Songs from Musicals: #50, “The Moments of Happiness,” from Cats

Honorable mentions: “Memory,” “Mr. Mistoffelees”

This is a weird musical. It’s not the weirdest musical – to me, Germany’s favorite, Starlight Express, will always be the winner of that competition – but Cats is perhaps objectively odd. It is a democratic musical, where there are certain starring roles (Grizabella, the Rum Tum Tugger, Jemima, Munkustrap) and then a series of limelights: Rumpleteazer, Gus, Mr. Mistoffelees, Victoria, etc. One can hardly be left in the shadows in this musical, which I kind of enjoy, but it’s purposefully broad, a rarity where everyone in the cast has a name. Everyone’s important, but only one or two are essential. Cats is a pretty musical as well, but that prettiness is countered in almost every spot with some strangeness. The set is beautifully arrayed, even though it depicts a trash heap. The costumes and makeup are intricate and beautiful, maybe the most famous elements of the show thirty-five years later, but one is abundantly aware that there are people cavorting in yak-hair wigs and skintight bodysuits onstage. It takes a while to get past it, and the opening number, as rich in adjectives as “The Lees of Old Virginia” is rich in adverbs, doesn’t make it any easier.

“The Moments of Happiness” sums up that juxtaposition neatly, I think, and it does so at an opportune time. The second act has just started. We’re used to the idea of Jellicle cats, and to the costumes of the people playing said Jellicles. We know the principals who will guide the back half of the musical. There’s a pause, sort of a deep breath, and “The Moments of Happiness” works as the prelude to the much more introspective second half of the play.

Old Deuteronomy provides the first verse, which appears to have rolled neatly off of Eliot’s brain once upon a time, in which he discusses, appropriately, a connection to past lives and past experiences to build up something like happiness. The second is provided by Jemima, who, as she does repeatedly throughout the musical, clarifies a little bit.

Moonlight,

Turn your face to the moonlight.

Let your memory lead you:

Open up, enter in.

If you find there the meaning of what happiness is

Then a new life will begin.

The melody, which is heard at the end of the first act and then again, more memorably, in the back end of the second, is “Memory.” I’m not going to dive into “Memory,” because at this point I think it’s hard to sincerely care about that song; it’s been covered far too many times, parodied too frequently. What Jemima sings here, the simplification of Old Deuteronomy’s treatise about ineffability and experience, is fresher: open up, enter in. Inscrutability is balanced by clarity, and the result is, amusingly enough, a moment of happiness.

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