It is important to remember that the conceit of Cats, the era-spanning musical adapted into a film this winter, is that all the characters are cats—singing cats, dancing cats, fat cats, skinny cats, cats that prowl the docks: cats. The show is dogged in reminding us. The songs, when not explicating the wisp of a story, describe varieties of cat, such as the Gumbie Cat and the Railway Cat, while the cast, on-screen as on-stage, have cat ears, fur, and tails. But whatever else it was, Cats the musical, which premiered in London in 1981, was primarily a human variety show: a pastiche of twentieth-century music and dance tethered to some of T.S. Eliot’s lightest verse. Amid the jazz choreography and leg-warmers, the trash-strewn Thatcherite dystopia of the set and the guileless pizzazz of the performances, the stars of the Broadway run were never convincingly cats, just particularly exuberant humans. In Cats the movie, they are not even convincingly human.
The flurry of responses to Trump’s ham-fisted tweet had the pathetic aspect of a bullied child trying to get even by waving his report card in his tormentor’s face. I share the impulse: his ludicrous Page Six-style nicknaming conventions are spiteful and stupid, and there is some bitter satisfaction in being spiteful and smart right back at him. But mocking the president’s twisting circumlocutions is cold consolation—ask anyone who bought a “Bushisms” calendar the January before the United States invaded Iraq.
Russian Doll is less a satire of louche New Yorkers than it is a fable. The roundelay in which Nadia is trapped is an allegory for the compulsions and diminishing returns of addiction, the sense that death is overtaking life. Despite all of Nadia’s foreboding and dark humor—the occasional cosmic absurdity of the story that hints at a deeper scheme—Russian Doll hedges. It’s No Exit but with one exit, a trite thematic answer about realizing a foundational trauma: in the end, the tiniest doll at the center of the whole enterprise is Nadia’s troubled relationship with her mother.
Unlike silly songs for children by, say, Raffi, or maudlin songs for parents like Dylan’s “Forever Young” or Cat Stevens’s “Father and Son”—two ballads eager to preserve their singers’ sons in amber—Paul Simon had genuinely intergenerational appeal. He shared with us young passengers the joyful and terrible news of adulthood with patty-cake rhymes (“mama pajama,” “drop off the key, Lee”) and jaunty rhythms, scored by a panoply of ludicrous and wonderful-sounding instruments—from the hooting cuíca in “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” to the triumphant parade drums of “The Obvious Child.”