Great Britain

Paul Nicholas on turning down Andrew Lloyd Webber’s offer to invest in now-£4bn musical Cats

WATCHING the stunning trailer for new movie Cats, actor Paul Nicholas rued the day he made the worst financial decision of his life.

Nearly 40 years ago composer Andrew Lloyd Webber was desperately seeking backers for his new stage musical and offered him the chance to invest.

Paul, 75, says: “I didn’t have a lot of money in those days and I certainly wasn’t keen on blowing it on a story about a gang of ballet-dancing cats living on a rubbish dump, with a bunch of songs that didn’t sound like hits, in a theatre nobody had ever heard of.

“So I decided not to put money in the production. It was one of the worst investment decisions that I’ve ever made.”

The new star-studded film version, starring Taylor Swift, Idris Elba, Dame Judi Dench and James Corden, which is in cinemas from Friday, is expected to break box office records and rake in millions more over Christmas.

And that is despite the trailer causing uproar on social media back in the summer, with claims that the cast looked so disturbing in their CGI cat suits that they caused nightmares.

Whimsical cat tales

Another post said: “My eyes are bleeding. There is no God.” For the original stage show, the problems were somewhat different.

In 1980, shortly before he found fame as cheeky chappie Vince Pinner in TV sitcom Just Good Friends with co-star Jan Francis, Paul was a relatively unknown song and dance man.

He took a phone call from Andrew, who had already made a fortune from writing West End hits Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

The composer asked Paul if he had ever read Old Possum’s Book Of Practical Cats, by the poet TS Eliot, the inspiration for Andrew’s musical. Paul recalls: “I went to secondary school in London’s Kentish Town and hadn’t even heard of the book, never mind read it.

"So I fibbed and said, ‘Yes, I keep it on my bedside table, under a copy of the Beano’. Later a tape arrived at my home of Andrew playing the piano and singing the original score of Cats. I’ve saved it for posterity.”

Not long after, Paul sang some of those songs to a gathering of 200 people at the church in the grounds of Sydmonton Court, Andrew’s Hampshire mansion.

In the audience was Valerie Eliot, the poet’s widow. So far, Cats has paid around £120million in royalties to the estate of Eliot, who wrote his cat poems in 1939. From that small performance at his country home, Andrew hatched his plan for a full-scale musical.

His partnership with lyricist Tim Rice had broken up, and Andrew had to find around £400,000 to stage Cats. But there were not many “angels” clearing out their bank accounts to back the show.

Paul says: “I was quite taken with it but I thought, ‘Hang on, there is no story. It is a collection of poems, whimsical cat tales, and Andrew has put some nice tunes to them but I haven’t heard a hit’.

“Andrew was planning to stage the show at the New London Theatre in Drury Lane, which at that time was regarded as a bit of a lame duck. Nothing had really worked there before.

“But what we didn’t realise was that people around the world would love the show because the story is simple and you didn’t have to be able to speak English to understand it.”

Although Paul didn’t invest in the original stage show, he did appear in it, as Rum Tum Tugger. He says: “You win some, you lose some, but the great thing about Cats was that it gave me two years of fantastic work.”

At full throttle

During rehearsals, each cat was given a word that summed up their character. Rum Tum Tugger — a pop-star puss played in the new film by US singer Jason Derulo — was “capricious”, meaning someone who has sudden changes of behaviour.

Paul says: “After I’d looked it up in the dictionary, I became so capricious that I used to go into the audience and find people and have fun.

“When Prince Charles came to see the show I found the famous bald spot and ruffled the hair around it. Princess Grace of Monaco was a bit shocked I sat on her lap.”

Andrew chose Judi Dench to be Grizabella, a once-glamorous cat fallen on hard times. During rehearsals he announced he had written a new song for Grizabella to sing at the start and end of the show.

Paul says: “It was all very melodramatic. He put the tape on and the tune of Memory started to play. I felt a tingle down my back and thought, ‘That is the hit song we need for this show to be a success’.”

Memory went on to be the most successful song EVER to come from a musical. The worldwide hit has been covered by an astonishing 600 singers, including Barbra Streisand, Michael Crawford and Barry Manilow, adding more than £5million to the show’s income.

But the original plan for Judi to sing it in the stage show had to be abandoned. Paul recalls: “She is a fabulous actress but, like me, she was no ballet dancer. I couldn’t put my legs behind my head or twist my body like a piece of spaghetti and I knew Judi couldn’t either.

“One afternoon she was walking across the rehearsal room, not even dancing, when she collapsed on the floor, her face contorted in pain.

“She had snapped a hamstring and we were two weeks away from opening. It was clear she couldn’t continue with the show. The call went out for Elaine Paige, who had made her name in Evita.

“When Elaine sang Memory for the first time in public it tore the place apart. This was Grizabella the Glamour Cat at full throttle. It was sheer musical theatre — a showstopper.”

Paul — currently playing Abanazar in Aladdin at Windsor’s Theatre Royal — would not have wanted a part in the movie. He says: “At my age I don’t look great in a leotard. I’m not as feline as I once was.”

But he is delighted that Dame Judi is in the new film, playing wise cat Old Deuteronomy, which was Brian Blessed’s role when the show opened in May 1981. Even a bomb scare did not take the shine off the night.

Paul, whose book, Musicals And Me is out next year, remembers: “The audience loved us but we couldn’t take our bows. Brian had to go on stage and ask people to leave the theatre, telling them, ‘This is serious’.

“A man with an Irish accent had called, saying there were three bombs in the stage. Nothing was ever found. It turned out it was a new form of musical theatre that had exploded.”

Cats Trailer starring James Corden, Judi Dench, Jason Derulo, Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson, Ian McKellen, Taylor Swift and Rebel Wilson