"Singing pets, a giant garbage can, T.S. Eliot."

All right, maybe that wasn't the exact pitch composer Andrew Lloyd Webber used to sell people on a little musical he was cooking up called Cats.

No matter. The important thing to know is that Webber's show, combining those three elements (vocalizing Tabbies and Fluffies, a garbagey-looking set, Eliot poems set to music), worked--very well.

Tonight in New York, Cats slinks its way into the record books as the longest-running Broadway show ever. Its historic 6,138th performance will bump A Chorus Line one slot down in the longevity department.

Cats opened at the Winter Garden theater on October 7, 1982. Loved by audiences (especially out-of-towners), tolerated (on generous days) by critics, the London-born production ushered in a new era of the Broadway musical: The mega-event. Theater's equivalent of the summer blockbuster.

This was, and is, Cats: Big songs (Memory), big emotions (middle-aged cat Grizabella's Act Two ascent to heaven), big set pieces (all that giant garbage on the stage). Miss Saigon can thank its helicopter landing pad for the Webber felines that went before it.

These days, Cats isn't so much a show, as a New York institution--like the subway cars. Used, abused and expected to show up on time, day in, day out. But take a moment to step back, and the Cats stats look remarkable.

During the course of its Broadway run, Cats has: Been seen by an estimated 8 million people. (Fifty million worldwide.) Pumped $3.12 billion into the New York City economy. Employed 231 actors. (Nineteen have died; two--Marlene Danielle and Susan Powers--have been with the show since day one.) Sold 390,000 T-shirts, 130,000 sweat shirts and 1.14 million souvenir books. Outlasted two U.S. presidents (Reagan and Bush) and the Eastern European Communist Bloc. Proved to a generation of TV watchers that there was more to Betty Buckley than being Abby Bradford on Eight Is Enough. (Buckley was Broadway's original Grizabella--the cat that sings Memory.)

Tonight, Webber, director Trevor Nunn, former members of the cast and invited guests will mark Cats' achievement at a special performance. After-show festivities include a street party outside the Winter Garden between 50th and 51st streets.

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