Cats 2019 & Why We Need To Stop Adapting Musicals

We have ourselves a Sonic the Hedgehog situation.

We need to stop bringing musicals to screen. Please, for the love of all things musical theatre, let’s stop. I say this with as much kindness as I can muster. If you saw the recent trailer for Cats, you will understand why this needed to be said. It pains me of course, since I am a fan of musical theatre, but nothing good has come out of such endeavours.

Firstly, let’s talk about Cats. The stage version isn’t the most normal thing to see on stage; I mean people dressing up as cats as well as singing and dancing won’t have you nodding and thinking back to the morning where your pet cat did the exact same thing. However, it never tries to convince you that these actors are cats. We enjoy the makeup and the costuming, and appreciate the work that goes into it. Cats the film experience seems to want us to feel that these are real cats, with the CGI used diving into the depths of the uncanny valley, making us feel immensely uncomfortable watching what looks to be a species with both cat and human DNA. We should have seen this coming — the horror of Sonic The Hedgehog warned us — but we insisted on having great faith in our filmmakers.

Film as a medium revolves around a sense of realism, where we experience suspension of disbelief as we watch events play out on screen. Theatre, however, is different. There is, of course, realist theatre, but musicals in general don’t fall into that category. People don’t randomly break out into song in the middle of their day, or start gathering in masses to show off choreographed dance moves. Musical theatre is fantastical, over the top, thriving on the use of practical effects. When the broken chandelier returns to its former glory in The Phantom Of The Opera, I gasp because I am seeing it happen in real time, marveling at the level of expertise that goes into the set.

When Javert jumps to his death in Les Misérables, to see them replicate this in the theatre — suspending him in the air while the backdrop behind him changes to reflect the falling — is just amazing. I rolled my eyes when Russell Crowe did it in the movie version (he also took forever to fall to his death). Half an hour into the film version of The Last Five Years and I just had to leave, despite loving the stage version. The only musical to film adaptation that works is Grease, but that’s because it embraces the camp and never tries to be more than that. And it was the late 70s; people were used to seeing strange things.

Hollywood also has a preoccupation with jamming their musical adaptations with big stars, who sometimes just don’t have the singing chops to carry these heavy musical pieces. I had to sit through Russell Crowe’s “unique” singing, as well as tolerate Gerard Butler as the phantom. Butler was nowhere as bad as Crowe, but his voice just isn’t strong enough to match what a character like the phantom needs. He’s also too pretty to be the phantom. The tiny mask barely covers his face and he is so aesthetically pleasing that I wouldn’t mind being trapped with him for a bit. Everyone knows that the phantom seduces Christine with his voice and what he can teach her about her own – a passion for music is their connection.

And I get that not everyone has the means to go watch musicals; films are definitely cheaper and offer a way to bring the magic of stage to the masses. But what’s the point if the end result is perpetually a mess? The adaptation will always be found wanting in comparison to the stage version. So let’s keep the enchantment of musical theatre where it belongs, on the stage where it can never be ruined by CGI.

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