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Read This If You Are Confused About the Existence of ‘Cats’

Eleven questions about the musical, the movie, the movie’s rollout, and not Jason Derulo

Universal Pictures/Ringer illustration

I feel about Cats the same way that I imagine my cat feels about strangers stopping by my house. I do not want it around. I did not ask it to come here. I hate—hate—the noises it is making at me. I have attempted to make myself very slightly larger to intimidate it, and yet it remains. Even worse, it persists in touching my head with its horrible, semi-hairy paws.

What I mean is that Cats arrives this week, and there is nothing at all that we can do to stop it. If you thought that simply sitting under the couch and growling would be enough, I regret to inform you otherwise. Cats is here, and worst of all, it’s a sensation.

This is not an exaggeration. While you, like me, have perhaps been vaguely aware of the existence of the 1981 Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, with characters who have names like Grummykins and Mr. Peccadillo, and adults, human adults, people who were once children and then stopped being children, individuals whom the government has anointed with the legal right to vote and drink and do war, who strap on cat tails and sing, it’s also likely that you know nothing else about Cats.

But really. The cast includes, if you will bear with me: Taylor Swift, Judi Dench, Idris Elba, James Corden, Rebel Wilson, Jason Derulo, Jennifer Hudson, and Ian freaking McKellen. Among them, those eight have 31 Teen Choice Awards, 12 Grammys, 10 Emmys, six Guinness World Records, three Tonys, two Academy Awards, two recognitions by the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, and one Rear of the Year. You could not ignore this movie if you tried.

So let’s not ignore it. Let’s prepare, instead, to make some sense of it, and separate known unknowns from unknown unknowns.

What do the Cats cats want?

To elect one of their own to go to the “Heaviside Layer,” which is either death (dark!) or, depending on how literally you take the nine-lives business, a shot at reincarnation.

Also, milk.

Do cats even like milk?

Mostly, no! Despite what cartoons and the Carpool Karaoke guy would have you believe, your average housecat is probably not going to be very interested in chilled cow’s milk. Many cats, in fact, have trouble processing lactose and sugar (which is present in milk) after weaning, meaning TSwift might, in the words of, “become gassy or ‘gurgly,’ have soft stool or even outright diarrhea.”

Why are all these very famous actors doing the Cats movie?

If you’re not a musical person, it might be something of a shock to learn just how successful Cats has been since its debut. Its London production ran for 21 years; if you’ve seen any hit musical at your local megatheater when it’s come to town, you’ve got Cats to thank for popularizing the model. Kids love Cats! Parents love Cats! People looking to get their children out of the house over winter break love Cats! You get it.

So … they’re dressed like cats?

Correct. Through the magic of CGI, Dench and Co. have been made decidedly fluffy—though perhaps a little less so following the harsh response to the movie’s initial trailer this summer. (The effects “were at quite an early stage,” director Tom Hooper said later.) As my wise colleague Alison Herman suggested:

Does the decision to put Elba’s cat in a fur coat and hat mean that all the other cats are naked?


Wait, fur coat?

It’s best not to dwell on it.

How big are the cats?

Definitely not cat-sized. We see them interact with the human world frequently, and while they sometimes seem to be roughly cat height, they’ve kept their human proportions and human bipedalism, which means that they are smaller and weirder than actual cats. As a professional zoologist, I would say that the cats are mostly gerbil-sized, which incidentally is a size that a real cat would be very qualified to dispatch of. The furniture in the Cats world is also huge, so it’s anybody’s guess whether the cats are tiny or whether everything else in the world is made for giants.

Wow. How’s the press tour going?

Um, well, it would depend on your definition of “well.” Judi Dench, who plays Old Deuteronomy, ruptured her Achilles tendon days before previews were set to begin; as Jia Tolentino reported this week in The New Yorker, the timing led to immediate rumors that it was “an excuse for her to jump a sinking ship.”

Is the musical, like, a metaphor?

Hard to say, but despite what I said earlier about there being a plot—really, this is just about cats. It’s based on a set of poems written by T.S. Eliot, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which is how you get names like “the Rum Tum Tugger.” A possibly important fact is that these poems were written for children.

So it must all be pretty innocent, then.

Uh, no. One of the central kitties is Hudson’s Grizabella, who was once a “glamour cat” and is now senior and probably misses her litter box half the time, ugh. Cats informs us that she has recently “haunted many a low resort near the grimy road of Tottenham Court,” lyrics that are generally thought to point to feline sex work.

Wow. OK. Anything else important to know about the show?

Well ...