The Grinch Who Stole Christmas
By Don Braunagel
On a typically beautiful spring day in San Diego, the Old Globe Theatre presents the city with a Christmas present—one we’ll get to enjoy for a long time to come. Artistic director Jack O’Brien makes the big announcement, assisted by managing director Tom Hall and Audrey Geisel, widow of Theodor (known the world over by his nom de kidbook, Dr. Seuss): The Globe, for its first-ever holiday production, this year will present a new musical version of the classic Seuss fable How the Grinch Stole Christmas! It seems like such a natural fit—La Jollan Geisel, the renowned Old Globe and a beloved children’s story—that the obvious question is why it hadn’t been done before.
Like many good—and seemingly obvious—ideas, this one was a long time in gestation. For years, Globe officials had been seeking a holiday attraction for December, when the company’s main and Cassius Carter Centre stages are dark between seasons. Naturally, they wanted one that could become a perennial favorite, like A Christmas Carol at the San Diego Rep. Then, in 1996, Hall was in Minneapolis for a regional theater conference and saw a musical version of Grinch at the famed Children’s Theatre Center. He thought of importing the production as a holiday attraction and urged O’Brien to see it.
O’Brien also liked the show but, creative mind churning, decided that instead of coproducing, he’d rather stage it with his own slant. And thus began the long, unglamorous process of bringing a musical to stage.
First, of course, the Globe had to obtain the theatrical rights. Those, it turned out, had been purchased, along with those for most other Seuss works, by Livent Inc. in Toronto. That prominent organization, producer of major musicals like Ragtime, Show Boat and Fosse, has plans for a new extravaganza, based on the Geisel works, called Seussical. The team of creators reportedly includes writer Eric Idle, alum of the Monty Python troupe; and lyricist Lynn Ahrens, composer Stephen Flaherty and director Frank Galati, all of whom won, or were nominated for, Tonys for Ragtime.
The schedule originally called for Seussical to hit Broadway in 2000—but that, like other Livent projects, has run into delays. In July, company cofounder Garth Drabinsky stepped down as CEO amid charges of financial hanky-panky; former Disney president Michael Ovitz has since taken a major role in the company.
At that point, however, Livent still controlled Grinch as part of the package. And here Audrey Geisel rode to the rescue. Tom Hall gives her immense credit, saying that when she heard what the Globe wanted to do, she immediately hopped on a plane and helped negotiate the terms. Under the agreement, the Globe has the local stage rights to Grinch for at least 10 years.
During the production’s planned decade at the Globe, don’t be surprised if other theaters around the country, eager for their own holiday enticement, seek to reach out and pinch the Grinch. There’ll be even more Grinchification of the nation. Universal Pictures has acquired the film rights to the story and has slated a major live-action feature starring Jim Carrey, with Ron Howard as director. And Seagram, parent company of Universal, is planning an attraction called Seuss Landing at its new Islands of Adventure theme park opening next summer in Florida.
With the paperwork out of the way, O’Brien is free to plunge into the enterprise con brio. He had liked the basic structure of the Minneapolis production, so he enlists two of its key creators, writer-lyricist Timothy Mason (In a Northern Landscape) and composer Mel Marvin (Tintypes). Then O’Brien spices his lineup with designers whose work has enriched the Globe in the past: set designer John Lee Beatty, whose coast-to-coast awards include a Tony; associate artist Robert Morgan, for costumes; and much-lauded Globe resident artist Jeff Ladman for sound. John DeLuca, fresh from Chita and All That Jazz, came aboard to do original choreography, aided by assistant director Bonnie Johnston, and Tony winner Pat Collins was picked to light the production.
Assembling such a team, as Hall points out, is not just a matter of phoning the people and asking them to come by for a project. “Because we’re a not-for-profit operation,” he says, “we have to be conscious that these people can earn more money with commercial productions. And several of them live in New York or elsewhere.” So the Globe has to carefully plan schedules and meetings to fit into myriad agendas. The usual pattern is for O’Brien, or whoever is directing, to hold small separate sessions with each designer to discuss the overall vision and exchange ideas. If several can get together, so much the better.
O’Brien says the initial creative meetings early this year led to a quick consensus on an idea suggested by Beatty: They would do the book. Whereas the Minneapolis version had followed the Grinch cartoon adaptation so familiar from television, this production will have the look and experience of the original volume, published in 1957. That means, O’Brien explains, using the book’s black, white and red color scheme and making the sets and characters look just as if they had been drawn by Dr. Seuss. “We want the audience to feel as if they’re turning the pages, one by one,” O’Brien says.
