Give Him a Grinch and He’ll Take a Smile
At last! After years of waiting, one of the most endearing scores of recent vintage has finally been recorded and released.
It’s going to be in a number of stockings that are hung by the mantle with care, and not just because CDs tend to fit in Christmas stockings. Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a natural for the holiday season – and beyond.
Back in 1994, bookwriter-lyricist Timothy Mason and composer Mel Marvin adapted Theodor (Dr. Seuss) Geisel’s 1957 classic and debuted it at the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis. The musical really took off when it bowed at the Old Globe Theatre in 1998, for there has never since been a Christmas season when it hasn’t been mounted there.
Those who can’t get to San Diego can console themselves with this recording from the 2006 and 2007 Broadway casts. Returning to record from the first troupe were Patrick Page, two-time Tony-winner John (Shenandoah, On the Twentieth Century) Cullum, Rusty Ross and Jan Neuberger and, from the second, Tari Kelly.
Just as Boston’s Fenway Park is famous for its green monster, so is this story, which the avuncular Cullum narrates in rhymed couplets. The narration serves as a show in itself, for it makes the disc a “story record.” One doesn’t have to see the show to know what is going on. While many cast albums are good at telling the story of a show exclusively through its songs, this one does even better.
Cullum is also playing Old Max, who admits “I’m not the dog I used to be.” Maybe that’s not such a bad thing, for Young Max (Ross) is the lackey of The Grinch (Page).
Not much time must pass on the disc before we get to a highlight: “Who Likes Christmas?” sung the citizens of Whoville. With a few phrases of “Angels We Have Heard on High” and “Deck the Halls,” we get a nice mixture of the religious and the secular, the reverential and jaunty. As for the song itself, it’s the type that you find yourself humming right after it concludes during the silence before the next song starts.
This is not only good, of course, but expected. Any song that employs the word “Christmas” in its lyric has an immediate responsibility to be good.
“This Time of Year” is a razz-ma-tazzer for both Young and Old Max. Mason gets in a few fine lyric jokes here. Old Max recalls when he was “not just any rover” and when he was “hot to trot.” The kids will miss the double entendre in the latter phrase, but they’ll catch it years from now and chuckle at their long-gone naivete when they play this recording for their children.
Time to meet The Grinch, who doesn’t sugar-coat his feelings, not with a song entitled “I Hate Christmas Eve.” When kids hear him use the expression “miserable toys,” they may almost view it as an ethnic slur. Finding a rhyme for Christmas isn’t easy if there isn’t an isthmus anywhere around, but Mason did the best he could.
The Grinch doesn’t simply hate the up-tempo Yuletide numbers, but he loathes Christmas carols, too. You’ll undoubtedly feel differently when you’re reacquainted with “Welcome, Christmas,” the song with a most carolish feel, thanks to music by Albert Hague and lyrics by – yes! — Dr. Seuss. It’s part of the 1966 animated CBS TV special that surfaces each December. So was “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” which has also been included here.
Page’s stint as the green Grinch had to be a nice tune-up for his next musical role as The Green Goblin in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. He deftly delivers the bass notes that Marvin gave him to prove how base the character is. There’s a little Captain Hook in his delivery, what with his rolling his “r’s” and of course coming out with the evil laugh that you expect from every villain when he’s being especially insidious. When Young Max begins to lose his nerve about the crime and says “I don’t like this, Mr. Grinch,” the way Page mimics him and mocks his voice will bring giggles from children everywhere.
In the song, The Grinch makes a point of hating Yuletide decorations – as some people do when they see them “up too early.” And yet, as J. Pierrepont Finch says in How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying, “Well, really, what’s the harm?” People tend to be nicer to each other during the Christmas season, as The Grinch will learn, so we’re wise to bring it on as soon as we can.
Oh, The Whos admit that “Christmas shopping gets a little overwhelming.”
Apparently Whoville doesn’t have Internet or cellphone service. It does ostensibly have a K Mart, however, based on the periodic “Attention, shopper” announcements.
They’re not what The Grinch wants to hear. He dresses like Santa Claus, makes Young Max resemble a reindeer. He wants to see Whoville’s kids arise on Dec. 25 and not only find nothing under the tree, but also find no tree at all. To the average child listening, the idea of being denied Christmas booty is as frightening as Halloween (the film). Call it The Nightmare on Who Street.
And off they go to steal. Some legal beagles may feel that Young Max is an accessory to a crime. Mason covers that base by having the poor dog sing that he has “No choice; I always must obey. No voice; it’s a doggie’s way.” This lyric might even make kids think twice before making their dog do every little trick and chore over and over again, and realize that being a dog means living a dog’s life.
The Grinch shows no such sensitivity. He even ridicules the show’s most beautiful song, when Cindy-Lou Who sings “Santa for a Day.” She’s just getting started when Page snarls, “Ah, it’s a ballad.” It is true that children tend to resist slow and soft songs in favor of peppy and loud ones, but this one – especially as sung by Abigail Shapiro — is so winning that it may be the exception.
It isn’t, however, for The Grinch. We see what a hard nut he is to crack when he isn’t moved by this one. So what’s bugging this guy? The official explanation is that “his heart is two sizes too small.” A better explanation: it isn’t easy being green, as Elphaba has since learned. Kids listening to the disc may start to think twice before mocking someone who looks different.
As a result, The Grinch has convinced himself that he likes being alone. “No letters to open,” he sings, “no letters to send.” He’s proud of his independence – although not nearly as proud of his stealing everything in sight.
So do The Grinch’s crimes turn Whoville into a more dour place than Hooverville in Annie? Not on your life. Seuss’ point is that Christmas is its own reward, and the Whos still have the Christmas spirit if not the presents. One song, “It’s the Thought That Counts,” offers a sentiment that no one’s too young to learn.
Nothing annoys a bully more than to find that he’s done his worst and it’s had no effect. As Young Max tells him when all has failed, “You’re free to be lonely. You’re free to be mean.” And that’s the beginning of his turn-around. Shakespeare said that the quality of mercy is twice blessed, but The Grinch does even better, for as Seuss tells us, “his heart grew three sizes that day.” As he returns everything he stole, he’s learning that it’s better to give back than receive. Kids will also enjoy hearing him struggle to say the two words he never thought he’d say and ones that he’s had no experience saying: “Merry Christmas!”
There are bonus tracks, each from a very different source. The first is “Once in a Year,” a marvelous production number that involves The Grinch and The Who Family. It was in the show the first year, but reluctantly dropped when the show was running long. Once you hear it, you may share the creators’ agony in making it walk the plank. The second is “Where Are You, Christmas?” which actually comes from the 2000 film version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. And in a way, the overture is a bonus track, for it was created specifically for the disc.
After hearing this album, some may very well be enticed to go to San Diego and see the show. For the record, the sweet sixteenth run occurs from Nov. 16-Dec. 28. Hmmm, is Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas one of the reasons that San Diego has come to be known as “America’s Finest City”?
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.kritzerland.com.and www.mtishows.com. His books on musicals are available at Amazon.com.