In musical theater, nothing says the ’80s more than “Cats.”

The Andrew Lloyd Webber musical defined Broadway in the 1980s. It opened in New York in October 1982 and ran for 7,485 performances, becoming the longest-running show on Broadway. (It has since been surpassed by “The Phantom of the Opera” – another Lloyd Webber production.)

While the artistic legacy of the show is open to debate, there is little question of the cultural significance of “Cats.”

It was the first branded spectacle musical. The massive billboards that heralded the show – two eyes looking out across the city – were recognized around the world. Its biggest song, “Memory,” became an instant standard.

Without “Cats,” there would be no “Les Miserables,” no “Phantom,” no “Wicked” and no “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.”

“It was an ‘experience’ musical,” said Brad Kenney, executive artist director at Ogunquit Playhouse. “All the shows that have come since that are full of special effects and spectacle owe it all to ‘Cats.’ “

The success of “Cats” went beyond the theater world, however. It inspired New York to reinvent Times Square as a safe and tourist-friendly destination. By the time the play closed in September 2000, the once seedy area had become a 24/7 pedestrian mall safe for schoolkids from Maine to Maui.

“This was the show that everybody had to see,” said Brian Allen, artistic director of Good Theater in Portland. “It changed the whole way Broadway was done. Before ‘Cats,’ if you had a successful show, you put it on the road. This was the show that tourists had to see, and they came from all over the world to see it.”

The musical is based on T.S. Eliot’s whimsical collection of poems, “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.” Lloyd Webber remembered reading the book as a child, and decided to set the poems to music. The only exception to that was “Memory,” whose lyrics were written by Trevor Nunn.

Among the interesting things about the show was the lack of a script. The show had no plot. It featured a mostly anonymous cast of actors dressed in spectacular cat costumes and makeup.

The set, designed by John Napier, was an oversized junkyard. The show was full of dance and an astonishing variety of musical styles.

But no story. Eliot’s estate allowed the poems to be set to music, but did not allow a script to be written.

So actors took on the persona of cats. They pranced, danced and sang while crawling around the stage. The show asked the audience to go places it had never gone before, said Curt Dale Clark, consulting artistic director at Maine State Music Theatre in Brunswick.

“It is the most unique musical that exists,” he said. “There is no other that asks you to go places that ‘Cats’ does, where cats become believable as humans in cat costumes. As an audience member, you just allow that to happen.”

Before “Cats” opened, Broadway was waning, said Kenney. The old-style story shows that defined Broadway in the 1950s and ’60s were passe, and Broadway was losing its cultural status. “Cats” restored it, while raising the standards of what a big show was all about.

“It was a new benchmark in worldwide musical theater,” Kenney said. “It set the new standard for big Broadway shows.”

That “Cats” remains popular today is almost as phenomenal as its initial success, Clark said. It’s still a near-guaranteed sell-out anytime it’s produced.

“In theater, when you produce shows, people put them in categories. There are A-list shows, B-list shows and C-list shows. ‘Cats’ is an A-list show, and always has been,” he said. “The fact that it remains to this day an almost-guaranteed sell-out is mind-boggling to me.”

Clark has acted in “Cats” twice. It was an incredibly hard show to do because of its physical demands.

“I could eat anything I wanted all day every day and then have another helping, and it didn’t affect me at all,” he said. “People call it the ‘Cats’ diet. You can eat whatever you want.”

All of which raises the question: Is it a good show?

It was certainly good for Broadway, and it employed a lot of people for a long time, Allen said. He loved it when he saw it in 1982 in New York.

“I had fun. It was a great night,” he said. “It’s just an entertainment that focuses on music and dance.”

Clark loves what it has become, though he might not have felt that way back in the day.

“If someone had come to me in the late ’70s and said, ‘I’ve got this idea: I’m going to turn these poems into songs and we’re going to have everybody dress as cats and there’s no story to go along with it‘ You would have gotten laughed out of the room. There is no way I would have invested in such a dumb idea.

“And I would have been wrong.”

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:

bkeyes@pressherald.com

Twitter: pphbkeyes