Also during those meetings, O’Brien says, he came to two momentous realizations. “I’m not allowed to fail,” he says, referring to the story’s popularity and esteem, not to mention its hometown regard. And an even greater concern: “I’m incredibly aware that this will be the first theatrical production seen by many children. That’s very special, and I want it to be as enjoyable as possible for them.” So Beatty has his assignment—re-create Who-ville to look like large Seuss renderings. Morgan has the challenge to come up with costumes that bring the familiar characters to vivid life, yet are lightweight and flexible enough for dancing and cavorting. Collins’ charge is to bathe the proceedings in proper holiday hues, and Ladman—one of San Diego’s best at his profession—is to provide the appropriate aural underscoring.
The Grinch story, familiar to anyone who’s been or had a child in the last few decades, concerns a mean green creature who decides to deprive a village of its Christmas enjoyment by stealing all of the residents’ presents, trees and other holiday goodies. The plan fails, and the Grinch learns a redemptory lesson.
This little tale, in O’Brien’s concept, is fleshed out with song and spectacle and runs about 90 minutes. To the basic plot, Mason has attached gags, dialogue and clever references to broaden the appeal to adults, and Ma rvin has penned new songs for key moments. All this, of course, is decorated by special effects and the special stage wizardry for which the Globe and O’Brien are famous.
After the initial planning sessions, Beatty and Morgan submit sketches to O’Brien for his input and approval. Then the drawings are turned over to Globe craftspersons, who develop miniature plastic models in scale with the stage area and create costumes to test for wearability and appearance.
Meanwhile, as frequently happens with someone of O’Brien’s reputation, he is asked to take on another project in New York—directing a comedy, More to Love, featuring Rob Bartlett, an associate of notorious radio personality Don Imus. O’Brien checks it out, makes a few suggestions, then begs off. The producers like his ideas so much that they sweeten the offer considerably and promise that he can have plenty of time for Grinch. O’Brien, who figures Grinch is proceeding admirably, takes the job. As he often jokes: “I should just wear a T-shirt telling people ‘I rehearse for a living.’”
Back at the Globe, the Grinch’s physical structure is coming together, and it’s time to bring in the players. Auditions for key adult roles are held August 17-18 at the Globe, with some adult and all children’s roles filled through local tryouts September 16-19. Final decisions are made after the September callbacks.
Crucial, of course, is the casting of the Grinch. Several actors are considered, but O’Brien favors the one he saw in Minneapolis, Guy Paul. A Broadway veteran, Paul was most recently in the heralded revival of 1776. He has the typical good-actor résumé, displaying a variety of roles in dramas, comedies and musicals at venues in New York—where he lives—and throughout the country, plus considerable film and television work.
Paul has no problem with making his Globe debut playing a costumed character rather than a person. “Grinch is a feast for an actor,” he says, citing his time on stage and the opportunity to sing, dance and elicit all kinds of audience reactions as a humorous villain. “I’ve always loved roles where you get to use all your guns—acting, singing and dancing.”
He also points out that Grinch shouldn’t be taken as strictly a children’s show. “The humor is for adults as well as kids,” he says, “and the show’s larger message is really for grownups—Grinch’s redemption is like Scrooge’s redemption, ‘and a child will lead them.’”
As for other featured roles, some names, if not faces—because of Morgan’s costumes —will be recognizable to regular Globe patrons. Globe associate artist Don Sparks puts his comic versatility to good use as Grinch’s canine pal, Old Max, while Steve Gunderson (of Forever Plaid and Suds) and Melinda Gilb (Suds) are prominent Whos.
The auditions to fill the adult and children’s ensembles are held at Kellogg School in Chula Vista, the Vista Academy for the Performing Arts and the School of Creative and Performing Arts in San Diego. The turnout for each session exceeds 100, so the three days are busy ones for casting director Brendon Fox; pianist Bill Doyle, who has the challenge of accompanying all the hopefuls; O’Brien, when he can squeeze in the time; and Ole Kittleson, handling the dance auditions for DeLuca.
Auditions, as anyone familiar with the process (or the musical A Chorus Line) knows, are difficult. Anyone offering his or her talents for judgment, of course, can’t have a fragile ego. But then there’s the other side—the judges, who have to sit for hours and evaluate, in a very short time, how much a person could help their production. It’s not easy, especially when the performers are youngsters.
