Something's... purring? According to a report in Deadline, we all narrowly avoided a screen adaptation of Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Arthur Laurents' beloved 1957 Broadway musical West Side Story that would have featured a cast of dancing, singing, animated cats. Just the way the musical's creators intended.
According to animated film writer and director Chris Sanders (Lilo and Stitch, How to Train Your Dragon, Mulan), the project was the brainchild of studio executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, who over his career shepherded Disney's hand-drawn animation renaissance with musical titles like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King, and later co-founded DreamWorks Animation.
"I [story]boarded this huge sequence where these cats were battling each other," shares Sanders to Deadline. "Jeffrey said, ‘We’re going to fly to New York, and you’re going to pitch it to Leonard Bernstein.’ All of a sudden, I was on Disney’s corporate jet. I went to the room and I set up all the boards, and I practiced and I practiced and I practiced. ... As it turned out, Leonard Bernstein didn’t show up for the meeting. He sent representatives. I’m sure they were people of some prominence; there was one woman in particular who had a lot of necklaces on. But you could tell it wasn’t going well. Like, ‘Oh, I think we may have made a mistake by coming here.'"
Needless to say, we all owe a large debt of gratitude to those unnamed Bernstein representatives.
The story might help connect some of the dots that led to major screen adaptations of both West Side Story and Cats hitting movie theatres in the last three years. Steven Spielberg, also a co-founder of DreamWorks Animation and later the director of the 2021 film adaptation of West Side Story, worked on bringing an animated version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats to the screen as early as 1990, with storyboard and other concept art surviving the aborted project; Spielberg's production company Amblin Entertainment is a producer on the 2019 "live-action" film version of Cats because of its work on the earlier version. The Amblin-produced animated kids series Animaniacs also notably included an episode that parodied West Side Story with a cast of pigeons in 1993.
Spielberg would ultimately bring a new version of West Side Story—albeit with the more traditional casting choice of humans—to the screen in 2021, with Broadway favorite Ariana DeBose earning an Academy Award for her performance as Anita. A screen version of Cats with human performers matched with so-called "digital fur technology" scratched into movie theatres in 2019.