Cattitude: When 'Garfield' Made the Leap From Page to Stage
By Jake Rossen
Since his introduction in 1978, the comic strip cat Garfield has lived well in excess of nine lives—as a newspaper staple; as a car window accessory; as the subject of aquatic intrigue, with dozens of Garfield phones mysteriously washing ashore in France; as the mascot of a now-shuttered Toronto restaurant, GarfieldEATS, which inevitably served lasagna; and as a feature film star, with a new animated adaptation coming featuring the voices of Chris Pratt as Garfield and Samuel L. Jackson as his father, Vic.
But what Garfield creator Jim Davis wanted more than anything—more than car decorations, more than movies, more than feline-shaped pizza—was to see his sedentary cat come to life on stage, much in the same way Charles Schulz had once seen his Peanuts ensemble hit Broadway.
In 2015, Davis got his chance. Garfield: The Musical With Cattitude premiered. And with apologies to those mystery phones and Garfield frappuccinos, it was easily the cat's most surreal appearance yet.
Long before he conceived of Garfield, Davis—who was born in Marion, Indiana, in 1945—had designs on the theater. Davis's high school prep drama teacher had once taught James Dean, and Davis spent his high school years toiling on stage productions. After college, he immersed himself in community theater, painting sets and directing. Once he began working on Garfield, Davis started to imagine what the cat might look like on the stage, with the cartoonist fulfilling virtually every role.
As Garfield's popularity grew, the character came to have a presence in almost every facet of popular culture—from multimillion-dollar licensing ventures to feature films to undergoing meta-analysis with the internet’s Garfield Minus Garfield, a surrealist take on the strip in which Garfield is deleted and the supporting characters seemingly have psychotic breaks in empty panels.
Through it all, Davis continued to harbor hope that he could one day combine the iconic character with his love of musical theater. The first opportunity came in 2010 in Davis’s college town of Muncie, when songwriters Michael Dansicker and William Meade created 14 songs for Garfield LIVE!, a rhythmic celebration of the character that Davis wrote the book for and hoped to see debut in January 2011.
It wouldn't be the first time a comic strip moved from the page to the stage. In 1967, producers Arthur Whitelaw and Gene Persson brought You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown to the stage, an adaptation with an all-adult cast that eventually made it to Broadway. The show had Schulz’s blessing, but not his creative involvement. (His only request was that it be a family-friendly show.) Garfield LIVE! would mark the first time a comic strip creator would be directly involved adapting their work for the stage.
On the Road
“Even though he's lazy and loves his life at home, he harbors these fantasies of becoming an entertainer,” Davis told Playbill in 2010. “He wonders, ‘What if I took my act on the road?’ So he falls out of his own comic strip and goes on an adventure though other comic strips. One's a Disneyesque thing with cute characters. One's an action strip, kind of a … western. Another one is kind of a West Side Story thing between cats and dogs.
“Garfield's going to be knocking down the fourth wall, as he does in the comic strip, and he's certainly going to be taking advantage of that in a theatrical presentation," Davis continued. "I call it an old-fashioned family book musical—with technology.”
The gimmick of the show was intriguing: As the action unfolded on stage, a cartoonist would be sketching backgrounds that would be projected on a screen.
As Davis later explained, the project was set to be a national touring show, but the company backing it was undercapitalized: The lights never went up. When an entirely new set of producers approached him about trying again, Davis was understandably hesitant.
Davis’s other option for a stage production was Michael J. Bobbitt, who proposed bringing a different Garfield musical to his home base in the Washington, D.C. area. Garfield, Bobbitt believed, was perfect for the numerous family-friendly theaters in the region.
But Davis said no—twice. When he finally did relent, he was eager to help co-write the book. (John L. Cornelius II provided music; Nick Olcott directed.) “We sent it back and forth for, I’d say, nine months,” Davis told The Washington Post. “He would say, ‘That’s a lot of Garfield, and a little theater.’ And I then I’d say, ‘That’s a lot of theater and a little Garfield.’ But the book really is true to the rhythms, and it has the action that’s good for theater.”
For his part, Bobbitt said he immersed himself in all things Garfield, including the comic strip collections. While he was already a fan, he was surprised to learn that Davis considers the character effectively a teenager of about 16. (Bobbitt initially had him pegged as a surly 45.)
Davis’s other main point of contention was in portraying Odie, the dimwitted canine co-occupant of Garfield's household. Bobbitt envisioned Odie singing and monologuing; Davis informed him Odie isn’t really anthropomorphic.
The plot involves Garfield having an underwhelming birthday in which everyone—owner Jon, frenemies Odie and Nermal—seems to have forgotten his big day. When he feels underappreciated, he runs away from home and gets into a series of adventures, some of which involve Arlene, the comic strip feline with a crush on the orange tabby. (In one such scene, Davis told a Post reporter that the “sexual tension” generated the humor. He was almost certainly joking.)
Garfield: The Musical With Cattitude opened on June 19, 2015 at the Adventure Theatre in Maryland's Glen Echo Park. Evan Casey played Garfield in something of a mascot’s plush costume, with his (human) face exposed. (The hybrid man-cat isn’t such a stretch: Garfield is drawn with human-sized hind feet.) But after running "away"—and into an alley—Garfield learns he misses the creature comforts of home.
Davis's hopes for a viable Garfield musical were finally realized: Cattitude has since been picked up for licensing and is still regularly mounted by regional theater troupes like The Children's Theatre of Cincinnati. And yes, the play takes place on Garfield's least favorite day of the week. The tabby's opening number? “I Hate Mondays.”