Watch Out for A Christmas Story, the Musical!: You'll Shoot Your Eye Out
By Sheryl Flatow
All grown-up, former child actor Peter Billingsley is a producer of the new stage musical of the 1983 holiday film favorite "A Christmas Story," now on tour.
If a kickline of leg lamps is illuminating the stage, it can only mean one thing: the reinvention of "A Christmas Story" as a musical.
Yes, the funny, nostalgic, schmaltz-free film that alternates with "It's a Wonderful Life" as the best Christmas movie of all time has inspired A Christmas Story, the Musical!, and the hope of those involved is that it will become an annual holiday season event.
The show, which previously played in Kansas City and Seattle, launched a five-city tour this fall in Hershey, PA, and winds up in Chicago with a three-week run at the end of December. Among the producers is former child star Peter Billingsley, who, as Ralphie, the movie's young alter-ego of writer Jean Shepherd, single-mindedly pursued an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200-shot Range Model Air Rifle for Christmas.
"The notion of a musical was intriguing to me, because I thought the material lent itself to that format," says Billingsley, who has long been a successful film producer. "Ralphie is very much a dreamer, and in the movie there are fantasy sequences, so I could envision singing and dancing. I was approached before the Seattle production, and after watching some clips, reading the book and listening to some of the music, I was extremely impressed with what they were doing. So I dove in."
The show, with a book by Joseph Robinette and a score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, has a new director, John Rando (Urinetown), and new choreographer, Warren Carlyle (Finian's Rainbow), for the tour.
It's up to them to provide the balance between a small, pitch-perfect family story and the larger demands of a musical. "Working in a musical format is exciting because you have a new bag of tricks," says Billingsley. "But you're still storytelling, and you still have to make sure that you're providing the audience with a grounded story about a family, and that they're connecting with the family."
Billingsley has only fond memories of working on the movie and had a particularly close relationship with the late director and co-writer, Bob Clark. "Nobody believed in 'A Christmas Story' except for Bob and Jean, and it took them 12 years to get the movie made," he says. "So we were doing a movie where everyone was working from the right place, just trying to tell a great story.
"Bob was a very influential person in my life," Billingsley continues. "I had a strong interest in everything that was happening on the set. When other actors would go back to their trailers, I often hung around. And Bob would include me in what was going on because I was genuinely curious. He encouraged me to get into the edit room, which I did when I was about 18. He told me, 'Don't jump into anything. Learn how to do it.' So I really entrenched myself and learned the business on Bob's advice, and it was the best advice I could have gotten."
The movie did moderately well when it was released in theatres in 1983, but it was only after it became a perennial holiday fixture on television, with 24-hour marathons on TBS and TNT, that it evolved into a phenomenon. "I think people have such strong feelings about it because it was refreshing to have a Christmas movie about a very real dynamic," says Billingsley. "It wasn't a vanilla version of how things were; I think it genuinely mirrored how people remembered their own families. Every family has its flaws, but there is always love at the core. It's a very real portrait of a family."
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