It’s been nearly 30 years since Audrey Geisel, the widow of longtime La Jollan Ted “Dr. Seuss” Geisel, first encouraged Old Globe artistic director Jack O’Brien to produce a family-friendly musical based on the Dr. Seuss book “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” at the Balboa Park theater.
But O’Brien wasn’t interested. Children’s entertainment on the Globe’s mainstage? Never. But Geisel kept asking and eventually O’Brien flew with her to Minneapolis to see the Children’s Theatre Company’s 45-minute “Grinch” show. As soon as O’Brien saw the musical, he understood its appeal. After working with the show’s co-writers Timothy Mason and Mel Marvin to expand the script and score to 80 minutes, the $1.1 million “Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” musical was reborn on the Old Globe Theatre stage on Nov. 22, 1998.
The show was an instant smash with San Diego audiences, and over the past 25 years, it has become the city’s most beloved theater tradition. Even during the pandemic, the Globe produced an audio version of the musical for KPBS Radio to keep the annual tradition alive.
Barry Edelstein, who has served as artistic director at the Old Globe since 2012, said he’s grateful to Audrey Geisel for her passionate desire to create and keep a Seuss musical in her late husband’s hometown, and to Susan Brandt, CEO of Dr. Seuss Enterprises, who has carried on that legacy since Audrey passed away in 2018. Edelstein is also thankful for the author himself, who passed away in 1991 but whose books remain as popular as ever.
“To think about this guy who sat down in1957 and wrote this story that has resonated with people for decades,” Edelstein said. “He captured lightning in a bottle. He touched magic. It’s the extraordinary power of the story itself, the mythology and fable of it, that keeps engaging people.”
In honor of the “Grinch” musical’s 25th anniversary this fall, here’s the behind-the-scenes story of San Diego’s favorite show.
In the beginning
To launch the musical in San Diego in 1998, the Old Globe recruited Broadway actor Guy Paul to play the Grinch, a role he’d originated at the Children’s Theatre in Minneapolis. His comedic style, physicality and makeup design became the template for all the actors who followed Paul after he left the show at the end of the 2002 run.
The role of Cindy-Lou Who — the Whoville girl that melts the Grinch’s cold heart one Christmas Eve — was played in the inaugural production by 9-year-old Vista grade-schooler Vanessa Hudgens. Hudgens went on to TV and film stardom, recently appearing in the 2021 film “tick .. tick … BOOM!,” and she has 48 million Instagram followers. Paul has had a long film and stage career. This month, he’s co-starring with actor Ralph Fiennes in the off-Broadway play “Straight Line Crazy.”
Keeping the faith
Three-time Tony Award winner O’Brien left the Old Globe in 2007, but he left behind an archive of 12 hours of video footage recorded over the years on the first day of “Grinch” rehearsals each year. These so-called “Jack talks” became the bible that director James Vásquez has used in the years since to ensure that the “Grinch” musical never loses its original heart, wholesomeness, scary moments, quirkiness and San Diego soul.
Vasquez first joined the musical’s cast in 2003 and became its dance captain and swing before taking over as the show’s permanent director in 2010. Since then he has been backstage at every performance, ready to go on for virtually any indisposed actor at a moment’s notice. He has never tired of the show.
“My entire childhood I grew up watching the cartoon version of this community around a tree singing “Fah Who Foraze,” and for the last 25 years of my life, I’m a Who. I’m Papa Who,” Vásquez said. “It is an honor and a thrill. To know this San Diego tradition is something that I get to lead and help bring to San Diego every year is amazing.”
The music of Whoville
Although the musical’s scenery, costumes and script have remained largely unchanged over the past 25 years, the score has been gradually expanded to introduce some of the songs from the beloved 1966 animated version of the book that was made for TV. In 2003, the Grinch’s dog, Young Max, sang one verse of the TV show’s “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” And in 2007, the full “You’re a Mean One” song (with an audience sing-along portion) was added. It replaced a tongue-twisting number called “Never Never Very Merry Christmas.” Also added in later years was “Fah Who Foraze,” the Whos’ “Welcome Christmas” carol. “I remember that first year when we came down the aisle for ‘Fah Who Foraze’ and the audience burst into applause,” Vásquez said.
The ultimate Who
Because he has been with the show since 2003 and is always ready to swing into any role on short notice, Vásquez has appeared in the “Grinch” more than any other actor in Globe history, with well over 1,000 performances to date. He has played every part onstage except Mama Who, Grandma Who and Cindy-Lou Who (though he did once portray Cindy-Lou during an understudies rehearsal). If an actor gets hurt or feels ill during a performance, Vásquez said he can slip into virtually any costume in under two minutes. Because Vásquez plays ensemble roles so often, he introduced Whoville’s first Latino citizen, the mustachioed Salvador, in 2009.
Actor Steve Gunderson ranks second in total appearances in the Globe show, with just under 1,000 shows, having mostly played the roles of the narrator, Old Max, and Papa Who.
