The Grinch That Keeps on Grinching

A new television special hearkens back to the nearly 50 years of Christmas thievery from the Dr. Seuss classic

Dr. Seuss works on an early drawing of the Grinch. (Photo12 / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
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The first time readers young and old laid their eyes on the Grinch, he wasn’t green. He wasn’t on television, on stage, or even in a book. He didn't even debut amidst the Jing-Tinglers of the season, but rather during the dog days of summer. In 1955, a 33-line illustrated poem “The Hoobub and the Grinch” ran in Redbook magazine. In it, Dr. Seuss introduces the Grinch as a con artist selling a piece of string for 98 cents to a yellow-furred galoot out catching some rays. It’s “worth a lot more than that old-fashioned sun,” says the Grinch. (A scam to be sure, but the Grinch is right about the broiling damage that can be done without proper UV skin care.)

At the time, the Grinch wasn’t making the local “Who’s Who in Whoville?” ledger and his creator, Theodor Geisel, wasn’t making a living writing children’s books. He’d had a modicum of success with 13 titles dating back to 1937, when his first published book, And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street, hit shelves. By the early months of 1957, the 53-year-old was still more Ted Geisel, advertising illustrator, than Dr. Seuss, American kiddie culture-definer, but it all changed when he accomplished the literary feat of basically winning the World Series and Super Bowl M.V.P. in the same year.

“For his career, 1957 is the game-changer because he caught iconic lightning in a bottle, twice,” says Brian Jay Jones, author of Becoming Dr. Seuss: Theodor Geisel and the Making of an American Imagination. “The Cat in the Hat comes out in March and How the Grinch Stole Christmas! in early December. Thanks to these two humongous books, Geisel truly became Dr. Seuss and never looked back.”

The Cat in the Hat didn’t just upend a brother and sister’s rainy day afternoon, it changed the face of children’s reading habits. Its combination of bright drawings, wordplay hijinks and sense of mischief would kill off the boring drab Dick and Jane books for good, of which Geisel was extremely proud. The book was a smash, Thing One and Two became such household names that the print run for Geisel’s follow-up was upped to a healthy 50,000 copies for the holidays. How the Grinch Stole Christmas! was also an immediate hit and has since sold 7.5-million copies, according to Forbes.

In the 64-page printed version, Geisel tells the tale of a cantankerous recluse whose misanthropy leads him to vanquish all signs of Christmas in the nearby village, only to have a change of heart and be filled with the holiday spirit. The 1966 cartoon built out the story by adding colors, songs, and making Max the dog an important character. And tonight, the Grinch once again takes center stage as NBC airs a performance of the 1994 musical adaption of the Seuss classic, starring Matthew Morrison of "Glee" fame as the angry loner who lives up on Mount Crumpit.

“The Grinch was Dr. Seuss’ favorite character, it was his all-caps vanity license plate,” says Jones. “Two little boys, Bob and David Grinch from New Jersey, wrote him a letter saying how they get bullied every year around Christmas because he’s the bad guy so everyone makes fun of us… Seuss wrote them back and basically said, ‘No, the Grinch is a hero, a changed man. Tell those other kids, it’s not where you start, it’s where you end up.”

“It's difficult to overstate the influence of the Grinch,” says Tom Christie, a U.K.-based Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts based and author of three books focused on the history of Christmas movies. “People enjoy the character’s subversiveness at the time of year when we're all repeatedly told about the need for peace on earth and goodwill to all humankind, The Grinch comes along with his scruffily improvised Santa Claus costume to ransack people's homes and surgically remove all traces of the holiday season from his locality.”

“There's something gleefully over-the-top about that level of misanthropy and, because he eventually learns the error of his ways, we don't have to feel guilty about relishing the sheer cantankerousness of his actions and attitude,” he adds. The story is never overly saccharine, and never overly sinister: it strikes exactly the right balance.”

Four generations on, the Grinch’s humble roots on the page as a black-and-white sourpuss, looking down on Who-ville and rueing the impending town feast, have become a Christmas cottage industry. Tonight’s London-based performance of Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch Musical provides yet another entry in the ever-expanding canon. Following months of socially distanced rehearsal, and a two-week quarantine bubble, The Grinch Musical, says director Max Webster, is totally humming.

“The biggest challenge we faced was figuring out how to actually do it. I don’t know that anyone ever put on a theatrical production like this in the middle of a pandemic, perhaps in the 13th-century but even then they weren’t putting it on for television, ” says Webster with a laugh. “It’s impossible to properly choreograph scenes without being together in person. You can’t practice backflips over Zoom, so it was a lot of work establishing safety protocols just so we could begin rehearsals”

Early on, producers decided that the lack of an in-house audience and the time differences between the U.K. and the U.S. rendered a live version of The Grinch Musical impossible. Instead, Webster, the cast of 30, and a total crew of 200 undertook a two-day film shoot with the intensity of opening night, singing and dancing along to a full orchestra that recorded the score separately.

Matthew Morrison plays the Grinch in the new NBC musical (David Cotter / NBC)

“One of our guiding principles in this huge undertaking was that it needed to resonate with what we’re all going through, but not in a literal way because we could all use a little less news these days,” says Webster, former associate director at the Old Vic who now holds the same position at London’s Donmar Warehouse. “We did that by making the show zany bright fun, while knowing at its core The Grinch is a story of empathy.”

