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t a C e Th t n e W Who

n e v a e to H

Adapted for the stage by Culture Project, New York Directed by Will Pomerantz Music and lyrics by Nancy Harrow Based on the Newbery Award-winning novel by Elizabeth Coatsworth

A long time ago, a Japanese artist faced a difficult decision: By painting an accurate picture of the death of Buddha, he could have the chance at fame and fortune. But if he changed his painting just a little, he could save his relationship with a beautiful, shy, and gentle cat.

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Told through puppetry and jazz, The Cat Who Went to Heaven follows the artist’s complicated journey. Will he make the right decision?

Setting the Stage: What Happens in the Story

Meet the Players


nce upon a time, in a small village in old Japan, there is a poor artist who is having trouble selling his paintings. When he runs low on food and money, he hopes that his housekeeper will bring home a fish. Instead, she shows up with…a cat.

THE ARTIST AND THE CAT When the artist sees Good Fortune catch and then release a bird, he grows to respect and love her.

At first, the artist is unhappy with the housekeeper. They barely have enough food for themselves. How does she expect him to feed this animal? But the little white cat is beautiful and kind, and the artist gives in. He names the cat Good Fortune. Soon enough, the local Buddhist priest comes to the artist’s house and offers him an opportunity. If the artist will paint a picture of the Buddha with the animals who visited him right before his death, the artist will have money and respect for life. The artist agrees, and the household celebrates. But there’s a problem. When the artist thinks about all of the animals who came to show respect to the Buddha at the end of his life, he realizes that the cat is not among them. As the artist works, Good Fortune sees there are no cats in the painting. She grows sadder and sadder and eventually stops eating. The artist feels terrible. He has developed a strong affection for the cat and must decide whether to add her to the painting—and risk making the priest angry— or leave her out. What will he do?

THE HOUSEKEEPER The housekeeper can’t resist bringing Good Fortune home as a companion and a symbol of good luck.

THE BUDDHIST PRIEST The Buddhist priest wants the picture of the Buddha to be accurate—which means leaving out the cat.

Telling the Cat’s Tale What Happens on Stage WHO’S ON STAGE? Besides the four puppets (the artist, housekeeper, cat, and priest), you’ll also see puppeteers on stage. They’ll all be dressed in black robes and hoods. If you think you see more puppeteers than puppets, you’re right. Though the cat puppet only requires one puppeteer, the priest, artist, and housekeeper each need two or three. In total, five puppeteers are needed to manipulate all the puppets and move the different objects on stage. Besides the cat, which is smaller, each of the puppets is about two and a half feet tall. They are made of wood, fabric, and foam, with a hardened clay-like substance for their heads, hands, and feet.

During the performance, see if you can spot the mesh panels that allow the puppeteers to see through their hoods.



how the artist prepares a painting of • Watch each of the following animals: a horse, tiger,

People have used puppets to tell stories, entertain, and teach lessons for thousands of years.

swan, snail, dog, and elephant.

Listen to the singers name the other animals that the artist paints: a chimpanzee, deer, bear, barracuda, kangaroo, monkey, woodpecker, lion, goat, birds, wolf, goose, lizard, buffalo, and hare.

HONORING BUDDHA The Buddha (meaning “the enlightened”) was the spiritual leader and founder of the Buddhist religion. He is believed to have lived around the 400s BCE in what is today India. The Buddha taught that suffering is a natural part of life but humans can improve their experience in the world by becoming wiser.

Types of puppets include: Body—life-sized or bigger, body puppets are • often seen in parades puppet requires three • Bunraku—each puppeteers and is designed and used according to Japanese puppetry traditions Hand/glove/sock—one hand moves the puppet • from inside puppet body fits on one finger • Finger—the for the rods and sticks used to • Rod—named move the puppet Shadow—where a light shines on a cut-out • shape and creates a large shadow on a screen or marionette—held up and moved by • String strings

This is a sculpture of Buddha. Today, Buddhism is one of the most popular religions in the world. Millions of Buddhists live in Japan and other Asian countries.

Jazzing Up Japan The Sounds of Jazz In The Cat Who Went to Heaven, you’ll hear jazz music. Originating more than 100 years ago, jazz is an American musical form usually played by a group of musicians. It has unexpected rhythms and melodies and improvisation (when musicians change and develop notes as they go along).


During the performance, you’ll hear jazz played on the piano, bass, drums, flugelhorn, trumpet, tenor saxophone, flute, trombone, English horn, clarinet, oboe, violin, viola, and cello. The action of the story takes place in ancient Japan, but the jazz music gives it a modern feel.


The Sounds of Japan The performance will also include more unusual sounds—specifically, four traditional Japanese instruments, with each one representing one of the story’s characters: the shamisen (artist), shakuhachi (housekeeper), koto (cat), and tsuzumi (priest). You’ll hear a combination of stringed, wind, and percussion instruments:

IN A LAND, FAR, FAR AWAY Fly west from California, and you’ll reach the almost-7,000 islands that make up the country of Japan, where the story takes place.



The shamisen (pronounced SHAM-uh-sen) might remind you of other stringed instruments, such as the banjo. It has three strings made of silk or nylon, and it is often used to introduce characters SHAMISEN and scenes.


A koto (KOH-toh) player stands behind the instrument, which rests at waist-level like a xylophone or keyboard, and plucks its thirteen strings by hand. KOTO


The shakuhachi (shah-koo-HAH-chee) is a type of bamboo flute that’s held like a clarinet or recorder.

Japanese musicians use their hands to play this traditional drum, the tsuzumi (tsoo-ZOO-mee).



ForTeachers and Parents Dear Grownups: The information on this page is designed to help you and your children explore The Cat Who Went to Heaven before and after the performance.

The Newbery Award–Winning Story Read The Cat Who Went to Heaven, written by Elizabeth Coatsworth and published in 1930. Discuss how the book differs from the performance?

The artist shows his animal sketches to Good Fortune, and she begins to grow sad when she realizes that she is not included among them.

Why the Cat Went to Heaven

Shadow Puppets

You might want to talk with your children about what happens to the cat after she stops eating. The show implies (and the book makes clear) that the cat dies. The original story of the Buddha’s death tells how the cat did not “pay homage,” or come to show respect to the dying Buddha. But the artist sees that this cat is generous and loving, so we are left to understand the cat has been forgiven by the Buddha and can end up in heaven.

You might notice that, in addition to its puppets, the show also uses shadow puppetry. At times, the silhouettes (or shadows) of the puppets are visible through the Japanese screens on either side of the stage. At home, you can create your own shadow puppet theater. Hang a white sheet and place stuffed animals or cardboard animal cutouts behind it. When you shine a flashlight from the right angle, can someone on the other side of the sheet identify the animal? Experiment— can you find a way to make the animal move without being in the way of the silhouette?

All production photos are courtesy of Culture Project, New York.

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The Cat Who Went to Heaven  

Based on the 1931 children's book by Elizabeth Coatsworth, The Cat Who Went to Heaven tells the delightful tale of the intertwined fates of...

The Cat Who Went to Heaven  

Based on the 1931 children's book by Elizabeth Coatsworth, The Cat Who Went to Heaven tells the delightful tale of the intertwined fates of...