In 2012, the musical adaptation of the beloved 1983 film A Christmas Story danced its way to Broadway. Kicking up a leg-lamp chorus line at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in a holiday engagement, the show marked the Broadway debuts of powerhouse writing duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Along with book writer Joseph Robinette, the team transformed the classic Jean Shepherd story for the stage. The writers also found sage advice and guidance in the film’s original star, Peter Billingsley. On screen, he originated the role of the bespectacled Ralphie who longs for an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle! And Billingsley served as one of the lead producers of the Broadway production.
An accomplished Hollywood producer of such films as Iron Man, The Break-Up, and director of Couples Retreat, Billingsley took a moment back in 2012 to speak with Playbill and look back at A Christmas Story past and A Christmas Story present.
In honor of the December 17 broadcast of A Christmas Story LIVE on Fox, we’ve dug up the interview to shed some light on Ralphie.
You were pretty young when you did the original film. What do you recall about the experience?
Peter Billingsley: I had been acting for a long time. I started when I was two-and-a-half and I was about 12 when I did the movie. I had been a part of some pretty big-budget flops prior to that. When you’re involved in those big-budget movies there’s a lot of hype, “Oh this is gonna be a big hit!” And A Christmas Story wasn’t. It came and went and was a big disappointment at the box office. I think the difference with this movie, that I sensed right away, was everyone’s approach to the work. In many ways it was the little engine that could. It took about 12 years to get made. [Director] Bob Clark and Jean Shepherd fought so hard to get it set up, and MGM sort of reluctantly agreed to the financing. So, it was really...devotion to the work and not to the hype. Which was refreshing. Also, as a kid it was great because we shot it right after Christmas and the producers had convinced downtown Cleveland to keep all the Christmas decorations up. So it was like Christmas every day when you went to work, and it’s my favorite holiday, so that was a lot of fun.
But you can never say, “Oh we sure knew.” Everybody believed in it and was having a good time doing it and liked the story. But then as cable and video were booming it just kept coming back and returning as a seasonal title. People discovered it and I think the relatability of the story helped.
Even though it’s set in the 1940s and from a part of the country people might not be from, there’s something very real about that portrayal of a family that was different than the more traditional vanilla kind of family that we were normally hit with. The dad’s got a bad temper, the mom seems a bit kind of aloof at times. There’s something very, very real about that family and ultimately very loving about that family. We all have our own kind of dysfunctions. In many ways I think it was really this sort of commitment to the mundane that makes it special. It’s those simple relatable things of picking up a Christmas tree, wanting something for Christmas, going to visit Santa.
Adapting this as a musical seems like a no-brainer with so many other film-to-musical titles on Broadway. Were you wary about getting involved? Do you feel protective of the property?
I’ve been asked or approached in the past about adaptations. When something is as successful or big as a brand, people really want to do things. I didn’t have any interest and hadn’t had any interest. The idea of a musical was very, very inspiring to me because it’s really an extension of the story. I don’t think you want to remake the story. They did a pretty good job the first go-round. But Ralphie was very much a dreamer in the film. So many of those fantasy sequences lend themselves so well to the big Broadway song-and-dance pieces. And that’s really what it is. When the dad wins the leg lamp, it turns into a leg-lamp kickline.
Your songwriting team, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, weren’t even born when the film premiered. They’re tremendously talented, but did you feel like this was a risk, hiring two writers still in their twenties to deliver a full-out Broadway show?
I think you always win in storytelling when you let the best creative ideas guide you. These guys submitted some songs to us that were the most inspired music we had heard from anybody. You’re right, you could look and think there’s somewhat of an inexperience of an age, but when you spend time with Benj and Justin, they make you feel so comfortable. They’re so smart, they’re so connected with the story and with the intentions, and they’re so talented. There might have been a moment where we said, “You know these guys are young,” but you know what? That’s wonderful. Their energy and their point of view has helped give this piece an energy and a youthful point of view. But their songs are also sophisticated, and they’re fun, and they’re interesting, and they’re satisfying. You don’t want to outthink yourself. They flat-out earned it. They’re going to have a really long and prosperous career, so the truth is we feel lucky to have them.
Pasek and Paul also said you were a major resource for them as the show was being developed. No one around knows the material more personally than you do.
It’s two-fold. I stopped acting a long time ago and my primary career has been producing-directing film. So storytelling is something I’ve been doing now for a long time. On this film, I do understand it; I lived with it. I spent a lot of time with Bob Clark after the film. We did the commentary on the 20th anniversary on the DVD release. I think I understand the intentions and the points of view of the characters very well. So, as we’re going through and adapting this to the musical format, we’re staying very true to that, because you don’t want to change too much. The boys wrote two wonderful songs, “Genius On Clevelend Street” and “Major Award,” that have that yearning, and that want, and then the ultimate satisfaction of getting it.
This is your first foray into Broadway. Are a musical fan?
This is the first musical that I’ve produced. I’ve always been a fan of musicals; you go and you’re wowed by the performers. With A Christmas Story, a major percentage of its cast is under 13 or under. And I’m blown away by the amount of talent that I never had and don’t have at all in singing and dancing. It’s really mind-boggling. It requires skills that I never have and will never have. These little guys have to go out and do two straight hours of this thing. They don’t get a “take two” or a “cut,” or say, “I’m tired I wanna go take a nap.” You gotta play through night after night after night. Their stamina is amazing.
Late Christmas Story writer Jean Shepherd is now a character in the musical. Did you have any sort of relationship with him?
I had an on-set relationship with him. Jean was very passionate about it. When our director Bob Clark would go to the restroom, Jean would run over and say, “No, say it like this!,” and then Bob would come back and scream, “Get away from my actor!” It was wonderful, actually, because they both cared so much. I have very fond memories of Jean as being someone who had very strong point of view on life and how things worked.
I imagine you must really carry Jean’s spirit with you as you work on this.
I do. It’s another big aspect. There was something so unique and special about the tone that Jean created in his personal writings, and also that he and Bob created in the script. The narration was a style that had never been used before. If you watch it, I don’t have a lot of lines in the film. Bob read the narration off camera. So much of it is just my face. I’ve heard it referred to in movie-structure books as truly its own genre. It’s first-person, yet looking back — present, as though it’s in the head of the character in the past. It was very important to the piece. I think our book writer on the musical, Joseph Robinette, did an unbelivable job of writing the narration and the dialogue, some lines of which are lifted from the movie, but a lot of it can’t be. Because the musical is pushing you around the stage in a different way, and the narration is used as a vehicle for other purposes. Tonally, he did a great job of replicating Jean: the tone, the cadence, the word choices. Also, we couldn’t be more excited to have Dan Lauria play the role. He has so many of the qualities. You get a visual representation of Ralphie grown up, which I think is a very cool thing. You get to see that connection to the family. It’s an extension of the film and it takes it to places that the stage allows you to.
A Christmas Story Live! airs on Fox December 17, starring Maya Rudolph, Matthew Broderick, Chris Diamantopolous, Jane Krakowski, Ana Gasteyer, and introducing Andy Walken as Ralphie. Check your local listings.