Published in KPBS On Air Magazine December 1998
Un-can the Who-hash! Prepare for a feast.
Whip up the Who-pudding! Bring on the roast beast!
The wonderful, awful, miraculous reason?
The Globe is geared up to steal Christmas this season!
You’ve certainly perused the book, and undoubtedly viewed the cartoon. You’ve probably heard that Jim Carrey is making a movie. But you ain’t seen nothin’ ‘til you’ve experienced the timeless tale brought to life right here in San Diego, in the musical stage version of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”
Old Globe artistic director Jack O’Brien has been crowing for months. The new production is a veritable cornucopia of firsts:
This is the first time the Globe has ever done a Christmas show. (But this was practically handed to them on a roast-beast platter).
It’s the first time the Globe has really targeted a production to a family audience, particularly to children. “And it’s high time we did,” O’Brien admits.
And it’s the first time a Globe cast is primarily local. More local actors, in fact, than at any time since the Globe went professional (seven adults and 20 kids). “We’re not looking to exploit or export this,” O’Brien avers. “This is one for the home team. And our intention is to get a ten-year extension on it.”
The Grinch himself is no local, but a Broadway veteran, Guy Paul, who originated the role in the play’s 1997 premiere at the Children’s Theatre of Minneapolis. “He was hilariously funny,” says O’Brien. “I immediately hired him. Audrey [Geisel] loved him, too.”
Mrs. Geisel has been a major force in making this happen. She wanted very much to give the rights as a gift to the community and a tribute to her late husband, Ted, AKA Dr. Seuss, who called San Diego home. As an added benefit, ten percent of all tickets will be underwritten and provided free to deserving children throughout the county. And all kids under 17 get in at half-price.
To open up the festivities even further, the plaza outside the theater will be transformed into Who-ville, a “winter wonderland” free to the public (November 21-January 3), where kids can have their picture taken with the Grinch.
In presenting this classic, the creative/design team made one critical decision: don’t copy the cartoon, don’t worry about the upcoming film, just be true to the source and directly re-create the book, in all its charming simplicity.
So scenic designer John Lee Beatty (an acclaimed Broadway vet) has made the entire book come springing to life in three dimensions and just three colors: black, white and red (with a little pink thrown in, just as Dr. Seuss did). There’s only one bow to the animated film; since everyone knows and remembers that so clearly, the Grinch will be green (though he’s uncolored in the Seuss original). He’s going to start out “a muddy, ugly, gray green,” says ace costume designer Robert Morgan, but after his transformation, his shaggy, hairy body becomes a bright Christmas green.
Set designer Beatty found it “absolutely fascinating re-interpreting sculpturally, in three dimensions, two-dimensional drawings. Dr. Seuss was a very liberated illustrator; nothing was holding him down to the page. He had a crazy/intelligent way of looking at the world. So, everything [for the show] is designed to [enormous] scale, 360 degrees around, to rotate into something else. I feel a huge responsibility to the kids and to Dr. Seuss. There’ll be a lot of movement, a lot of surprises.”
There are, amazingly, seven sets — for an 82-minute piece — and many rapid back-and-forth changes. “It’s an adventure,” says Beatty, “and it’s constantly got to be going places. It’s always a precarious situation for the Grinch.”
For costume designer Morgan, the challenge was even greater. “The first thing I did was try to draw, line for line, exactly the same figures as Ted Geisel did, and connect the dots to make it three dimensional. It was a spectacular failure,” he admits. “I had to take the energy and spirit of his drawings; I couldn’t take them literally.” Instead, he gave all the Whos pod-like torsos and imaginative, eccentric clothes with geometric patterns and shapes reminiscent of the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s.
The framing device of the musical (book and lyrics by Timothy Mason, music by Mel Marvin) is Old Max as narrator, an aging, bespectacled dog looking back on his youth, and the time when he lived on the hill with that mean, nasty Grinch, who hated Christmas and wanted to steal it away from the holiday-loving Whos down below. The story is fleshed out, there are new songs (though none from the cartoon), and we get a better understanding of why the Grinch is such a Yule-mule.
Ted Geisel wrote the book in 1957, when he was 53. Interestingly, just before he gets his “wonderful, awful idea,” the Grinch says he’s been putting up with the Christmas Who-hollering “for fifty-three years.” But in the current version, it’s Old Max (played by funnyman Don Sparks) who’ll resemble Mr. Geisel/Dr. Seuss (a gray, tweedy guy in an overcoat — with a dog legs and tail sticking out underneath).
Four decades after Geisel created it, the book is still relevant. We’re more materialistic than ever at holiday time, and many of us still haven’t learned, as the Grinch did, that Christmas “doesn’t come from a store.” But, adds O’Brien, “it’s not just about Christmas. It’s pan-religious. Values in general are threatened these days. And there’s another classic idea here, too. Someone can come and try to take away what they think you love, and find what you really loved was what they couldn’t see.”
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.