Brush Up on What Cats the Musical Is Actually About Before the New Film Lands in Theaters

Does anyone actually know what the story of Cats is about? The musical, which was an icon of the 1980s “megamusical” era on Broadway and in London, ran for decades, but if you ask someone who’s seen it, they’ll probably just answer “it’s about . . . cats.” The newly released trailer for this Winter’s star-studded film adaptation doesn’t do much to explain things either, so if you’re just curious enough to want to know what the actual story is, we’ve got you covered.

The short version is that Cats is about a tribe of magical cats, called the Jellicle Cats, who are holding a ceremony to determine which one of them will be chosen to ascend and be reborn into a new life in the “Heaviside Layer.” The musical is more in the revue style, with a loose plot tying together a bunch of songs that feature individual characters without moving the plot significantly forward. At the beginning, all the cats come together to explain to their human audience what the purpose of the gathering is: the patriarch or ruling cat, Old Deuteronomy, is choosing the cat who will get to be reborn into a new life.

A pair of charming cats are introduced at the beginning and describe themselves in song and dance. First, Jennyanydots appears, who’s lazy during the day but enjoys coming out at night to try to teach rodents and bugs how to be less destructive. The campy, showy Rum Tum Tugger then appears and declares his philosophy of doing whatever he wants, regardless of what others think.

The other main plot thread is then introduced with the arrival of Grizabella, a ragged, older cat who’s fallen on hard times and is seeking an end to her estrangement from the rest of the tribe. They back away from her and turn their focus instead to some of the other flashy cats. Bustopher Jones, an aristocratic cat, shows off, and then Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer, a pair of petty thieves who enjoy causing trouble for humans and cats alike, show up and startle the others.

Old Deuteronomy arrives, and the other cats put on a play about how a great cat ancestor scared away two warring dog tribes. The “Jellicle Ball” begins, and when Grizabella arrives and tries to join in, she is prevented from doing so, both by the shunning from other cats and her own weak physical condition. After the ball, Old Deuteronomy muses on the nature of happiness, thinking about Grizabella’s state. Gus the Theatre Cat appears and tells of his past successes, reenacting one of his great roles from the past.

The “most wanted” cat, Macavity, appears with his henchmen, and they kidnap Old Deuteronomy and turn out the lights. Rum Tum Tugger calls on the magic cat, Mr. Mistoffelees, to assist in getting the lights back on and bringing Old Deuteronomy back. Upon his return, Old Deuteronomy prepares to make his choice — but first, he allows Grizabella to address the rest of the cats, and her story could change everything for the entire Jellicle Tribe.

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