If you know anything about the musical Cats, it’s this: Cats is weird. Very very weird. In fact, the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical was considered fairly mad before everyone first saw the ‘Digital Fur Technology’ of the 2019 film.
Why? Well, on the face of it, Cats is a stream of cat character introductions, with each feline entrance accompanied by a mews-ical number.
And, although that's arguably all you need to know about Cats, there’s plenty more strangeness to the tail tale than first meets the (reflective green) eye.
Here’s a quick explainer to get you clued up on Cats...
What actually is the plot of Cats?
Bad news if you didn’t think Cats was about a kitty cult who selects which of their members should be killed off: it’s basically that.
The musical follows a group of cats, known as Jellicles, who meet every year at the Jellicle Ball to decide which one of them should ascend to the ‘Heaviside Layer’. In essence, Cats rapidly introduces more and more Jellicles until we find out which cat is chosen.
As you might have worked out by now, Cats is less about plot and more about the cast of wacky Jellicles. We’ll leave it up to you whether that’s a good thing or not.
Back up a whisker. Jellicles? What are Jellicles?
Jellicles are a tribe of scruffy cats, a group inspired by TS Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (a book of poetry originally published in 1939).
Nocturnal by Jellicle nature, the Jellicle tribe meets once a year at the Jellicle Ball under the Jellicle moon. Jellicle Jellicle Jellicle Jellicle.
Why aren’t Jellicles just called cats? Isn’t the title of the entire thing ‘Cats’?
Because Jellicles are only a specific gang of cats. Best not think about it too much.
Okay, but what exactly is the Heaviside Layer?
Like most things in Cats, it’s not exactly clear.
Each year at the Jellicle Ball, a “wise, commanding and spiritual” cat known as Old Deuteronomy (played by Judi Dench in the 2019 film) has to choose the one cat that will enter the Heaviside Layer. The Jellicles aptly call this the “Jellicle choice”.
However, it’s never explicitly said in the story what the Heaviside Layer is. All we know is that the cats believe a Jellicle is given a new life once they enter it. And every Jellicle really wants to go there because they're in a loving tribe and not in an apocalyptic cult.
In science, the Heaviside Layer is an upper layer of the atmosphere. However, there are several theories about what the Heaviside Layer in Cats could represent.
- The Heaviside Layer is literally heaven. Hence the name. Most agree this how poet TS Eliot thought of the place. The writer also refers to the “Heaviside Layer” in his play The Family Reunion, which explores ideas of afterlife and heaven.
- Entering the Heaviside Layer means being killed. Because what musical isn’t without a ritual sacrifice?
- After cats enter the Heaviside Layer, they are literally born again. Reincarnation, yo.
Who are the main contenders to ascend to the Heaviside Layer in Cats?
We’ll level with you now: there are a lot of them. But the main ones to look out for are…
Jennyanydots – the cat played by Rebel Wilson. Also known as the Old Gumbie Cat, Jennyanydots is lazy by day, but springs into energy at night to boss around mice and cockroaches.
Rum Tum Tugger – AKA the attention-seeking Cat played by Jason Derulo.
Bustopher Jones – Fat, upper-class and known for his fine dining, Bustopher is a cat with "fastidious black coat and white spats".
He’s played by James Corden.
Gus the Theatre Cat – played by Ian McKellen, this former famous acting cat is obsessed by his previous exploits.
Bombalurina – AKA the one played by Taylor Swift.
In the stage play, Bombalurina is red, flirtatious, confident and very mischievous.
Grizabella – a past “glamour cat” who’s now lost her “sparkle” and is hated by the other Jellicles.
Played by Jennifer Hudson, she sings the musical's most renowned song, Memory.
Although not truly a contender for the Heaviside Layer, there’s one other major cat to mention:
Macavity – A "Napoleon of crime" (sigh) feared by most Jellicles, this evil feline is played by Idris Elba in the film.
Other (absolutely mad) characters include caretaker cat Jellylorum (Freya Rowley), semi-wizard cat Mr Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson), railway worker cat Skimbleshanks (Steven McRae) and ballet cat Victoria (Francesca Hayward).
So, what happens at the end of Cats?
Big spoiler: at the end of the stage play, Grizabella (played by Jennifer Hudson in the film) is selected to ascend to the Heaviside Layer.
Although theatre productions vary, Grizabella is usually seen climbing to the very top of the stage with Old Deuteronomy and is never seen again.
Probably because she’s just been straight-up murdered.