Composer Mel Marvin never expected his musical adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” to turn into a commercial success.
That’s because he wrote it for an audience of one: his 9-year-old daughter.
In a recent phone interview, Marvin recalled pitching the show to Dr. Seuss Enterprises and the Minneapolis Children’s Theatre, where it debuted in 1994. For the pitch, he enlisted the help of his daughter to play Cindy Lou Who and sing the first demo of his song “Santa for a Day.”
“She was the first person to sing it, so I had a very emotional attachment to the show,” Marvin said. “And what could be more delightful than the fact that it turned into a commercial enterprise? Because it didn’t start out that way. It started out as something very personal to me.”
Indeed, the evolution of the show, which begins a six-day run in Shea’s Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, did not follow the standard trajectory of many big-budget Broadway successes. After its birth in the comfortable surroundings of the children’s theater world, it transferred to San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre in 1998, where it was retooled with the help of director Jack O’Brien and with Vanessa Hudgens in the role of Cindy Lou Who. At that point, two of Albert Hague’s songs for the popular 1966 television special (“Welcome Christmas” and “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”) were added to the piece, and Marvin could see he had a hit on his hands.
After several years of sold-out performances in San Diego, the musical made its way to Broadway in 2006 and played for two seasons, earning the top Broadway box office gross in its first week.
Marvin, who also has composed incidental music for plays on Broadway and at regional theaters, including the original production of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” said his approach to the show was deliberately old-fashioned and drew its inspiration almost entirely from the 1957 book.
“It’s a little twisted and dark in a lot of places, but it really pretty much wears its heart on its sleeve, it goes right for the jugular,” he said. “It’s not in any sense a children’s score. It’s written assuming that children have smart and scary feelings, as well as adults.”
Like any composer of a contemporary musical based on popular pre-established material, Marvin faced a challenge: To incorporate two of Hague’s well-known songs from the television special into his score. But he said that folding in the songs by Hague, who in a strange coincidence gave Marvin his first job as a musician in the late ’60s, wasn’t nearly as difficult as some might imagine.
“Thinking about folding Albert’s work into it was not that hard for me because I knew him from much earlier on in my life,” Marvin said. “It wasn’t like thinking of competition. It was thinking, well, where can these two songs happen and how do we fold them into the score? They fit easily inside the kind of music I was writing.”
The score, he added, combines some of the darker and edgier sounds of Stephen Sondheim, Kurt Weill and Marc Blitzstein with more straightforward, upbeat Broadway melodies.
“I don’t think of it as pastiche. I think it has its own character,” Marvin said. “It is not written like an Andrew Lloyd Webber score or a contemporary score from the last five or six years. That’s not what it has on its mind, really because of the book. The book is very clear about what it’s doing, and I felt like the score should sound like what the book reads like.”