Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber’s long-running hit musical Cats will return to the West End this December, more than a decade after its original run ended. Between tours, community theatres, regional productions, and student performances, the show is perennially performed, so you may be asking yourself, “Why should I spend the extra money to see this mounting?” Thankfully for you, the good Lord has an answer ready: the Rum Tum Tugger raps now!
Yes, Lloyd Webber will be re-writing the fan-favorite song “The Rum Tum Tugger” into a rap in order to fit his new vision of the Rum Tum Tugger being “a contemporary street cat”, according to this article. The column also reports that another song, “Growltiger’s Last Stand”, will be re-written as well, because it, along with “The Rum Tum Tugger”, never satisfied Lloyd Webber.
Now here’s what’s giving me a headache over this news: first, the last thing that needed improving in this show was the music; second, the shallow, gimmicky feel of the news; and third, Lloyd Webber’s claim that T.S. Eliot invented rap as a justification for the change.
Along with the dancing, this show’s music is the best thing it has going for it. Of all the aspects to revamp for a revival, the music should be very much at the bottom of the list. What would I suggest changing before touching the score? Definitely the book. The storyline which connects these unrelated character songs is so gossamer-thin that it really can’t support the weight of the production. Beefing up some of the exposition and definitely the arc of the plot would make for a much more fulfilling theatrical experience than changing a few of the songs.
This change also has the feel of a publicity stunt. As I mentioned, Cats is performed with a high frequency in many parts of the English-speaking world. Announcing a revival wouldn’t exactly cause a stir among theatre circles, but announce that one of the most popular songs from the show is going to be changed, especially to a genre like rap, which is so uncommon on stage? That will get people talking. Andrew Lloyd Webber hasn’t exactly shown an inclination toward hip-hop in the past, so this sudden decision to include it in one of his highest-profile shows starts to seem rather suspicious.
Finally, and most upsetting, is Lloyd Webber’s claim that T.S. Eliot, the original author of the source poems for the musical, invented rap. In the article linked at the start of this entry, Lloyd Webber stated of the original poem: “I’ve come to the conclusion that Rum Tum Tugger was possibly the first ever rap song. TS Eliot clearly anticipated rapping in his metres.”
Now, I am aware that there is some debate as to who can claim to be the founder of rap as a genre, especially since there is debate on what does and doesn’t count as rap, but to credit its invention to an old white guy just sits really wrong with me. Rap as we know it, and as Lloyd Webber intends to use it, comes from the experiences of urban, disadvantaged, people of color. Carnegie Hall’s timeline specifically credits it to “African-American, Afro-Caribbean, and Latino inner-city communities plagued by poverty, the proliferation of drugs, and gang violence”. It’s more than just the rhythm and meter of a lyric piece; it has a history and a meaning. It’s downright gross that this is glossed over by Lloyd Webber as he attempts to generate buzz for his musical.
Also, can we talk about the term “contemporary street cat”? What exactly does that mean? What do street cats have to do with rap? If memory serves, several other cats in this musical are street cats, and none of them are getting hip-hop rewrites. The term “street” is just another way of saying “Black”. What the composer is saying is that he wants a Black influence in the show but he doesn’t want to use any language that could actually link to a real world culture and therefore put any burden of responsibility on him to represent it well.
Can Andrew Lloyd Webber write a rap? That will remain to be seen. There’s a lack of evidence one way or the other. Does this musical need a rap? No, at least not according to its record-breaking runs on the West End and Broadway. The real issue here is Lloyd Webber taking an art form so ingrained in a particular culture, using it for his own purposes, and giving absolutely no credit where credit is due. Perhaps he thinks he’s being clever or revolutionary by crediting rap to an early 20th century poet, but he’s not. White people have been getting credit for minorities’ contributions for years, and that tradition doesn’t need any further help.