PLAYBILL BRIEF ENCOUNTER: Peter Billingsley, the Original Ralphie of "A Christmas Story," Takes Aim at Broadway

By Adam Hetrick
13 Nov 2012

Billingsley in "A Christmas Story."

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.
PB: 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. You can change dialogue — obviously they're now singing — but you don't want to change their point of view, or their intention. I think that's what audiences responded to and that's what they like. So, what's exciting is saying, "Okay, how do we [explore] the intention that the dad feels a lack of respect, and how the lamp presents the opportunity to be recognized, like so many people want to be." 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?
PB: 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. Inherently, the characters become something different than they were in the film. The role of Ralphie, which is singing and dancing and acting, really transcends past the role that I played. 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.

Johnny Rabe performs at a press preview for A Christmas Story, The Musical.
photo by Monica Simoes

Late "Christmas Story" writer Jean Shepherd is now a character in the musical. Did you have any sort of relationship with him?
PB: 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. That's where it came from, and they just cared so much, and they wanted it to be right. And God bless them, they tried for so long to get that movie made, and it was just clawing, and scratching their way to just get a small budget, $5 million, which is not a lot of money to make a film. 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.
PB: 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. So, he would read the narration off screen to just get reactions from things. It was definitely a different process, but clearly something was done right.

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. Instead of having the voice of God, the narrator is part of a radio show that he's doing. So this is the voice coming from a radio show and the narrator is on stage. He moves around but the characters don't see him. There's an active presence.

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.