My first gay experience was with the Rum Tum Tugger.
My second-grade teacher, Mrs. Rosen, illegally staged Cats in our elementary school cafeteria. I was cast as Mr. Mistoffolees, which meant that my mother had sequins sewn into my cat costume and that I shouted “Presto!” after pulling the string on a confetti popper. This was on Long Island in 1986, when Cats was so omnipresent, you couldn’t turn on the TV or walk by a bus stop without seeing yellow cat eyes with dancer pupils staring back at you. The Rum Tum Tugger and I were too young to Rum Tum tug each other; we mostly rubbed each other’s backs while discussing the finer points of Jellicilism.
Cats, of course, had been my first Broadway show. My parents took me to the Winter Garden theater a year earlier, and I’ll never forget the thrill of that overture as the cats came leaping down the aisle, tousling my hair and brushing my arm. I remember feeling part of something illicit; that this junkyard world of fancy cats was foreshadowing, somehow, to a future I couldn’t possibly yet comprehend. I listened to the cast album over and over again on my Fisher Price record player.
Fast forward to 1990: my parents sent me to French Woods Camp for the Performing Arts where I was, once again, a cat in Cats. This time, I was a random chorus cat, wearing a black unitard as I sang the songs and crawled over the laps of the audience (slightly problematic, but this was the ’90s). When my parents came on visiting day, I refused to speak to them because I was getting into character.
My best friend that summer was Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat, a redheaded kid, also from Long Island, who spoke with a lisp and went on to great acclaim later that season playing King Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar. I remember feeling an instant kinship with Skimbleshanks, especially when I learned that he had the unabridged Phantom of the Opera cast recording on cassette. (My parents only had Phantom Highlights, so this was like the Holy Grail.) Our friendship flourished, even when our Cats director quit the night before opening because we weren’t invested enough in Deuteronomy’s return after his kidnapping by (*Spoiler alert*) Macavity.
Now that Cats has been reborn as a movie, it’s difficult to reconcile my relationship to this material that is both undeniably bad as a work of art (see: most people’s reactions to Cats) and also the most significant cultural artifact in my life. Cats is comforting to me: I play it when I’m doing the dishes. And when my husband tries to cue up a hip new album on Alexa, I troll him from my computer and turn on Skimbleshanks. We call it Skimblepranks. It keeps our marriage healthy.
Perhaps the answer to my dilemma comes from an early lyric in the show when the cats form a religious tableau and sing of “the mystical divinity of unashamed felinity.” Unashamed felinity. It’s right there in the lyrics: Cats is a queer text.
Think about it. The show begins with a bunch of cats telling you that they’re no ordinary cats, they’re Jellicle cats. (“What’s a genital Cat?” my husband once asked me when I tried to play him the album.) Read Jellicle as “special” and you’ll suddenly understand the psychology of 90 percent of the gay people in your life.
The rest of the show is a Paris Is Burning-style ball where the Cats are competing for a chance to reincarnate and ride that floating tire to the Heavyside Layer. Each cat has his or her own coded, queer identity: Jennyanydots is a femme lesbian, with her crocheting and military instincts. Bustopher Jones is a well-fed dilettante. Grizabella is every pop diva who the gays drop for the flashier, shinier thing. That’s why, when she reinvents herself with a new song—“Memory”—the gays are like: “Oh my God, we love you again!”
In terms of my own identity, Cats taught me that in the confines of a safe, eclectic community, I could become my true self and that it would be celebrated. That’s one of the things that I genuinely love about Cats: how amused the cats are by one another. Most of the songs are narrated by the other cats. The subtext is basically: “That bitch over there? Girl, let me tell you about her!” It’s all done with a catty kind of love. Which is why, all these years later, I feel a certain defensiveness about the Cats movie. Imagine your childhood stuffed animal suddenly being held up for scrutiny by the public.
Cats, in many ways, defies criticism. For gay kids growing up in New York in the ’80s, it was our Pixar, our Pokemon, our Baby Yoda. It was a transitional object that helped us leave the ordinary, mundane world and prepare ourselves for the Jellicle world we were about to enter.
A few years ago, I was at my therapist’s office in Silverlake on the east side of L.A. As I was leaving, I saw a red-headed guy my age sitting in the lobby. I looked at him for a moment and felt a sudden pang of recognition.
He looked up. Sure enough, it was him.
We were both seeing the same therapist in Silverlake 25 years after having performed Cats at French Woods. Were we still struggling to integrate our Jellicle selves into our true natures? Were we secretly resentful that we weren’t the ones chosen for the Heavyside Layer?
Not sure, but later on we went to our own version of a junkyard world of fancy cats—Akbar, Silverlake’s grungy gay bar—and had a drink. It wasn’t the Winter Garden Theater, but we felt right at home.
Adam Roberts is a film and TV writer living in L.A. and the host of the podcast Lunch Therapy.