The beloved 1966 animated television special, on which the musical is based, brought Dr. Seuss back to his favorite character, though it took a steady dose of badgering from an old World War II friend. During the war, Geisel served as command of the animation department of the 1st Motion Picture Unit, which was created out of the Army Signal Corps. He worked alongside filmmaker Frank Capra, writing scripts for a series of cartoons about Private Snafu, a misbegotten recruit who couldn’t get out of his own way. They were aimed at teaching soldiers with little education about army protocol, personal hygiene, safety measures; they also served as a morale booster. Geisel wrote most of the scripts, which were voiced by Mel Blanc, best known then and now as Bugs Bunny, and directed by two other legends of the Looney Tunes, Friz Freleng and Chuck Jones.

Geisel always had reservations about licensing his characters, primarily because he was a perfectionist who didn’t trust anyone else with his creations. Jones rented a car repeatedly to drive to Geisel’s home and convince him to get on board for the show Geisel finally relented, so long as he got to be a credited hands-on producer, and Jones went on to select the hue of his friend’s previously uncolored star. Based on the color of Jones’ rental cars, the Grinch was now a sickly green one, and soon would be a mean one, as Seuss took all his rhyming talents to the songs necessary to flesh out the original source material.

“Seuss loved songwriting, it was poetry to him,” says biographer Brian Jay Jones (no relation to Chuck). “In the archives, I found handwritten notes with all these various scratched-out iterations. You could see how much fun he was having coming up with ‘stink, stank, STUNK!’”

It was a top-shelf production all the way around, costing $315,000, more than three times what was spent on "A Charlie Brown Christmas" the year before. Jones used the full animation technique, which meant 25,000 drawings—as opposed to 2,000 in say "The Flintstones"—and no cut-and-paste backgrounds. He brought in renowned designer Maurice Noble who created cartoon classics like “What’s Opera Doc?” for the 250 background layouts. The musical numbers were produced by a 34-piece orchestra and a 12-voice chorus;it was one of the most expensive shows ever made for television.

The talent was A-list, too. Jones enlisted 79-year-old horror movie specialist Boris Karloff to narrate and voice the Grinch, a performance for which he won a Grammy. Karloff was initially thought to have sung “You’re A Mean One, Mister Grinch,” but it was actually Thurl Ravenscroft, who also bellowed out “They’re Grrrrrrrrrrreat!” as Tony, the official Frosted Flakes spokestiger for half a century. Nobody involved with the production was upset with Ravenscroft’s delivery of “you're a three-decker sauerkraut and toadstool sandwich with arsenic sauce,” but he was left out of the credits by accident. Geisel himself sent out a letter to newspaper columnists to straighten it all out.

Songs weren’t enough to turn a 12-minute read into a 26-minute program however, so Max, the Grinch’s dog-cum-workhorse, was moved to the foreground to serve as the audience surrogate. Geisel loved the idea and enthusiastically agreed, describing Max as “Everydog—all love and limpness and loyalty.” Add in an extended sleigh ride up the mountain before the Whos rang in Christmas morning hand-in-hand—presents be damned—with songs in “Seussian Latin,” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” was ready to go. So was the audience. The December 18 airing on CBS was viewed by an estimated 38 million people and it’s been an annual sit-down ever since. No less an authority than TV Guide ranked it #1 in its “Ten Best Family Holiday Specials,” topping that round-headed kid with the paltry tree.

“You know when a festive tale starts being spun off into musicals, audiobooks and even a video game, that it’s reached the status of being a runaway pop culture juggernaut,” says Christie. “People just love the uniquely surreal quality of a character who is able to do what even Scrooge couldn't—literally wipe Christmas off the face of the map.”

Neither of the two feature film versions come within a thirty-nine-and-a-half foot pole of the half-hour adaptation, but they both did well at the box office. The critically loathed 2000 Ron Howard-directed version starring an oddly-menacing Jim Carrey banked $260-million. While the blandly-told-but-sprightly-colored 2018 animated version with Benedict Cumberbatch voicing the lanky neon curmudgeon topped its live-action predecessor by $10 million in ticket sales. For Grinch completists, there are also two additional prime-time Emmy-winning, but generally forgotten, animated television specials written by Geisel: "Halloween is Grinch Night" in 1978 and "The Grinch Grinches the Cat in the Hat" in 1982.

The musical adaptation was first presented in Minneapolis in 1994, three years after Geisel’s death, with book and lyrics by Timothy Mason and music by Mel Marvin. To fill out what amounts to a 90-minuteish performance, they added songs and dances. Later, it played on Broadway a whopping 15 times a week, toured all over America, and became a perennial favorite at theaters like the Old Globe in San Diego, where it ran each holiday season for 22 straight years. (This year the Old Globe is presenting the show as a radio program that will be streamable on December 20 and 24.)

Today, just about any fan of the Grinch can find a gift emblazoned with the green creature, including the 2020 must-have, facial masks. Gone, seemingly, is the anti-consumerism message that acquiring stuff isn’t what makes the holiday, even if it was always a bit of a Seussian stretch, as the biographer Jones points out, the author of the Christmas “doesn’t come from a store” ethos made his living in advertising.

It’s an interesting time for Grinch lovers around the globe and an open question if a new theatrical production will serve as a welcome respite during this darkest of holiday seasons. This year, a new version of the Grinch’s redemption feels a little different. “Would the Grinch wear a mask? Not while he’s robbing Who-ville, but hopefully by the end,” Jones says.

“Maybe Christmas… perhaps… means a little bit more…” may not be as easy a message for the clan gathering around a Zoom, getting teary-eyed as Max leads the sleigh back down the communal hand-in-hand singing of “Dahoor Dores.” On the other hand, by the time the kids are tucked into bed, the Grinch will, as always, have carved the roast beast.

“It's perfect for this year because the Grinch learns to care for others, to look after his community,” says Webster. “Any story that helps us grow a bigger heart is a good thing.”

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