REVIEW: NBC’s “Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch Musical!”

Everyone is familiar with Dr. Seuss’ classic Christmas story, How The Grinch Stole Christmas. It’s been adapted multiple times for the screen—an animated special, a live-action film starring Jim Carrey, and a full length animated film starring Benedict Cumberbatch. In the mid-2000s, it was also adapted for the Broadway stage by Timothy Mason and Mel Marvin. That production starred Patrick Page (of Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark and Hadestown fame) and quickly became a go-to favorite for regional and community theaters. And now, NBC is giving it the primetime TV treatment. Similar to their ongoing tradition of staging live musicals during the holiday season, NBC has decided to broadcast a newly-filmed production of Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch Musical straight from London—this time starring Matthew Morrison as the Grinch. While it isn’t live, like the other NBC musicals, it’s still a fully staged production. And, to be honest, it’s so much worse than I expected it to be. Unlike most of the NBC live musicals, which have been plagued by technical problems and questionable casting choices, The Grinch Musical is plagued by a bafflingly bad script, woefully miscast lead actors, and a score that is almost uniformly boring. (1.5 out of 5 wands.)

Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch Musical! (written by Simon Nye and Mel Marvin; composed by Timothy Mason, Albert Hague, and Dr. Seuss; directed by Max Webster and Julia Knowles)
Dr. Seuss’ beloved book tells the story of a reclusive Grinch (Matthew Morrison) who plotted from his cave atop snowy Mt. Crumpit to steal Christmas from the Whos in Who-ville. Then on Christmas Eve, disguised as Santa Claus and enlisting his loyal dog Max (Denis O’Hare as Adult Max, Booboo Stewart as Young Max) as a reindeer, the Grinch traveled to Who-ville to scoop up the Whos’ gifts and decorations. Much to his surprise on Christmas morning, the Whos were unfazed and celebrated the holiday with a heartwarming display of joy and love.

This musical version, with book and lyrics by Tim Mason and music by Mel Marvin and featuring the hit songs “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and “Welcome Christmas” (by Albert Hague & Dr. Seuss), breathes new life into this timeless story. The lush and whimsical staging by award-winning director Max Webster, directed for television by BAFTA winner Julia Knowles, with additional script material by BAFTA-winning writer Simon Nye and featuring sets by acclaimed designer Peter Bingemann, will set the mood for a beautiful holiday celebration.

Honestly, I went into this simply expecting to feel Matthew Morrison was miscast as the Grinch, but that the show was otherwise fine. So, imagine my surprise when Matthew Morrison wasn’t the biggest problem here. Now, to be fair, he’s absolutely miscast and we’ll touch on that shortly, but the biggest problem with this production is the abysmal script and forgettable songs. Yes, all the songs you expect to be in this are there—including “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” “Welcome, Christmas (Dahoo Dores),” and “Where Are You, Christmas?”—but they are noticeably better than the musical’s original songs to the point that it’s jarring. Purportedly, there are about fourteen original songs in the show, counting the various reprises, but I’d be hardpressed to name any of them. So many of the songs sound identical to other songs that they might as well all be reprises of the same song. It’s just one song written in a minor key after another, with no discernable feature or dramatic weight. Every song grinds the show to a stop and none of them are remotely memorable. Honestly, the commercial breaks in between musical numbers were more memorable than some of the songs. The actors do their best with what they’re given, but none of them look particularly pleased to sing any of these songs—with the notable exception being the sheer joy found on Denis O’Hare, Matthew Morrison, and Booboo Stewart’s faces during “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” Still, a musical is only as good as its music, and The Grinch Musical has some songs that would displease even the Grinch.

Worse than the songs, though, is The Grinch Musical’s script. Completely devoid of a coherent character arc for its titular character and plagued by dialogue entirely comprised of rhyming couplets, it’s a slog to sit through. This might genuinely be the worst written of all the live TV musicals that have aired in the past decade—and I watched Fox’s A Christmas Story: The Musical. For some reason, the musical begins shortly before the Grinch decides to steal Christmas and then proceeds to run in place for an hour until the Grinch finally steals Christmas. The first forty minutes of the show seem to exist solely to set up the Grinch’s reasons for wanting to steal Christmas. The problem is that here, unlike in other adaptations, they don’t give him any motive that couldn’t be explained in one single song at the beginning of the show. And because of this, we don’t actually learn anything about the Grinch. He’s less of a loveable grouch like he is in both the Jim Carrey and Benedict Cumberbatch films, and more of an irredeemable menace who whines and abuses his dog. Some of this is due to Matthew Morrison’s performance as the Grinch; he’s more of a whiny, emo teenager than the more menacing/sassy versions audiences are accustomed to seeing, and it makes a huge difference. I truly think Morrison is doing his best here, but he’s just fundamentally miscast. And the writing doesn’t help him out either. The musical’s plot is dragged out to the point that it’s impossible to track The Grinch’s character arc at all, so by the time his heart grows three sizes, you don’t really understand what’s actually triggered this change in him. It just happens and you go with it for the sake of the musical ending.

