Anatomy Of A Showtune: Inside the Horrible, Horrendous Holiday History of 'You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch'
He really is a heel. As cuddly as a cactus and as charming as an eel. A bad banana with a greasy black peel. He's a monster. His heart's an empty hole. His brain is full of spiders. He's got garlic in his soul...
If any of these appallingly entertaining insults feel familiar to you, it's because over 50 Christmases ago, they formally introduced the television audience to Dr. Seuss's hairy holiday hater, The Grinch.
Published as a book in 1957, but galvanized by the 1966 cartoon television special of the same name, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! has become an annual holiday staple for parents and kids alike. Each year, families greet Seuss' green grumbling grouch and his faithful dog Max as they descend from his hideaway on Mount Crumpit to thwart the holiday-loving Whos and abscond with Christmas.
For over 50 years, The Grinch has endured thanks to a genius story by Theodore 'Dr. Seuss' Geisel, an expertly produced animated special by one of the minds behind Looney Tunes, Chuck Jones, and an infectiously awful theme song that has had fans extolling the title character's foulness for generations. But how did this vile theme come to be? It turns out we have a Tony Award-winner to thank for it.
The story begins during World War II, when Theodore Geisel joined the United States Air Force. There he served as head of the Animation Department for the First Motion Picture Unit and was tasked with creating war propaganda and training films. When production began on an instructional cartoon featuring a bumbling army man called Private Snafu, Geisel found himself working closely with a young animator named Chuck Jones. The two began a friendship working on the short.
Having worked as an illustrator and author before the war, following his service Geisel returned to writing and began to churn out what would become some of the most classic books in all of children's literature under the pseudonym Dr. Seuss.
The Grinch made his first appearance in a 1955 poem titled, "The Hoobub and the Grinch," which was originally published in the May 1955 edition of Redbook magazine. In 1957, inspired by his own ire toward the commercialization of the Christmas season, Seuss published the full work, "How the Grinch Stole Christmas!"
Despite his success in publishing, however, many unpleasant experiences with the film industry had left Geisel with a notorious "anti-Hollywood" stance. Throughout its early years in publication, Geisel was extremely reluctant to sell the rights to The Grinch. That is until Jones, who had recently been let go after years of great success with Warner Bros, personally approached him about adapting the Grinch. Knowing he could trust his former military colleague, Geisel granted Jones the rights.
With a budget four times the size that of A Charlie Brown Christmas, which had aired to great success just a year before, Seuss's book was adapted into a similar format. However, slight embellishments, including songs, would be added to extend the 12-minute story for a 30-minute special.
Enter Tony Award-winning composer Albert Hague. Hague, who had seen some success on Broadway with the musical Redhead (which had won Tony Awards for Best Musical and one for Hague in the now-defunct Best Composer category) was among the artists in consideration to make the Grinch sing.
The skeptical Geisel remained on the fence about the project as a whole, and so to mollify some of his fears, Hague invited him to his home to hear his ideas. Upon hearing the melody for what would become the Whos holiday anthem, 'Fa Who Foraze', Geisel was instantly, enthusiastically on board.
When Hague played him the outline of a potential theme song for the cartoon's wretched antagonist, Geisel hired Hague as the show's composer, telling him, "Anyone who can slide an octave on the word 'Grinch' gets the job."
With an unmatched wordsmith like Dr. Seuss around, Jones felt that Geisel should provide the lyrics to the songs in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and so Hague and Geisel began their collaboration.
Insisting that the Grinch be as unlikable as possible, Geisel thought up the most disgusting descriptions imaginable for his abominable antagonist. With Hague's infectious melody matched by Geisel's inventive lyrics, the song would play three times throughout the special, with increasingly dreadful descriptors underscoring each of round of Mr. Grinch's dirty deeds.
A song this macabre would need an iconic voice to match, and so the team enlisted the talents of voice artist and singer Thurl Ravenscroft (best known for his work as Frosted Flakes mascot Tony the Tiger). The song was originally going to be sung by narrator and Grinch speaking voice, Boris Karloff, but the team instead settled on Ravenscroft's iconic bass baritone to deliver their anthem.
Initially, Ravenscroft (who recorded his iconic rendition of the song in just a few takes) was not properly credited for his work, with many viewers assuming that Karloff had sung the tune for the special. Upset by the oversight, Geisel wrote letters to all of the major columnists of the day, urging them to credit Ravenscroft. For over 50 years and countless covers that came after, Ravenscroft's version of the song remains the gold standard.
In 1994, thanks to a special arrangement with Seuss estate, the story was adapted into a stage musical with book and lyrics by Timothy Mason and an original score by Mel Marvin. The original production did not include the song, which wouldn't appear as part of the stage show until 1998, when it was added to the score for a production at the San Diego Old Globe.
The theme remains part of the musical to this day, sung by the show's narrator, Old Max as he recounts the Grinch's holiday crime spree for the audience.
The year 2000 was a big year for Mr. Grinch as the story underwent another high-profile adaptation. A live-action film directed by Ron Howard, and starring Jim Carrey as the title character, became the highest grossing film of the year. It featured a ragtime-tinged version of the song sung by Carrey. A hip-hop cover by rapper Busta Rhymes was also featured on the soundtrack titled "Grinch 2000".
It would be almost two decades until the Grinch grinched his way back into the holiday season. In 2018, Illumination released a full length digital animated film starring Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role. For this adaptation, rapper Tyler the Creator took another crack at the tune, offering a modern day take. Tyler's slightly darker version includes a hip hop beat, sliding strings, and features the rapper singing a slightly rearranged version of the lyrics over a background chorus of children.
The song has been included in a number of other films and television shows including Glee, Home Alone, The Simpsons, and the NBC hospital drama, ER. It has been covered by numerous artists, including Aimee Mann, CeeLo Green, RuPaul, Darius Rucker, and Brian Setzer.
For over 50 years we've put up with this song and it is showing no signs of slowing down. Despite Theodore Geisel's best attempts to make the Grinch a nasty-wasty skunk, the song and his timeless story have remained a beloved staple of the holiday season. For half a century, The Grinch and his thankless theme have tapped into the holiday grump in all of us, endearing fans (and Whos) all over the world. But we still wouldn't touch him with a 39-and-a-half-foot-pole.