AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
It's time to talk about "Cats."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JELLICLE SONGS FOR JELLICLE CATS")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (Singing) Jellicle songs for jellicle cats, jellicle songs for jellicle cats.
CORNISH: The movie musical directed by Tom Hooper finally comes out on Friday, months after a bewildering trailer dropped featuring familiar actors like Judi Dench and Ian McKellen CGIed (ph) into cats with human faces and hands.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CATS")
JUDI DENCH: (As Old Deuteronomy) Tonight is a magical night.
CORNISH: "Cats" the musical was no less puzzling than the trailer for the film. But as of this year, Andrew Lloyd Webber's production is Broadway's fourth-longest-running show.
To break down why a show and now a movie that's so mystifying is also so popular, we have NPR's Linda Holmes. Welcome back.
LINDA HOLMES, BYLINE: (Imitating cat meowing).
BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: (Laughter).
CORNISH: And NPR's Bob Mondello. Welcome back to you.
MONDELLO: Good to be here.
CORNISH: Normally, when we start talking about a show, we describe the plot. "Cats" doesn't really have a plot, but you need to know that once a year, the jellicle cats sing and dance in a competition to decide who gets to ascend to cat heaven. Linda, am I getting that right?
HOLMES: You are. You are. And if you're a person out in the audience thinking, I don't know what a jellicle cat is, I don't know what a jellicle cat is either. It doesn't really explain very much. But this version - they add a little bit of kidnapping and Idris Elba as the naked kidnapping cat. They don't call him the naked kidnapping cat, but that's what he is.
CORNISH: That would be a very strange IMDB entry...
CORNISH: ...Bob Mondello...
MONDELLO: And talking...
CORNISH: ...For you.
MONDELLO: Exactly. Talking about a naked cat, as opposed to the ones that wear shoes, which is...
HOLMES: And clothes.
MONDELLO: Right - which is a little strange. And you're looking at strangeness on-screen that didn't seem anywhere nearly as strange, even though nobody got it, back when it was a musical...
MONDELLO: ...On Broadway.
CORNISH: Yes. But let's talk about this for a second. What did people first think when they saw it?
MONDELLO: Well, from audiences, it was better than it was from critics. But what was impressive about the production initially was that it had a sound design that had never been done on Broadway before. It was - everybody was mic'ed (ph) individually. It had lighting design that had never been done before on Broadway. So the spectacle was really spectacular, and audiences fell for that. I mean, you know, it's huge.
CORNISH: Linda, I want to let you jump in here. Does the music hold up?
HOLMES: In most cases, the presentation of the music is pretty straightforward. But if you don't like listening to the original cast album of "Cats," you're probably going to be bothered by this music. And I think part of the problem is that, as Bob was saying, it was a very interesting theatrical project, partly because they had people in cat costumes, suggesting cats, but it wasn't too literal.
HOLMES: And in this, they've gone more literal with digital manipulation of the movements and the tails and everything like that. And...
MONDELLO: And a lot of the work is done by those ears and tails. The ears are constantly twitching, and you're conscious...
MONDELLO: ...That it isn't that Dame Judi Dench is twitching her ears, right? She's got these ears twitching above her and a tail twitching behind her. And...
CORNISH: Do you think it would work if the actors were unknowns? Is part of the distraction having this A-list cast of Judi Dench or James Corden or Taylor Swift?
HOLMES: Well, part of the thing that's interesting about it is a lot of the main throughline characters are unknowns. One of them is a beautiful dancer, and several of them are extremely talented.
CORNISH: Why do you think we keep coming back to this work? Is it the opportunity to make spectacle?
MONDELLO: Well, I think people don't let something that made $3.5 billion in another medium just sit there.
MONDELLO: It makes sense to bring it back for that reason alone. And there are people who like that big song, the - (singing) memories, da da da da da da da. I mean...
CORNISH: Oh, you know of it.
MONDELLO: Yeah, and it sounds a lot like that. And they think that this may be this year's "Greatest Showman."
CORNISH: And that was the movie starring Hugh Jackman.
MONDELLO: That's right. And it did not get terribly good reviews. And the public really liked it. It was big and splashy. Well, this is big and splashy. So they're hoping that in the same basic audience slot that this is going to do some business. I think it's unlikely.
HOLMES: And I would add one other thing, which is this is directed by Tom Hooper, who directed the film of "Les Miserables," which is a Broadway show of a similar vintage, which, similarly, not everybody is into the music. So I think one reason this got made is that "Les Miserables" was very successful. So I think it was probably a lot easier, you know, particularly with Hooper attached to it, for people to feel like, OK, let's see if we can make this go as well because theoretically, theater people of the same vintage might be interested in a "Cats" movie as well.
MONDELLO: I guess that's a theory. It's also led some critics - I think was Justin Chang who called this "Les Meowserables" (ph). So...
CORNISH: You're firing on all cylinders today, Bob Mondello.
MONDELLO: I am trying - and there's - and this is a major catastrophe.
MONDELLO: I'm tempted to do dozens of them.
CORNISH: OK. We're going to stop you there. That's movie and theater critic Bob Mondello.
MONDELLO: My pleasure.
CORNISH: And Linda Holmes, host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, thank you so much.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MR. MISTOFFELEES")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (Singing) Oh, well, I never. Was there ever a cat so clever as magical Mr. Mistoffelees? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.