PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical Lean, Mean and Green

By Harry Haun
12 Nov 2007

His wife, actress Paige Davis (that's right: in real life, she'ss Paige Page), returned from a national tour of Sweet Charity in time for her husband's return to Broadway. Her next stop will be resuming her hosting duties for "Trading Spaces," a reality series for cable. Also returning to the show is Rusty Ross, who plays The Grinch's dog, Young Max. There is also an Old Max (this year Ed Dixon, last year John Cullum) who narrates this tale of The Grinch's Christmas raid on Whoville. In the new and improved edition, they even get to interact in song. "It's near the beginning of the show, a duet we do called 'This Time of Year,'" said Ross, "and it sets up the idea that we're the same character. We call it 'a soft-paw number.' It's like a soft-shoe, but we're dogs so it's a 'soft-paw.'"

"I think the opening number with the two dogs just starts the show off on the right magical note," opted Jan Neuberger, who's back swinging her F. A. Who Schwartz shopping bag as dotty Grandma Who. "The other new song in the show is the shopping number, 'It's the Thought That Counts.' It's totally different from what we did before."

That song, like others in the show by composer Mel Marvin and lyricist-book writer Timothy Mason, is small-fry-friendly — melodic and accessible — and this particular one, said director August, is part of the show that has been reworked from the ground up: "There's a middle section of the show where The Grinch steals costumes to disguise himself as Santa Claus that is entirely new. Bob Richards has choreographed what is basically a six-minute production number for this new song. We have kept most of the songs in the show. We cut down the kids' song, 'Whatchama Who,' so that it's a little bit shorter — not much, but it has much more focused choreography in the new version." The director's director is twice-Tonyed Jack O'Brien, who started turning The Grinch into a Broadway song-and-dance man a decade ago at the The Old Globe and has kept a supervisory eye on the project ever since. When it finally developed that the show would make it to the Main Stem last year, O'Brien's plate was already full-to-overflowing with The Coast of Utopia so he assigned assistant August to bring 'er in. It was O'Brien, who retains the credit-line "Original Production Conceived and Directed by," who regrouped the show's creators to tinker with the show some more after its initial pass at Broadway. "We sat down with Jack O'Brien and thought very seriously about the storytelling involved in the show," recalled composer Marvin. "We felt we had to do more to develop the characters of the Whos and more to develop the beginning of the show of the two dogs so that the whole thing got a little deeper. And that was what it really was born from — just thinking about how to tell the story, which is how you write musical theatre."

O'Brien is pleased with the results. "We keep learning now about New York and what it wants. There were some trims I wanted to make. I'm excited about how it came back."

Right now he's in the happy position of being between hits — fresh from the successful London launching of Hairspray with Michael Ball in Harvey Fierstein's housedress ("I thought they were going to kill us over there. They love it. Who knew?") and getting ready for Catch Me If You Can ("That's the Hairspray alumni — Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman, Jerry Mitchell — plus Terrence McNally. We've got a workshop coming up.")

O'Brien figures this is John Lee Beatty's fifth set-design for Whoville in the ten years they've been doing it (it won't be his last if the show multiplies into national companies). "I know why Young Frankenstein loved that large space at the Hilton," sighed Beatty. "I had to lose about 15 feet of space backstage when I redesigned our show for the St. James. But it's amazing how much you can cram backstage. It's still difficult, though." Currently, he's Dancing in the Dark. That's the new title for the stage version of the Fred Astaire-Cyd Charisse movie of 1953, "The Band Wagon." It will try out at the Old Globe in March, under the direction of The Color Purple's Gary Griffin. The plot zigzags between 1952 and 1933 "so," said Beatty, "a designer has his work cut out for him."

William Ryall, another returnee, stands tall among the Whos — in fact, tallest — but doesn't have a lot of lines. He's the designated understudy for Old Max as well as — God forbid — The Grinch (although he has played that part on Broadway before: the Grinch he played in the original Seussical of 2000-200l was close to a cameo).

New, this year, to the Whos is Hunter Bell, who was not cast because of his flaming red hair. (He wears a wig, but the real hair must have made a pow impression at the audition.) His character, he claimed, "is Palm Springs Who. He's one of the many Whos in Whoville celebrating Christmas. It's a thrill to work on this show, an absolute joy." This is said with exactly the same wide-eyed childlike wonderment he summons on stage. "I didn't do it last year. This is my first year in Whoville, and it's my Broadway debut. And what a place to do it — at the St. James! There's such a history in that building. What Jack and Matt talked to us about through the whole process — what the whole idea of doing this show is: Kids today have play stations and they have TV and they have iPhones and TiVos and Divos — and Jack and Matt wanted to create a show for young kids to come see that would have an impact on them, the way you and I saw things as a kid that had impact on us. I think they're wildly successful at it. I'm proud to be a part of it."