An Alternative Christmas Story Finds Its Voice On Broadway
By Adam Hetrick
The beloved movie "A Christmas Story" has been reinvented as a Broadway musical, complete with leg lamp kickline. Songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and producer (and original film star) Peter Billingsley tell their side of the story.
Songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul weren't even born when the nostalgic 1940s-set film "A Christmas Story" debuted to a modest reception in 1983. In contrast to the perfect, snow-flocked "White Christmas" that Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney enjoyed in that movie musical, storyteller Jean Shepherd's tale of one bedraggled clan's holiday captured something unique about the holidays — the alternating hope and dysfunction underneath.
Peter Billingsley, who was about 12 years old when he pined away on screen for a Red Ryder BB Gun as Ralphie, is now among the producers of the Broadway musical adaptation (aptly called A Christmas Story, The Musical) that has decked the halls of the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre after a 2010 Seattle debut and a mini-holiday tour last season.
"Everybody believed in the film and was having a good time doing it," Billingsley recalls. But the film, which was budgeted at a low $4 million at the time, was not a box office hit. "We all sort of thought, 'Well that was fun… and that's it,'" he says. It wasn't until cable and home video began to boom that A Christmas Story became part of the American family holiday tradition.
"I grew up watching it a lot," Paul says. "You didn't need to sit down and watch it, it was on television 24 hours a day around Christmas."
Pasek, who hails from a Jewish family, recalls, "I knew there was a scene where a kid stuck his tongue to a flagpole, and that his dad won a leg lamp," he laughs, "but I didn't really have any context for it."
The 20-something writers, who made their New York Off-Broadway debut this season with the dramatic pop musical Dogfight, proved to be the perfect match for A Christmas Story, The Musical, shifting gears to pen a score out of Broadway's Golden-Age tradition of lush hummable ballads and effervescent comic songs. They decorate their take on 1940s America with lyrics that capture the delirious excitement of kids conspiring on their own to get their wish, while mom and dad desperately attempt an orchestrated pageant of civility and cheer as the lights on the Christmas tree spark to life — literally.
"It's this alternative Christmas," Paul says. "I think it's actually much closer to our reality of the actual holiday." Pasek adds, "My family didn't sit at home on Christmas, we were actually the ones sitting in the Chinese restaurant having that dinner!"
Penning a Broadway musical based on a well-known title has its appeal, especially for producers looking for box office gold, but the writers admit to being cautious. Paul confesses, "We were petrified! It's like taking this beloved thing and then someone saying, 'Okay, good luck, don't screw it up.'"
Billingsley is well aware of the challenge. He's been approached many times over the years for various adaptations of the film. "Fans are protective of the title and of the brand. Probably moreso than me," he reflects. "I don't think you want to remake the story. They did a pretty good job the first go-round."
He continues, "Ralphie was very much a dreamer in the film. Many of those fantasy sequences lend themselves so well to the big Broadway song and dance pieces. The musical takes all those great moments of excitement from the film and blows them out into larger levels. We have a leg lamp kick line!"
The big test for the songwriters was showcasing their work for the original Ralphie. "We were nervous, because you hear, 'The child star from the movie is going to come and give you his feedback,'" Pasek says. "We really didn't know what to expect. Then we met Peter. He's one of the smartest producers. He really understands story in a clear way."
Billingsley says the bold move to take a gamble on two relatively unknown writers still was easier than a triple-dog-dare. "There might have been a moment where we said, 'You know these guys are young,' but their energy and their point of view has helped give this piece a youthful point of view. Their songs are also sophisticated, and they're fun, and they're satisfying. At the end of the day it was an easy decision. It was so clear how bright of a future they were going to have. They're going to have a really long and prosperous career."
Pasek says, "You don't get that many opportunities to have shows in New York, especially when you're a young person. We feel incredibly lucky." The duo are counting down to unwrapping their holiday treat, Paul adds, "We are freaking out daily!"
(This feature appears in the December 2012 issue of Playbill magazine.)
Watch the exclusive Playbill Video visit with the "Bumpus Hounds," the canine stars of A Christmas Story, The Musical.
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