In primary school the music teacher showed us the musical ‘Cats’ by Arthur Lloyd Webber and Trever Nunn. I found it rather odd, to be honest, but some part of it must have stuck with me, because I ended up performing the ‘Macavity’ song as a poem at the school talent night with a friend.
It wasn’t until much later that I developed a love for the song ‘Memory’ – immortalised by Elaine Paige in the 1981 musical, and by many artists afterwards (perhaps most recently Susan Boyle).
The song is sung by Grizabella, a cat who is old, tired and broken, yet longs to begin a new life. It is the climax of the musical and is based on two of T. S. Elliot’s poems.
Why I like it
The music – the tune is haunting, nostalgic and terribly sad. Exactly the sort of music I like. It is also clearly sung, so that each of the words take on a meaning in themselves, as well as being part of an overall impression.
The lyrics – are absolutely stunning. They are the perfect balance of complexity (so you have to actually think about them) and simple (so that you can actually understand them enough to appreciate the song the first time you hear it).
The acting – the song is part of the overall storyline, and thus part of its appeal is its strong thematic value. We as the audience have been waiting for this part, this crescendo, since we were introduced to the cats and their desires and beliefs.
My favourite part
Grizabella is rather ugly, and again and again I find it amazing (and a good life lesson!) how Paige’s beautiful, heartrending solo can serve to redeem both her character, and the entire musical. She bridges the gap between these cats and the audience – because surely each of us has at one time, felt the longing for something we do not have. Surely we have all experienced the feeling of being left behind, of not being good enough, young enough, beautiful enough – and have clung onto the hope for new life and resurrection.
Issues and complexities
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen more of the musical than the clip of Elaine Paige’s song, and in fact, I don’t think you need to watch the entire play to enjoy the song. This is somewhat problematic, as it exists as part of a whole and should be judged as such.
The beauty of this song can act as an end point – we listen, we appreciate, we go away. I think it’s important that we challenge ourselves to understand the play as a whole – a richer understanding and a deeper joy must be the result of such an investigation.
For example, there has been many allusions drawn between T. S. Elliot’s Christian beliefs and Grizabella’s resurrection. I cannot judge the strength of these, as I haven’t looked into them enough, but they add another level of complexity to the song.
“Midnight, not a sound from the pavement
Has the moon lost her memory?
She is smiling alone in the lamplight
The withered leaves collect at my feet
And the wind begins to moan
Memory, all alone in the moonlight
I can smile at the old days, I was beautiful then
I remember the time I knew what happiness was
Let the memory live again
Every street lamp
Seems to beat a fatalistic warning
Someone mutters and the street lamp gutters
And soon it will be morning
Daylight, I must wait for the sunrise
I must think of a new life
And I mustn’t give in when the dawn comes
Tonight will be a memory too
And a new day will begin
Burnt out ends of smoky days
The stale cold smell of morning
The street lamp dies, another night is over
Another day is dawning
Touch me, it’s so easy to leave me
All alone with the memory
Of my days in the sun if you touch me
You’ll understand what happiness is
A new day has begun”