What would Dr. Seuss — Theodor Geisel — say about a play depicting Cindy-Lou Who of Who-ville as 45-year-old trailer trash who bears the Grinch’s daughter and eventually cooks his dog Max?
The legendary La Jolla children’s author, who died in 1991, might have thought it cute, but overseers of his brand are not so keen on an Off Broadway play.
A New York playwright has sued the owner of copyrights in Dr. Seuss’ works, saying his new play does not infringe the children’s author’s classic “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!”
In a complaint filed Tuesday night in the U.S. District Court in Manhattan, Matthew Lombardo said he was forced to scrap performances of “Who’s Holiday!” set to begin Off Broadway on Nov. 2 after Dr. Seuss Enterprises LP complained to the theater’s owner, The Shubert Organization.
But while “Who’s Holiday!” and “Grinch,” published by Random House Inc., both feature the character Cindy-Lou Who, Lombardo said his 75-minute, one-woman play is “highly transformative,” and therefore constitutes fair use.
Lombardo wants a court order that his play does not infringe the defendant’s copyright in “Grinch,” plus more than $130,000 of damages, including costs for the cancellation.
Dr. Seuss Enterprises and its law firm did not immediately respond on Wednesday to requests for comment. Lombardo’s lawyer did not immediately respond to similar requests. Random House and Shubert are not defendants.
“Grinch” tells the story of a grouchy, cave-dwelling monster who decides to end Christmas, and is briefly interrupted by Cindy Lou, a little girl, before having a change of heart.
In contrast, Lombardo’s Cindy Lou is a profane 45-year-old woman housed in a trailer in the snowy hills of Mount Crumpit.
She is depressed because no one will attend her first Christmas party since her release from prison for murdering the Grinch, who was her husband and fathered her daughter, Patti.
But Cindy-Lou comes to realize the theater audience is still there, and brightens further when Patti, who had abandoned her, shows up at the door, ending the play.
“Dr. Seuss this is not,” the complaint said.
“The Play … is a comedic work with explicit language geared towards only adult audiences. The language and tone of the Play is shockingly different from Grinch, and the Play’s audience cannot mistake it for a theatrical version of Grinch given the Play’s tone, plot, and other differences,” the suit says.
“Who’s Holiday!” was to star Jennifer Simard, who received a 2016 Tony nomination as best featured actress in a musical, for her work in “Disaster!”
The case is Lombardo et al v Dr. Seuss Enterprises LP, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 16-09974.
Dr. Seuss Enterprises has been taking creators to court for years over copyright or trademark infringements.
In mid-November, the protector of the brand sued in California federal court over crowd-funded book project with a “Star Trek” theme titled “Oh, The Places You’ll Boldly Go!”
“Thanks to the legal dispute, the project is no longer being offered up on Kickstarter,” said The Hollywood Reporter, “but the lawsuit details ‘Defendant’s slavish copying of the Dr. Seuss Copyrighted Works, which attempt to recreate entire pages from the Dr. Seuss Books with meticulous precision.’ ”
In 2009, an appeals court judge took Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ side against a parody of “The Cat in the Hat” written from O.J. Simpson’s perspective.
The Penguin Books version included: “A man this famous/Never hires/Lawyers like/Jacoby Meyers/When you’re accused of a killing scheme/You need to build a real Dream Team” and “One knife?/Two knife?/Red knife/Dead wife.”
“The Ninth Circuit court judge [Diarmuid] O’Scannlain … found the defendant liable for infringement for merely satirizing the O.J Simpson case itself and not the original book, and for ‘borrowing’ the image of the distinctive red and white striped stove-pipe hat,” said a Harvard blog.
“The result of this case is significant as it clarifies the difference between satire and parody and the extent to which a derivative work has to be transformative in order to be considered as fair use.”
— Reuters contributed to this report.