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'Cats' in London is now just a sweet 'Memory'

LONDON — "Cats," the record-shattering British musical that gave the world the hit tune "Memory," is now exactly that itself.

Saturday marked the last performance — number 8,950, to be exact — for the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Adapted from T.S. Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats," the musical called it quits at the New London Theater the night of its 21st birthday.

Taking to the stage following what he called "a very, very emotional evening," Lord Lloyd-Webber told a rapturous crowd that the 1981 musical curiosity-turned-global phenomenon "will be now and forever."

"It will have another life and eight other lives," said the composer, 54, before urging the audience to "listen to the lyrics. Eliot's words are timeless, and that's why I think the show will be timeless."

The sellout crowd of 1,100 cheered his remarks, urged on by a rousing finale from choreographer Gillian Lynne that flooded the stage with "Cats" performers past and present, several of whom flew in from the United States and even Australia for the occasion.

Accompanied by confetti, indoor fireworks and celestial bells, the audience stood and applauded for nearly 20 minutes prior to moving on to a celebration at the Waldorf Hotel. Eleven-year-old Jessica Hill, a dancer from south London, was hoisted above the cast as a symbol of the regeneration of "Cats" to come.

Several streets away, thousands of people sat outside on a drizzly night at Covent Garden Piazza to watch the show via a live video relay — the first time any West End musical had attempted such a feat. Such occasions have in the past been mostly limited to operas.

"We wanted to say thank you," said the musical's producer, Sir Cameron Mackintosh, explaining a gesture that cost close to $90,000.

At the theater, champagne was served before the show and during intermission alongside cat-shaped biscuits and dips presented in tins of Whiskas cat food.

The audience — mostly invited, with 150 members of the public included via ballot — was primed for the occasion from the outset. There were cheers throughout for the various Jellicle Cats whose stories the musical tells, from the aging theater cat Gus to the posh Bustopher Jones in his white spats and the thrusting Rum Tum Tugger, the musical's own Elvis.

Actress Chrissie Hammond stopped the show — as countless performers, beginning with Elaine Paige, have before her — by belting out "Memory," the mournful lament of Grizabella, the faded glamor cat.

Paige, the first Grizabella, was among 170 or so "Cats" alumni who eventually took to the stage to further roars of approval. Others included original cast members Paul Nicholas, Wayne Sleep, and Brian Blessed, the last of whom is now appearing in a subsequent London musical hit, "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," in which he plays the bombastic Baron.

In his remarks, Lloyd Webber poked affectionate fun at "Chitty," which has this spring made headlines for its levitating car much as "Cats" did two decades ago for the ascending tire that lifts Grizabella and Old Deuteronomy up to the Heaviside Layer.

"We did do the same trick 21 years ago," quipped Lloyd Webber.

"Cats" has played to more than 8 million people in London alone, become a billion-dollar global industry, and set the stage for a British musical revolution with such subsequent shows as "Les Miserables" and "The Phantom of the Opera" — both of which are still running in London and on Broadway. "Starlight Express," a similarly environmental Lloyd Webber extravaganza, closed in January in London after nearly 18 years.

In New York, the Tony-winning Broadway version of "Cats" ended in September 2000.

Neither Lloyd Webber nor Mackintosh has had a success anywhere near comparable to "Cats" in recent years, but that hasn't kept them from continuing to work.

Lloyd Webber is producing, but not writing, a new Bollywood-themed musical "Bombay Dreams," which opens at London's Apollo Victoria Theater next month.

Mackintosh has busied himself of late with revivals — "My Fair Lady" in London and "Oklahoma!", which has been nominated for seven Tony Awards, this season on Broadway.

Still, virtually nothing, Mackintosh said, compared with Lloyd Webber's output over time: "Of all the composers, he has probably the greatest track record of them all."