‘You’re a mean one …’
The Grinch in the Globe musical is known for theatrically shouting at both the Whos and the audience. O’Brien encouraged the Grinch actors to roar a bit to give children a little fright, but only early in the show. “We all like that excitement of being a little nervous and on the edge of our seat. But we want them to be released after the show with laughter and love,” Vásquez said.
Costumes and makeup
Like the show’s storybook-come-to-life scenery by John Lee Beatty, Robert Morgan’s iconic “Grinch” costumes were built to be worn over “pod” suits that create the pear-shaped bodies of the adult Whos. The pods and costumes are so challenging to get in and out of, that actors don’t always take them off on multi-show days. And because the pods aren’t flexible enough for sitting in, the costumed actors recline on the floor or lean against walls between performances to rest.
The actor playing the Grinch wears three layers of costuming: full body padding to create the required pot-bellied shape, a green full bodysuit to cover the padding and then a green fur costume, gloves and boots that cover everything but the actor’s face. Depending on the Grinch actor’s face, body shape and personality, the Grinch’s green pompadour hairdo changes from actor to actor.
Over the years, the Grinch’s green face makeup has evolved to include more yellow highlights to make his facial expression easier to see from afar. Once tutored on the design, the actors apply their own makeup. Vásquez said the Grinch’s green and yellow makeup is especially hard to remove after shows. Actor Guy Paul would joke that after a five-week run of the show, it took a month for the sickly tint to work its way out of his skin.
One of a kind
The Grinch’s big solo number in the musical is “One of a Kind,” where he celebrates his uniqueness. But over the years, 11 actors have played this unique role at the Globe. Paul played it the longest, at five years. Edward Watts played the role for three years before the pandemic. This year’s Grinch is Andrew Polec, who also played the role last year. The Philadelphia-born actor has rock ‘n’ roll roots and played the lead role in the musical “Bat Out of Hell” in England and off-Broadway. Vásquez said that as the Globe’s youngest-ever Grinch, the 34-year-old Polec has brought a youthful energy to the part.
“Andrew is a storyteller and the intention of the story guides everything he does, which I think is beautiful,” Vásquez said. “I think he brings a real spoiled brat energy of someone who’s not used to being told no. Because of the fact that he leads with the story, there’s room for transformation. He leads us in a way we haven’t seen.”
Accommodating all abilities
In 2011, the Globe was one of the nation’s first regional theaters to introduce sensory-friendly performances of the “Grinch” for children and adults on the autism spectrum and with other disabilities. To accommodate this audience’s needs, loud sounds and music are reduced, house lighting remains on during the show and guests can talk or leave their seats. Vásquez said many audience members who started out attending sensory-friendly performances now feel comfortable enough in the theater environment to attend traditional performances with their families.
Like all theater productions, the “Grinch” has had its share of backstage mishaps and creative solutions.
From 1998 until 2015, the actor playing the Grinch had to do some dangerous choreography sliding down the left side of the red frame proscenium arch of the stage while clambering down a ladder backstage. In 2016, a foot elevator was installed backstage and now the actor can step into the device and glide down smoothly and safely.
The most challenging onstage moment is a scene when the Grinch is stealing presents from the Whos on Christmas Eve and his dog, Young Max, tries to catch the flying gifts in a sack. Vásquez said there’s always one show each year when the Grinch accidentally kicks some of the presents into the audience.
When the curtain comes down at the end of each show, the backstage crew has just 27 seconds to clear the set, drag a big sunburst scenery piece onstage and all the ensemble actors have to climb into their places on the set before the curtain rises again. Vásquez said it’s a good thing the audience is applauding during that scene change because otherwise they would hear the noisy chaos happening backstage.
The Whoville family
Besides a cast of 35 — which includes two troupes of child actors — the Grinch team includes 10 dressers, a nine-piece orchestra and four stage managers.
Casting for the adult roles begins each year in February and children’s auditions take place in June, with callbacks in the late summer. Vásquez said he waits as long as possible to finalize the children’s cast because kids often go through sudden growth spurts that can change how they fit in their costume and look onstage.
Following original director O’Brien’s lead, Vásquez said he intentionally casts local and less-polished child actors to give the show its unique San Diego flavor.
“I think the one thing that Jack taught me is the importance of the local kids. It’s easy to get blinded by the shiny, show-bizzy child actors but that’s not San Diego kids,” Vásquez said.
Because there are so many longtime friends and children in the “Grinch” musical, the atmosphere backstage is one of a large, happy family. Vásquez said the casts celebrate all of their birthdays and holidays together, with trick-or-treating, potlucks, parades, crafts, songs, Secret Santa gifts and menorah-lighting ceremonies.
“The cast from the tall and the small, to the young and the old, we become a family community backstage,” Vásquez said.
‘Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas!’
When: Showtimes vary from week to week, but mostly evenings Tuesdays-Fridays and multiple shows on weekend days. Through Dec. 31.
Where: The Old Globe, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park, San Diego.
Phone: (619) 234-5623