The format calls for the auditioners to perform their choices of a short Seuss reading and a song, then go over and dance a newly learned routine. By the third day, Fox and Doyle are awfully weary of “Sam I Am” and “Tomorrow.” Some of the kids can sing, some can dance, and some can do both. Many are nervous, but most are extremely poised, and O’Brien several times expresses amazement at the depth of the talent pool.
After each tryout, the résumé is placed in one of three piles—definite callback, maybe and not this time. Such decisions have to be instant because another hopeful is waiting, but there is surprisingly little disagreement among the observers.
And then comes someone like Bix Bettwy. Just 12 but with a wealth of local stage, video and singing experience, he belts out “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” and dazzles all. O’Brien sums it up: “Find him a part!” Hence, Grinch-goers will see him as Brother Who. Similarly, 9-year-old Vanessa A. Hudgens of Vista and 10-year-old Tiffany Scarritt of Coronado win—and will share —the featured role of Cindy-Lou Who. September callbacks winnow the finalists to an adult ensemble of five and a troupe of 15 children, who will rotate into five roles every third performance to minimize their workload.
With the casting winding up, the various production heads begin to come into town for the final push. On September 25, they, plus key assistants and observers like Hall and Globe producing director Craig Noel (who introduces himself—wrongly—as “the original Grinch”), assemble upstairs at the Globe for the first meeting of the entire team. In a session lasting more than four hours, O’Brien leads them through the play, scene by scene, while resident design assistant David Ledsinger maneuvers models of the set pieces, scrims and props on a miniature version of the Globe stage.
This represents the major coordinating step in any production, and the ideas, suggestions, questions and reservations (says O’Brien: “I don’t want to fall in love with an idea, then find out it’s impossible”) flow freely and impressively: “Do we have a fog machine at this point?” “Are his eyes yellow or orange?” “Is it possible to have the Whos carry on lights, get them lit up, then go off?” “What about pogo sticks or trampolines?” Throughout, there’s considerable humor (“It’s page 7 in your hymnal.” “I’m emotionally stable now. I’m back on my medication.” “Should the Grinch climb down showing his face or butt?” “I vote hiney.”) and theater in-jokes (“Should she do her Judy Garland here?” “Now comes the Ride of the Valkyries.”) At one point, Ladman and Marvin slip downstairs to do sound tests. It’s a highly productive discussion, and if there’s any creative tension, it’s not evident here.
One more major meeting remains. On October 16, the entire Grinch company gathers in the Globe rehearsal hall downstairs at the former House of Charm in Balboa Park. Following a buffet lunch, O’Brien addresses the crowd with his usual wit and the emotion of a football coach at halftime. Noting the size of the multitude—cast, crew, families and media folk—he says wryly, “I’ve done a whole season of Shakespeare with fewer people than are here.”
More seriously, O’Brien evokes his own guiding theme and urges those in the cast—and not just the kids—to remember the first time they saw a theatrical production and decided they wanted not only to watch but to be on stage. “Remember that feeling,” he says, “and realize that your performances are going to do the same thing for someone else.” He clearly touches a roomful of hearts, because all buzzing and shuffling stops for a reflective moment.
And then, with Ledsinger repeating his yeoman duty shuffling models, O’Brien again covers the play. As he describes what is to come, the anticipation in the room grows palpable. Most of the grownups have been through this before, but the youngsters can hardly wait. One observer wonders aloud if the kids know how big an opportunity they are getting. Another answers, “They can’t possibly, yet. But they will—one day they will.”
Later, they do some run-throughs, a light beginning for the heavy rehearsal period. Then they move to a six-day-a-week schedule, adjusting and polishing as Grinch heads for its first preview November 17. The official run is November 22–January 3.
Midway through the rehearsal cycle—a time when the repetitive grind can be wearing—O’Brien has lost no enthusiasm. “I’m having the time of my life,” he says. “Everybody is, like, drunk on the excitement.” And he emphasizes that, like all good children’s stories, Grinch is not just for children. “We’re doing some things, like putting Old Max and Young Max together in the narration, that will illustrate the theme of revisiting one’s youth.”
The show will be a centerpiece for accompanying park festivities. For instance, the Globe Plaza in the Simon Edison Centre will be transformed into Who-ville, complete with some of its denizens wandering around. There’ll be a black-tie Globe gala November 21, followed the next day by a lunch and preview performance for 550 children.
Ted Seuss Geisel has to be smiling down at the way his legacy, so well managed by his widow, continues to grow and spread merriment. But you gotta believe that his spirit will especially embrace the Globe’s Grinch, an enduring gift to his hometown —and likely the world.