Aside from learning a beginner arrangement of “Memory” for piano when I was 15, I walked into Tom Hooper’s 2019 film adaptation of Cats with little knowledge of the hit Broadway musical it adapts. I walked out deeply changed, shaken to the core with a newfound hyperfixation I never saw coming.
In case you haven’t heard by now, Cats, which is now available on digital release, is … a lot of things. It’s horrifying. It’s wonderful. It infected my brain to the point where I spent all of December and much of 2020 so far belting out “Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat” and the part of “Macavity: The Mystery Cat” where the music gets all slow and windy and the cats congregate and go “We need to find Old Deuteronomy.”
I also walked out of the movie with a tiny crush on Mr. Mistoffelees, as played by Laurie Davidson. The movie version of him is soft and sweet, more timid than some of the bombastic cats (looking at you, Jason Derulo Rum Tum Tugger), which makes him a more sympathetic love interest to Victoria the White Cat (Francesca Hayward, the closest thing to an audience surrogate that we get). After Old Deuteronomy (Judy Dench) is kidnapped by the nefarious Macavity (Idris Elba), Mistoffelees saves the day with his magical powers. But he’s so shy that while most of the cat characters get songs to boast about their importance and skills, Mr. Mistoffelees’ signature song revolves around him slowly finding the confidence to make his magic work. I was smitten. I even changed my Twitter name to “Mrs. Mistoffelees” at one point, because I have no shame.
So deep in the Cats vortex was I that I decided to watch the 1998 Broadway recording, the one most people grew up watching. I wanted to see the song and dance that the movie, admittedly, did not do much to showcase. And watching the Broadway version, I learned something valuable: the Cats movie absolutely nerfed Mistoffelees.
The Broadway setup to the song “Magical Mr. Mistoffelees” is the same, in that it comes right after Macavity kidnaps Old Deuteronomy, and the cats panic. But unlike the movie, where Munkustrap (Robert Fairchild) turns to Mistoffelees, who then spends the song timidly trying and failing at various magic rescues, the stage show begins with Rum Tum Tugger hyping Mistoffelees up. In fact, Mistoffelees doesn’t appear till the end of the first half of the song, when he descends from the ceiling in a jacket festooned with flashing lights, a god-cat descending among mortals.
With his first spin toward the audience, he changes the stage lighting. And that’s just the beginning of his fantastical powers. The cat shoots Force lighting out of his paws, setting fire to the surrounding set. He pulls a giant, glittery rainbow cape out of his top hat. He isn’t timid. He’s confident, but not cocky; sure of himself, but not obnoxious. This is a cat who can save the day, and the audience is never in doubt about that.
Because this song is basically Tugger crooning about how awesome Mistoffelees is, it comes as no surprise that there’s an ardent fan base of “Tugoffelees” shippers. There isn’t a hint of that in the 2019 version, where Munkustrap starts out singing the song, and Mistoffelees takes over. In fact, a lot of the stage-show songs are taken over by their respective cats (for instance, Bustopher Jones), now singing about themselves, which is certainly a choice. Timid Mistoffeelees having to hype himself up in the movie endeared him to me, but the stage performance, where he commands the room without even saying (or singing) a word, changed my heart.
I get that Hooper and his team had to add some dramatic tension to Cats to give it some semblance of a plot. If the cats don’t know that Mr. Mistoffelees actually has great cosmic powers that can summon sparkling 20-foot-long rainbow flags from the void, that does add some stakes, I suppose. His stage equivalent is, to be fair, incredibly OP, so it makes sense to tone that down a tad. What if he can’t actually summon Old Deuteronomy? Gasp! Intrigue! Drama! The movie’s plot is incredibly thin, but adding a moment of tension does help. It also positions the perfect moment for Victoria to realize what a catch Mistoffelees is, and she joins in for a verse of his song. So, all right, sure. Cats the movie is an adaptation; it does not need to follow the beats of the musical exactly. Not that the shoehorned plot itself does anything for the musical, but the changed scene does help move events along.
But ultimately, the plot is unnecessary, so the character assassination of Mr. Mistoffelees is as well. The absolute beauty of Cats is the fact it’s literally just cats introducing themselves, hoping one of them will get to die. Yeah, Macavity pops in for a second to kidnap Old Deuteronomy, but that doesn’t happen because Macavity is actually a threat. It’s just so the true plot of Cats — which is cats introducing each other in fabulous dance and song — can continue. The Rum Tum Tugger gets to use this crisis as an excuse to introduce the original, all-powerful Mistoffelees. And OG Mistoffelees doesn’t hesitate. No one doubts him. He is all-powerful and truly magnificent, marvelous, and magical. The Cats movie did him wrong.