The process that converted a minor literary diversion by T. S. Eliot—Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats—into a major international money-making machine called Cats was bound sooner or later to make itself felt beyond the realm of commercial theater. Success of this kind on this scale has a way of affecting much that lies beyond the short-term goals of the production itself. One unintended consequence of Cats’s phenomenal profits, for example, is said to be the financial bonanza it has brought to the house of Faber & Faber, Eliot’s publisher and for many years his employer. No one in 1939 could have imagined that a routine subsidiary-rights clause in the contract for Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats might, half a century later, save its publisher from going the way of so many distinguished firms—straight into bankruptcy or else absorption into a conglomerate with cultural horizons scarcely distinguishable from those of the producers of Cats. This is truly an irony of Eliotic proportions.
So much for the good news. There are, however, some consequences of Cats’s success that look to be a good deal less benign. One of them, certainly, is the $2.6 million endowment lately established at Oxford University by Cameron Macintosh, whose runaway successes include Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera, as well as Cats, for the ostensible purpose of supporting “student drama:” The immediate result of this dubious benefaction has been the appointment of Stephen Sondheim as Oxford’s first Visiting Professor of Drama and Musical Theater. According to a report in The New York Times, Mr. Sondheim “is to begin his visit in January and serve the rest of the academic year.” Oxford is not creating a department of drama with Mr. Macintosh’s money, and Mr. Sondheim will give no formal lectures. Instead, as the Times reports, he will “work with students through workshops, master classes and observing productions of his musicals.” Which probably means, among much else, that the commercial theater has now acquired a facility at Oxford for the creation of a good many more Cats.
The best comment we have seen on this unhappy affair is that of John Gross, now the theater critic for the London Sunday Telegraph. “If a chair of drama had been established at Oxford 50 years ago,” Mr. Gross wrote on August 6, “it would probably have been offered, at a guess, to someone like Harley Granville Barker—a distinguished all-round man of the theatre, rooted in Shakespeare and the classics, alert to the creative currents of his own time. But this is 1989, and now that the chair finally exists, the first incumbent is to be Stephen Sondheim.” Mr. Gross continued:
Nothing very surprising there. The appointment is simply one more small step in a familiar process, the gradual showbizification of the world. And at least Sondheim represents contemporary entertainment at its most polished and probing.
Or does he? And if he does, how good is the best? The revival of his 1973 musical A Little Night Music at the Chichester Festival Theatre stirs up some dark misgivings. It is stylish and energetic; it approaches both text and score with obvious respect—and it leaves you feeling that the emperor’s clothes are pretty ragged.
Mr. Gross concluded his review of the revival of A Little Night Music by observing that nothing “can disguise the shallowness of the piece itself.” And this is to be the model that Oxford, thanks to Cats, will now offer to its students of drama. Apparently it is not only universities on this side of the Atlantic that are suffering a crisis of standards.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 8 Number 2, on page 3
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