HOW THE GRINCH ATONED FOR HIS CHRISTMAS THEFT By Peter Filichia
‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through my house you could hear the album I’ve played each holiday season since 2007.
That’s when DR. SEUSS’ HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS received its world premiere recording. A few members of the original Broadway cast came to the studio: Patrick Page was The Grinch as Rusty Ross and John Cullum respectively played younger and older versions of his canine sidekick Max.
Although Stuart Zagnit didn’t do that production, he’s on this recording as Grandpa Who. Considering that he had played The Mayor of Whoville in the original Broadway production of SEUSSICAL, that may have grandfather-claused his getting Grandpa Who.
Granted, Christmas has come and gone, but because the week after Dec. 25 is still considered part of the season, you wouldn’t be officially tardy in listening to the delightful music by Mel Marvin and lyrics by Timothy Mason.
The show reminds us that Elphaba isn’t the only green-skinned character in musical theater history. In 1957, long before Gregory Maguire wrote WICKED and certainly before it became a musical, Theodor Geisel – a.k.a Dr. Seuss – conceived of The Grinch. He’s a neighbor of the Whos who’s hardly neighborly. Yet if you had green skin, chances are you’d become a bitter outcast, too.
As is the case with so many people who feel distanced from society, The Grinch relies on a pet. Lucky for him, Max is a dog who talks, an advantage that most lonely pet owners don’t enjoy.
That’s lucky for us, too, because Max serves as our Narrator. He expresses gratitude that The Grinch saved him from who-knows-what fate. Yet it was hardly altruistic on The Grinch’s part, who flatly states “I needed a guard dog.” He’s only out for himself because, as Max states, The Grinch’s “heart is two sizes too small” – which makes his cantankerousness two sizes too big.
So, perhaps in a nod to Carrie Pipperidge in CAROUSEL who tells her best friend “You’re a Queer One, Julie Jordan,” both Young and Old Max insist, “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” (Funniest lyric: “You have termites in your smile.”)
In this version of Dickens’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL, The Grinch makes his feelings known in “I Hate Christmas.” Max insists that “Yule is totally cool,” but The Grinch disagrees vehemently. Yet we can see that this outsider would love to be part of the community. Because he believes he’d be rejected, he’ll deliver a pre-emptive strike and reject it first.
The Grinch rationalizes that he’s “One of a Kind,” which he defines as one who has “No family, no friends.” To stress the downside of the situation, Marvin provides a somewhat dissonant melody worthy of Kurt Weill. It’s nevertheless the type of number that usually has back-up singers. Not here, of course; The Grinch stands alone. Note, too, that after he finishes “One of a Kind,” we see that he needs approval. “Thank you” he says to an audience that isn’t there. Oh, how he needs one!
As if The Whos had banished The Grinch! Whoville, unlike ANNIE’s Hooverville, is a happy place where its perceptive little heroine Cindy-Lou Who points out “Just because he looks different doesn’t mean he’s bad.”
So The Whos would welcome The Grinch in any of the twelve months of the year, but especially at Christmastime. They sentimentally “remember that first Christmas tree” and enjoy each “Christmas present – future, and past!” in the show’s opening waltz. They appreciate that in December “People hug and don’t ask why.”
Yes, isn’t the best part of Christmas that the holiday gives people a strange type of permission to be kinder? So many who wouldn’t begin to give people a break do this time of year because, as they concede with a casual wave on the hand as they display largesse, “Ahhh, it’s Christmas.”
After all, Oliver Warbucks could send Grace Farrell to an orphanage any time of year in order to give a kid two weeks in his mansion, but notice that he only thinks to do so at Christmas.
(At least initially.)
The Grinch, on the other hand, feels that Christmas is “destroying my calm and my mind and my eardrums.” Actually, there are two sides of the eardrum argument. Walk into any store or restaurant during the other eleven months of the year, and you might hear songs with lyrics along the line of “You were jive, mother-mother, you were jive, boom-boom.” During December, “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree” are as abrasive as music gets. Softer music gets us in the mood to have ourselves a merry little Christmas.
Yet any Christmas song or carol rubs The Grinch the wrong way. Too bad he doesn’t have a chance to hear “We Need a Little Christmas” (MAME), “At Christmastime” (SONG OF NORWAY), “Christmas at Hampton Court” (REX), “Christmas Child,” (IRMA LA DOUCE), “Christmas Day” (PROMISES, PROMISES), “It All Comes down to Christmas” (A CHRISTMAS STORY), “Speakeasy Christmas” (LEGS DIAMOND) and “New Deal for Christmas” (ANNIE).
(Wonder if he’d prefer The Whos’ Christmas songs to “Christmas” in THE WHO’S TOMMY?)
What also grates on The Grinch’s nerves is kids’ loud enthusiasm when they receive their Christmas presents. “Buckets of noise,” as they sing, is the result, especially when they open their presents and see that there’s “no underwear, no socks.” Receiving those, they sing, would be “a Christmas nightmare.” And which of us didn’t feel that way in our youth?
All this starts The Grinch on planning to ruin Christmas for everyone. He’ll disguise himself as Santa Claus, arrive in Whoville and later, when everyone’s asleep, “He defooded their fridges,” Max reports.
(It’s just one of the many delightful Seussisms that the good Dr. Geisel invented and peppered throughout his books.)
A suddenly awake Cindy-Lou Who immediately sees that Max, pretending to be a reindeer, is really a pooch. When she sees what The Grinch is up to, she cries and almost wins him over by her innocence, if not the song she begins to sing.
“No, no, it’s a ballad,” The Grinch moans. Indeed it is, but a most beautiful one: “Santa for a Day.” There are others: “Welcome, Christmas” and “Now’s the Time” – a very different song from the eleven o’clock number in HALLELUJAH, BABY! – deserve to join those songs we hear each December in every hall and mall. Mel Marvin and Timothy Mason’s score will never endure Joe Josephson’s criticism in MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG that “There’s not a tune you can hum.”
The Grinch eventually sees that “Maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store.” Like Scrooge, he becomes a Santa stand-in for more than a day as he concludes, “I hate being one of a kind.”
Well, yes and no. Being one of a kind in the sense of being an outcast isn’t good; being one of a kind in that you’re your own special creation – a good, interesting and fascinating bravest individual – is a most worthy goal. Without such an outlook, we wouldn’t have Albin, Annie, Barnum, Barry Glickman, Irene, Juno, Kean, Mame, Phil Connors, SpongeBob, Cindy-Lou Who as well as Lola in DAMN YANKEES and Lola in KINKY BOOTS. It’d be a pretty dull world without them.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. He’s a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly. His new book THE BROADWAY MUSICAL BOOK OF DEBATES, DISPUTES AND DISAGREEMENTS will be published in 2022.