstage," he said, adding, "The more interest you generate in the story of "Cats," the more it tends to help everyone [in the industry]."
"Cats" performer Brent agrees. How might jaded New Yorkers react to the video? Brent feels, "Like everything else, some people will hate it...but for others, it will be new and fresh. Ultimately, what will happen is that people will want to see the show again."
Let Memories Live Again
Will musicals to music videos become a trend? "Cats" may be the first in a series of Lloyd Webber musicals to be reborn on film to video. There is talk of Donny Osmond heading the cast of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," as a future venture, also to be distributed under the PolyGram banner.
Viewers wishing to make their own video copy of "Cats" will have their chance on Mon., Nov. 2, at 8 pm, when PBS will televises the production on its "Great Performances" series.
"Cats," based on 14 poems from "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" by T.S. Eliot, first opened on London's West End in 1981. Productions of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musicals have been seen by 50 million people, in over 27 different countries and have been translated into 14 different languages.