How One Playwright Took On Dr. Seuss’ Estate to Tell Cindy Lou Who’s Story

Interview   How One Playwright Took On Dr. Seuss’ Estate to Tell Cindy Lou Who’s Story
 
The Grinch parody Who’s Holiday! had to jump through legal hoops to make it to Off-Broadway.

Who’s Holiday!, playwright Matthew Lombardo’s twisted take on Dr. Seuss How the Grinch Stole Christmas—and the “E! True Hollywood Story” take on what happened to Cindy Lou Who in the years that followed—is by most accounts an Off-Broadway Christmas miracle.

New World Stages was forced to pull Lombardo’s play just weeks before its scheduled winter 2016 Off-Broadway premiere after the estate of Dr. Seuss threatened to sue for copyright infringement—setting Lombardo on a track to become a reluctant Christmas crusader.

“When I was a boy I was always fascinated by Cindy Lou Who, because I always thought she’d grow up to have major emotional problems,” says Lombardo. “I mean, she wakes up, she sees this green monster dressed as Santa Claus shoving the tree up the chimney, he tells her some lie about it being an electrical malfunction and she buys it. And I thought, ‘I wonder what happens after.’”

Who’s Holiday! was to be Lombardo’s first major New York City production in six years, following his 2011 Broadway outing High, starring Kathleen Turner. Tickets were on sale, the marquee was up at New World Stages, and Tony nominee Jennifer Simard had been announced to star as Cindy Lou Who—imagined by Lombardo as a 40-something, four-letter-word-using broad hiding out in a kitschy trailer on the side of Mount Crumpit.

Prior to its Off-Broadway announcement, Who’s Holiday! had been performed publicly (under the title Going Green) as part of Christmas on the Rocks, the theatrical holiday collection created by director Rob Ruggiero. “We did this play for four years as part of Christmas on the Rocks, and were never once contacted by the Seuss Estate,” Lombardo adds.

Things changed, however, once Cindy Lou Who made plans to venture out on her own in a high-profile 55-minute tell-all.

“It was a week before we were going to start rehearsals, and I got a cease and desist letter from Dr. Seuss Enterprises, addressed not only to myself, but to our general manager, our director Carl Andress, and The Shubert Organization,” explains Lombardo. “It said basically, ‘You’re infringing on our copyright, and if you open this play we’re going to sue you.’ And Bob Wenkel at the Shubert Organization, who is a good friend, called and said, ‘I have to send you a termination notice.’

“I was walking down 49th Street and I saw them taking down the Who’s Holiday! marquee,” Lombardo recalls. “I went into a long, dark depressive holiday spiral. It was so clearly parody, I couldn’t believe they would do that. I think they thought that if they sent this mean cease and desist letter that I would go running away with my tail between my legs, and I almost did,” he says. “I wasn’t going to do it. I mean, who wants to sue Dr. Seuss?”

With the marquee in tatters and Cindy Lou Who packed away in holiday storage, Lombardo faced a decision bigger than Who’s Holiday!: “Either I pack up the play and write something else, or I fight not only for the people who came before me, but for the artists who might be coming after me who might need a ruling to help them.”

A decision by the 2015 United States District Court ruling in favor of playwright David Adjmi and his work 3C, a parody of Three’s Company tied up in similar legal battles after lawyers for the sitcom came forward with copyright infringement claims, emboldened Lombardo to file his own lawsuit.

Adjmi had ultimately prevailed, and so did Lombardo.

On September 15 of this year, a United States District Court judge found Who’s Holiday! in fair use of the character created by Seuss, ruling that Lombardo’s work “recontextualizes Grinch’s easily-recognizable plot and rhyming style by placing Cindy Lou Who—a symbol of childhood innocence and naivete—in outlandish, profanity-laden, adult-themed scenarios involving topics such as poverty, teenage pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, prison culture, and murder. In so doing, the play subverts the expectations of the Seussian genre, and lampoons the Grinch by making Cindy Lou’s naivete, Who-Ville’s endlessly-smiling, problem-free citizens, and Dr. Seuss’ rhyming innocence, all appear ridiculous.”

The judged closed the ruling by stating that “public interest in free expression clearly outweighs any interest in avoiding consumer confusion.”

“It’s all about free speech,” Lombardo says, before quickly adding: “It’s exhausting. I never wanted to be the one to carry the banner.”

As a result, the Who's Holiday! flag waves proudly outside Off-Broadway’s West Side Theatre where the show is currently running through December 31, now starring Lesli Margherita. And Lombardo scored a second theatrical victory with a solid endorsement from the New York Times. How’s that for a Christmas present?

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