Grizabella is the "Glamour Cat" in the musical production Cats. She does not appear in T. S. Eliot's work Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, but she is a prominent character in the stageplay. It appears that she is the feline version of the woman mentioned in T.S. Eliot's poem "Rhapsody on a Windy Night".
"Remark the woman
Who hesitates toward you in the light of the door
Which opens on her like a grin.
You see the border of her coat
Is torn and stained with sand,
And you see the corner of her eye
Twists like a crooked pin."
The character of Grizabella featured in an unpublished poem that T. S. Eliot wrote for his godchildren, intending to include it in Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. However, as his widow, Valerie Eliot pointed out, he thought it was too "sad for children" and so did not include it in the finished work. Valerie Eliot came to the 1980 Sydmonton Festival concert where Andrew Lloyd Webber premiered some of his settings of the Old Possum poems, and gave him the paper with the fragment of Grizabella written on it. From there Lloyd Webber and director Trevor Nunn incorporated the Grizabella poem as a main strand of the plot of the show.
Grizabella is, at the time of her appearance, a very old cat, withered by her age to the point that she no longer resembles the proud, carefree, flamboyant dancer of her youth. Her fellow Jellicles are quite repulsed by Grizabella's dishevelled condition.
Possibly because of this, it is Grizabella whom Old Deuteronomy consigns to the Heaviside Layer to be reborn. During her change, Grizabella sings the song "Memory", which has been thought of by audiences as a very emotionally touching, profound, and even mysterious composition. It has been recorded by over 150 different artists, including Barry Manilow, Michael Crawford, Barbra Streisand and Kikki Danielsson.
Another interpretation of Grizabella's past is that she left the Jellicle tribe to explore the outside world ("Grizabella the Glamour Cat"), despite knowing that she would never be allowed back in. The other cats shun her for leaving them, despite the fact that she wants to be with them again. After several attempts to gain their acceptance, Grizabella's emotional appeal (represented by "Memory") is accepted; seeing how much she is suffering, she is chosen to be reborn.
Whenever Grizabella arrives at the junkyard, the other cats stop singing and dancing and turn their backs on her. As her song begins to become more emotional, the Jellicles turn around and touch her and smile at her accepting her back into the tribe. Although some cats shun her (Rum Tum Tugger and Munkustrap), the youngest cats feel sorry for Grizabella and try to welcome her, but are restrained by the elders. For example, Jemima and Victoria trust her and help her when she appears; Jemima encourages Grizabella to keep going until the others accept her and sings with her, Victoria is also the first to touch but second to accept her. Demeter, Etcetera and Electra also try to welcome her back but are stopped and they later accept her.
The name Grizabella is probably derived from "grizzle" which means either "grey" or "disheveled", and "bella" which means "beautiful". Hence "Grizabella"; "The grey beauty" or "the disheveled beauty".
The role of Grizabella was originated by Elaine Paige in the West End production. She later reprised the role for the video. In the first Broadway production, Grizabella was played by Betty Buckley. Buckley won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical in 1983 for playing Grizabella. Laurie Beechman headed the First National Company of Cats and in 1984 she replaced Buckley. Beechman stayed with the show for more than four years and made occasional return engagements over the next decade. Dee Roscioli played the role in the US National Touring Company in 2003–2004. Dianne Pilkington (2006–2007) and Chrissie Hammond (2007–2008) played the role in the recent UK National Tour (2006–2008). Lea Salonga starred as Grizabella in the musical's Philippine run on 24 July – 22 August 2010.