Andrew Lloyd Webber Talks Working With Taylor Swift on New 'Cats' Song

Andrew Lloyd Webber - Taylor Swift - Publicity - H 2019
Universal Pictures

"Without the new song, the movie would hugely be the poorer," the king of musical theater says as he takes The Hollywood Reporter inside the creative process of working with Swift on 'Beautiful Ghosts.'

Not only did self-described cat lover Taylor Swift get to play a feline in Universal's upcoming movie adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage musical Cats, but she also got to embrace her other love: songwriting.  

Besides taking on the role of Bombalurina in the film, Swift also collaborated with Lloyd Webber on a new original song titled "Beautiful Ghosts," a ballad they co-wrote specifically for the epic screen musical.

"I think she's written lyrics that are first, dramatic, and secondly, it's almost as if she's read T.S. Eliot herself. Maybe she had, because she's so thorough and professional," Lloyd Webber, who composed the song's melody, told The Hollywood Reporter in praise of Swift.

Lloyd Webber's Cats, based on Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, first debuted on London's West End in 1981 and has been seen by nearly 81 million people worldwide. Through the power of the music, Cats did for furry felines what the king of musical theater did for phantoms in The Phantom of the Opera, Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard and Jesus Christ in Jesus Christ Superstar

Adapted for the big screen by director Tom Hooper and screenwriter Lee Hall (Billy ElliotRocketman), the upcoming film spins a new perspective on the beloved stage musical as Lloyd Webber returns to oversee the composition and songs for the pic. 

Hooper recruited an all-star ensemble including Ian McKellen (Gus the Theatre Cat), Swift (Bombalurina), James Corden (Bustopher Jones), Jennifer Hudson (Grizabella), Jason Derulo (Rum Tum Tugger), Idris Elba (Macavity), Rebel Wilson (Jennyanydots) and Dame Judi Dench (Old Deuteronomy).

The character of the graceful white cat Victoria (played by the Royal Ballet's principal ballerina Francesca Hayward) will take center stage in the film as the audience follows her journey from being abandoned as a kitten to encountering the curious tribe of cats known as the Jellicles and their yearly Jellicle Ball.

"When I read the screenplay, I said, 'This is really interesting, but there's nothing that this character [Victoria] sings,'" says Lloyd Webber. "Seems to me, if we're going to use her as the eyes through which everything is seen, at some point we have to hear something from her point of view."

"Beautiful Ghosts," which began as an acoustic melody that Lloyd Webber tapped out on his piano, is composed for Victoria. He explains that the song's purpose is to reintroduce the character who communicated solely through gesture and dance in the original stage show. Taking Cats fans into his creative process, Lloyd Webber says the new song, with Swift’s invigorating lyrics, offers an inspirational counterpoint to the washed-up glamour cat Grizabella and her haunting ballad "Memory," most recognized by fans of the stage musical.

The demure Victoria, who makes an entrance at the movie's beginning as an abandoned kitten carelessly tossed from a car, is as much of an outsider as Grizabella and as eager for an invite to the exclusive Jellicle Ball.

"What she's saying is, 'OK, it's all very well for you. But you're looking back on a life where you did have something wonderful in your life. You were glamorous. You had beautiful ghosts. I've had nothing at all. I've been abandoned,'" the composer explains. "Victoria is saying, 'Maybe one day I will dance as you did' with 'Beautiful Ghosts.'"

He adds, "It gives this cat that didn't have a voice in the original stage show a specific voice, with a specific lyric during a specific moment in the film."

If anything, "Beautiful Ghosts" evokes another song, "You Must Love Me," which Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice specifically wrote for a pivotal scene in the 1996 movie version of Evita, another stage-to-screen adaptation that starred Madonna as Argentine icon Evita Peron.

"It was absolutely essential because it gave Madonna the possibility of a dramatic moment before the final broadcast. Now it's in the stage show, and it's as if it always should have been," Lloyd Webber says. "You Must Love Me" also earned the famed British composer the best original song Oscar in 1997.

While Swift won't be singing the song herself in the film, her version of "Beautiful Ghosts" will play over the end credits. "I feel the new song is a pretty integral part of this new version of Cats. Without the new song, the movie would hugely be the poorer," Lloyd Webber says. 

Ahead of the pic's Dec. 20 release, Universal in July released the first trailer, which quickly divided audiences as many felt the digital fur technology used gave the actors an unsettling look as anthropomorphic cats. 

"I've seen it and it seemed to be effective as a trailer," Lloyd Webber said in defense of the film's first teaser. As an avowed cat lover himself, Lloyd Webber assures that many moviegoers will not have seen Cats onstage, which represented human beings as cats and, more specifically, as dancers and performers prancing and leaping about the stage in spandex and fur.

In the movie, dancers choreographed by Hamilton's Andy Blankenbuehler incorporate modern dance moves from hip-hop to jazz, street dance and tap into their performances. Lloyd Webber welcomes Hooper and other creative changes on the epic musical that don't echo his stage production. "The exciting thing, and the reason the Cats movie wasn't made for such a long time, is the [digital] technology has allowed one to absolutely to see Taylor Swift, Ian McKellen, Judi Dench or Jason Derulo or whomever as a cat," he insists.

Lloyd Webber further adds that the movie is rightly Hooper's own interpretation of the musical. "The movie has to be its own thing," he explains. "Cats was a wildly theatrical show. What I'm hoping is Tom achieves something that's as exciting on the screen as it was onstage, and it has the controversial impact we had years ago."

He concludes, "It would have been wrong for the movie to be faithfully what we did in 1981, when dance was different and much else was different. So it's with my blessing that it's moved on."

Nov. 14, 9:17 p.m. Updated with lyric video.