Dirtying up a beloved childhood icon is one of the most reliable comedic formulas available to comic artists; it also tends to be a reliable formula to get sued.
Take, for instance, Who’s Holiday! by playwright Matthew Lombardo, who’s become a go-to off-Broadway purveyor of one-woman diva spectaculars. Yet for the last year, he’s played a different role: that of a plaintiff in his lawsuit against Dr. Seuss’ estate, who tried to bar this play from ever being performed for seemingly-obvious reasons: It’s a profoundly profane sequel to the old doctor’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas!.
The Westside Theatre’s stage has been turned into a decrepit trailer park outside Whoville, where a shot-pounding, bong-ripping, filthy-mouthed Cindy Lou Who — who’s seen some shit since she saved Christmas — regales the audience with profanity-laced rhymed couplets detailing what happened between Seuss’ wholesome-then and Lombardo’s wholly-unholy now. Whoville trash — her self-labeled version of white trash — debauchery ensues.
If that type of parlance offends you, then the proudly, perpetually, persistently, pervasively politically-incorrect Who’s Holiday! definitely isn’t for you. Similar to that wordplay, half of this glorified monologue’s hilarity stems from Lombardo’s pithy rhymes; the rest relies on joyously degrading Dr. Seuss’ whimsical world.
Up for both tasks is the virtue-less virtuoso Lesli Margherita, a name befitting Cindy Lou Who’s newfound love of illicit libations. Mixing the endearing crass of Bette Midler, Sarah Silverman, and Bridgett Everett, with the voice of Joey Lauren Adams, Margherita leans into the singsongy delivery, pulling out every last lewd yuletide yuck while still managing to find the resonant emotionality of her arc, no easy feat given the speech structure’s inherent lack of naturalistic humanity.
You may be surprised to read that such a play even touches upon an “emotional arc,” but it’s essential to the overall meaning of the work. The more somber, surprisingly sincere conclusion directly speaks to the shortsightedness of the Seuss estate’s attempts to squash Who’s Holiday!.
Needless to say, the powers-that-be were none-too-happy at the prospect of such a prurient take on his intellectual property appearing in public. Their only valid defense is that the production profits off his creations. That’s an undeniable fact; as previously mentioned, much of the humor revolves around nostalgia-driven audiences’ (and who isn’t one these days) familiarity with the good doctor. And it’s safe to say that those same people were partially inspired to purchase a ticket due to the promise of being able to witness someone sin up Seuss. As such, shouldn’t the estate be entitled to a share of the profits?
That’s a question for the courts to decide, and wasn’t actually the focus of the case. The Seussi probably don’t care about the infinitesimal amount of potential cash accrued by a limited off-Broadway run. But they understand that allowing such a radical departure sets a dangerous precedent for future artistic enterprises. Who’s to stop the much bigger Hollywood money machine from trying to make millions off perverting, par example, The Lorax (more than the dreadful quality of 2012’s animated adaptation already did)?
This parenthetical sentiment isn’t just an aside; its related to the foundation of their campaign against Who’s Holiday!, which connects to all conservative estates in the theatre world. They’re scared that any contemporary update, especially an exceedingly revisionist one, of a classic work might tarnish its reputation in the collective consciousness.
I’m sorry, but — to borrow a phrase from Cindy in solidarity — that’s fucking dumbfounding. Want to know the best way to ruin Seuss’ unequivocal greatness for today’s audiences? Keep producing mindless versions like the aforementioned The Lorax, which was so bereft of Seussian imagination that it honestly made me question (albeit briefly) the continued vitality of his largely unparalleled oeuvre. But at least it’s faithful to the source material, right?!
All art dies when its proprietors prioritize precise preservation. For theatre especially, plays from the past can be — both literally and figuratively — revived anew when creators are free to put their own modern mark on prized properties; Shakespeare wouldn’t be considered THE Bard if not for the millions of translators who’ve transformed his historic texts into an infinitely endless array of living and breathing present-day dramas. Remaining committed to maintaining a piece’s original integrity too often leads to the masses eventually forgetting about it altogether. If they’re not spruced up with novel light, they can fade into the darkness of forgotten time.
That might sound unlikely for the likes of How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, which only helps my argument that Who’s Holiday! will in no way diminish something so readily-accessible, especially given how the various cinematic iterations further ensured its prolific relevance. As will Who’s Holiday!, the ultimate subtext of which comments on this whole situation, turning what could’ve been a sketch comedy premise stretched too thin into a surprisingly affecting and legitimately thoughtful play.
Though much of Cindy Lou Who’s speech is devoted to catching up the audience on events that occurred between How the Grinch Stole Christmas! and Who’s Holiday!, she’s actually waiting for partygoers to arrive while talking to us . She’s invited over for a holiday shindig a litany of popular characters from Seuss’s books, all of whom end up cancelling because they don’t want to associate with someone who’s led such an inappropriately controversial life. The allegorical underpinnings are clear: These bailers represent the Seuss estate, which has actively tried to distance itself from anything that may taint Seuss’ squeaky-clean universe.
Cindy Lou Who’s journey is basically a response to this mentality; she learns to love herself, warts and all, even if they don’t conform to the children’s book fantasy in which she was raised. She ultimately finds validation not in those who scorn her, but in us, the audience, the ones who still care enough about Dr. Seuss to pay to see what his characters have been up to since we last saw them. This speaks to the lasting and meaningful relationship that can be developed between our factual corporeal world and the fictional Whoville, a relationship that only grows when it’s fed new material.
Who’s Holiday!’s depiction may not be ideal for the Seuss estate, but they’re wrong to try to block others from seeing it. This Jew hadn’t really thought much about How the Grinch Stole Christmas! in recent years, but after spending 60 perfectly-concise minutes with Cindy Lou Who, I now want to revisit the book. What more could an estate want?
In this way, Matthew Lombardo didn’t pull a Grinch by stealing Seuss’ literary gifts; he just repacked them as new presents for the 21st century.