Cats are as unlikely to be given leading roles on stage than they are in films. But the cats brought spectacularly to life by actors in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s award-winning musical Cats have enchanted theater goers since the show opened in London in 1981.
Based on T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, the production has toured the world to rave reviews.
In another sense, the “theater cat” has a long tradition, as at one time nearly every leading theater had a resident mouse catcher. Loved by actors and stage staff alike, these cats helped to keep down the numbers of rodents attracted by litter-strewn auditoriums.
There are many stories of theater cats casually strolling on stage during a performance and washing themselves in the footlights, or causing mayhem in the “props” room. Today, vermin are controlled in different ways and the very few old troupers that linger on as theater cats are usually firmly denied access to the stage.
In a relatively new, and controversial, development in feline show business, touring “cat circuses” are becoming particularly popular in the United States and Moscow. One of the largest of the Russian companies has about 120 cats trained to perform acrobatic tricks.
The glitzy circus routines, which are set to various themes, include cats tightrope-walking, riding rocking horses, and balancing on top of balls. The ethics of making cats perform for entertainment, however humane their treatment, has aroused considerable debate.