These modern productions are all very well', proclaims a ratty, old tom named Asparagus with disdain, midway through the musical Cats. 'But there's nothing to equal, from what I hear tell, that moment of mystery when I made history.'
He may have been singing about his own past glories as Gus, the theatre cat. But the refrain seems especially apt when heard during a touring production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's long-running, 28-year-old creation, which returns to the Lyric Theatre at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts from May 15.
Amid the current economic gloom, impresarios are banking on tried-and-tested, familiar favourites to fill theatre seats. And the nostalgic, 1980s vibe of Cats - filled with lycra and musical references to Kate Bush and David Bowie - fits in with this spirit.
'It's got incredible choreography, amazing sets, brilliant costumes and a talented young cast,' says James Cundall, chief executive of Lunchbox Theatrical Productions, which is co-producing the Hong Kong season. A former fund manager in the city before he formed Lunchbox in 1992, Cundall says safe, accessible live entertainment ranks alongside other affordable luxuries such as lipstick, chocolate, lingerie and alcohol as a feel-good steady seller even in a downturn.
'People trust the Andrew Lloyd Webber brand,' he says. 'You come out of the show feeling happy, even if your bank manager just bounced your cheque.'
The producers' bet looks to be paying off. In Singapore, where a cast drawn from Australia, New Zealand and Britain performed at the Esplanade Theatre until today, more than 42,000 tickets were sold. Last month, 75 per cent of the Academy for Performing Arts run had already been snapped up.
Director Jo-Anne Robinson, who constantly travels with various productions of Cats, says the show's blueprint still works to this day. The original rubbish dump setting, music, choreography and costumes remain faithful to the West End and Broadway versions. 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it,' she says.
Rehearsals can be unorthodox when the cast improvises, she says. The director once tied some rancid, leftover meat to Delia Hannah, who plays Grizabella the Glamour Cat, in an effort to elicit a visceral reaction against her from the other actors. After all, the felines are supposed to shun the smelly Grizabella.
'When the new blood comes in, they enliven the old blood by playing off them,' says Robinson.
With an average age of 22, the ensemble promises powerful performances by Perth native John O'Hara, who plays the rock'n' rollin' Rum Tum Tugger with magnetic swagger, and Sydney's Shaun Rennie as the magnificent-voiced Munkustrap.
Based on T.S. Eliot's 1939 book of poems, Old Possum's Book Of Practical Cats, the 1981 musical sets the existing verse to music. Eschewing a linear plot, it revolves around a tribe of Jellicle cats who congregate on the night of the Jellicle Ball, telling stories of famous cats as they wait for their leader, Old Deuteronomy (played here by John Ellis), to choose one of them to be reborn into a new life.
The show's birth was famously difficult, with most people scoffing at its concept, theatre owners getting cold feet and investment raised only on opening night. British actress Judi Dench, who was to play Grizabella, severed her Achilles tendon during rehearsals and was eventually replaced by Elaine Paige.
The tour's musical supervisor Fiz Shapur was fresh out of college, and the rehearsal pianist for the original London production. He remembers thinking on opening night, May 11, 1981, that the show was 'either going to be a huge success or a terrible flop'.
The critics were kind, however, and the production went on to win the 1981 Laurence Olivier Award for Musical of the Year, and seven Tony Awards, including best musical, in 1983.
Years on, Shapur is now in charge of 'teaching' the musical to the musical directors of the various touring productions. 'It's in my blood, I love it,' he says. 'You can actually feel the audience recognising the song Memory when it appears at the end of Act 1, because it's so famous.'
Besides playing for 21 years in the West End and 18 on Broadway, the musical has since been presented in more than 26 countries, and translated into 10 languages.
Shapur counts a 1991 Swiss production of the musical in an old, disused railway shed and an Australian tour in a circus tent as among the most memorable versions he has worked on. For a 2007 South Korean tour, he worked with a Korean translator and lyricist to transpose the poetry into Korean, and recalls how emotional it was sitting in the audience listening to the notes being sung with completely different vowel sounds.
Perhaps, there is also a certain stoic spirituality in Cats that might appeal in these belt-tightening times. The musical has its share of scruffy, down-but-not-so-out cats prowling gracefully among the garbage, and an underlying message of hope and redemption.
As Shapur says: 'There are much more important things in life than material possessions. And in this climate, such a theme is even more relevant.' Cats, May 15-June 14, Lyric Theatre, Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, Wan Chai, HK$350-HK$895. Inquiries: 3128 8288, or go to hkticketing.com