THE LEADING MEN: John Bolton Receives a Major Award on Broadway in A Christmas Story, The Musical

By Michael Gioia
01 Dec 2012

Peter Billingsley
Photo by Monica Simoes

Peter Billingsley, the original Ralphie from the 1983 film, is a producer of the Broadway musical. How much did you interact with him? Did he share any anecdotes from his experience with "A Christmas Story"?
JB: He's an incredibly warm, wonderful, smart man, and he was a genuine leader in rehearsals when he was there… He's a busy man with a very large career in Los Angeles! And, of course, when it was time for [director John] Rando to take over, Peter graciously let Rando work his magic, which he did. But, with me, I would go to [Peter Billingsley] and say, "Is it all right?! Are you seeing what you need to see?" [Laughs.] And, he would sort of adjust the tone a tad, when I needed it, or confirmed the tone of what I was doing. I would say he helped the most with that, just reassuring me that I was on the right track and doing exactly what he saw the show needed. And, I appreciated that.

It's also been really cool meeting a lot of the other actors, over the years, who were in the film because, of course, I knew the film really well — since it came out. I remember seeing the film for the first time. I found a movie theatre with about six other people — a small movie theatre in Rochester, NY, and I [went] because I read the review. This was, of course, right when it first came out, and it wasn't the big hoo-ha that it is [now]. And, I remember talking for several years about this great little movie I saw that very few people knew, but once in a while, at a party or something, you'd find someone who knew this amazing film and could throw quotes around with you. It wasn't until the video craze — the surge — and it's presence on TBS that, all of a sudden, the whole world knew these quotes. While it was great that the whole world knew them, I felt like it was this special thing that only a few of us knew about for a few years.

Because of your attachment to the film, were you anxious or nervous to take on the role of The Old Man? It's precious material.
JB: Absolutely. I feel an enormous responsibility, particularly with this role. This is a beloved performance by a fantastic actor — Darren McGavin, of course — but the needs of the musical are different than the needs of the film. I'm 20 years younger than he was when he made the film, so I'm me. Although I hear his line readings in my head — and hopefully bring some of them out because I do admire that performance so greatly, and I don't want to stray too crazy far from it — I'm me. I have to let me bring myself to it with, hopefully, a tip of many hats to Mr. McGavin during the evening…if I do it right.

Bolton in A Christmas Story, The Musical.
photo by Carol Rosegg

I first found out about [A Christmas Story] three years ago. There was going to be a production of it at Kansas City Rep. I knew the director was Eric Rosen — very up-and-coming — [and I thought], "That would be fun to go to Kansas City." They sent me the material, and I thought, "Well, I'm not going to get this. I'm way too young" because I always see the dad sort of older, although I'm slowly realizing that I'm getting older by the second. [Laughs.] I thought, "I know this part well. I'll just go in, and I'll do a good job, and they'll remember me for something else, and they'll call me in for something else, and it'll all be done." But, as I was looking at the audition [materials], I thought, "I really think I know who this guy is because of my love for the film." And, for some reason, it was just able to come out, and I got really excited when I was working on the callback materials. I thought, "I think I can do this." I went in, and I got it and went to Kansas City, and then the next year… I knew they wanted to do something with it, and there were starting to be producers attached because it was very well received in Kansas City.

Then we went to Seattle's 5th Avenue [Theatre], which, of course, has had so many shows [transfer to] Broadway. And then they started saying the B-word a lot. I thought, "I'll enjoy this now, and they're probably going to put a TV star in my part — just be ready for it." Then the national tour came, and [the creative team said], "Oh, no… We wouldn't think of having anyone else," and I got to do it again, and I held my breath until June when I found out: Yes, it was going to be on Broadway, and, yes, they were going to use me. And, I haven't watched the film since then… There's one scene I checked in with last year when I felt like I was going astray — the broken Leg Lamp scene — but since getting this job, I have not watched the film.