"Cats" has been prowling world stages since 1981 when it opened in London. In 1982, the show opened at Broadway's Winter Garden Theater and the Andrew Lloyd Webber Tony Award-winning musical has been playing to sold-out houses ever since.
It also has toured in 12 countries, with translations into Japanese, German, Hungarian, Finnish, Dutch, Swedish and other languages.So obviously the show's creators have reason to purr with contentment over the cats tale based on T. S. Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats."
Now, however, some rain may be about to fall on the "Cats" parade. Translators are growling and hissing about the difficulty of translating "Cats" into French.
Linguists have long been aware the French fight fiercely to protect the exactness, purity and pronunciation of their language. All of us recall that one of the biggest laughs in "My Fair Lady" comes when Professor Henry Higgins says: "The French don't care what they do actually, as long as they pronounce it correctly."
Now comes the question of the show's title in France. With the French aversion to accepting English names, it likely will be called "Les Chats."
Actually, chats is masculine for cats in French, but as one female French expert, who will go nameless for obvious reasons, said: "You wouldn't say `Les Chattes' (which is feminine for cats in French) because the French are such (male) chauvinists that if there is one male cat and dozens of female cats, the masculine word gets preference."
Jeff Lee, a visiting professor in the Yale graduate school of drama who has been affiliated with "Cats" for years and seen many foreign productions, gives a simpler explanation.
"Really the problem is that T. S. Eliot's poems just don't seem to translate easily into French. It was easy to follow the translation in the production I saw in Vienna, and it was rather easy to translate into the Scandinavian languages. But French continues to be difficult. The translators had a better time of it with Japanese."
For the past four years, Lee has taught a graduate course in stage managing and directing at Yale. He was on Broadway with "Cats" for 18 months as the production stage manager, then took over as production supervisor of four touring companies.
"On Broadway, my job was to maintain the show as the director left it - artistically and technically. On the road, I try to maintain the overall look - acting, singing and dancing."
Technically, "Cats" presents monumental logistics. The show comes in on five huge tractor trucks - one filled with sound equipment, the others with costumes, wigs, steel forms, miles of cable and pieces of scenery. In the scenery, British designer John Napier used a junkyard motif scaled four times normal size to create the illusion from a cat's eye view.
"Cats" carries $45,000 worth of costumes, $35,000 in special wigs fluffed into cat ears. The wigs - valued at $1,400 each - are made from yaks (long-haired oxen) hair from China.
"The life of a dancer in `Cats' is especially difficult. The body is just not prepared to be a feline, and the constant walking on all fours takes its toll on knees and backs," Lee said.
To keep the cast fit and healthy, the touring company tries to maintain a list of "orthopedic, chiropractors, throat doctors and masseurs at our fingertips."