The other characters, similarly, suffer from a lack of character arc. For some reason, Max (as an old dog) is narrating the entire show, but his narration is devoid of any true reflection. He acts as more of a sassy narrator than an actual character. O’Hare’s performance is immediately charming and, quite possibly, the only memorable thing about the show, but the character just doesn’t leap off the page. The same is true for the younger version of Max—the one who participates in the narrative proper. As always, Max exists more as a sidekick for the Grinch, with nothing much of a character arc for himself, and the same is true here—only this time, Max can talk and others can inexplicably hear him. This does nothing for the show, but it sure does exist. Booboo Stewart does his best, but he’s about as miscast as Matthew Morrison is, with all of Max’s songs squarely out of Stewart’s range. 

Perhaps the character most under served, though, is Cindy-Lou Who. Cindy-Lou has several scenes—and Amelia Minto, the actress who plays her, gives a solid performance—but she barely makes any kind of an impression narratively. The musical seems to want to make her the emotional centerpiece of the story, and the narrative conduit for the Grinch’s eventual softening, but then proceeds to do none of the work that the Jim Carrey film does to make that storyline work. Here, we know nothing about Cindy-Lou or why she cares at all about the Grinch, and so the connection the two of them share—in a single scene!—falls completely flat as the emotional lynchpin of the show. It’s as though The Grinch Musical wants to be like the Jim Carrey movie, with its focus on why the Grinch is the way he is and his connection with Cindy-Lou being the factor that ultimately softens him, while also being faithful to Dr. Seuss’ original book. The problem is that you can’t do both things. The book isn’t long enough to support a full-length musical without making significant additions—which this musical don’t do. Instead, it’s an endless barrage of momentum-killing songs that all sound the same. The Grinch Musical, despite all its best efforts, is just an onslaught of noise arranged in a minor key.

Now, to be fair, there are a few good things about The Grinch Musical. The cast, even those who are miscast, all do their best to bring life into this play. Denis O’Hare is charming as the narrator and Booboo Stewart brings some levity to many of the scenes he shares with Morrison’s Grinch. Heck, even Morrison isn’t as bad as he could be. Sure, he’s not good, but there were moments in his performance that did make me smile. And in a musical like this, those moments are something to hold onto. The rest of the ensemble does a solid job as well—there aren’t any standouts in the show, good or bad, but it’s hard to stand out at all when you’re given so little to work with. The Who’s are as one-dimensional as ever, and it shows, especially when they’re given so much screen time and so little to do. But all involved bring their best. Perhaps the best aspect, though, is the show’s technical elements. The set is reminiscent of the artwork found in Seuss’ original book, with its pencil-drawn edges and black and white hues. There’s some genuine theatre magic to be found in some of the special effects, with highlights involving the Grinch’s sled going down the mountain and also being perilously perched atop the mountain. Unlike many of the other live musicals, The Grinch Musical is competently filmed and doesn’t make you feel too nauseated—an aspect so positive it cannot be overstated. And, due to its pre-recorded nature, the show is devoid of any of the technical snafus found in other live televised musicals. So, while the musical, itself, is rough, The Grinch Musical is a relatively solid production of a not-so-good musical.

All in all, there’s not much to love about NBC’s The Grinch Musical. As a theatre lover, I can usually find some kind of joy in these televised musicals, but The Grinch Musical makes it difficult. With a dreadful script that’s completely devoid of any meaningful characterization, forward momentum, or joy and a score that is mostly forgettable except when it’s using a song that wasn’t written for this version of the story, it’s a bit of a slog to get through. The cast does their best here, even if several of the leads are woefully miscast. The technical elements shine as brightly as they can, but there’s no stage magic here that’s big enough to save the show from what it is—a loud wall of manic noise. I understand the desire to do a show like this in a year like this one. Dr. Seuss brings joy to many people, especially during the holidays. But with The Grinch Musical being so littered with fundamental narrative problems, I’m left wondering why they didn’t just do Seussical—a much better musical that even features The Grinch—instead. With how much I miss theatre due to Broadway’s total shutdown and the various COVID restrictions placed on theatres nationwide, I had desperately hoped to enjoy this as much as I’ve enjoyed previous TV musicals. But I guess in a year like 2020, this is the musical we deserve.

1.5 out of 5 wands.

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