ON THE RECORD: A Christmas Story, Plus Mini-Albums of Shuffle Along and Blackbirds of 1928

By Steven Suskin
February 26, 2012

This week's column discusses the initial cast recording of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul's A Christmas Story, plus four-song selections from the 1920s musicals Shuffle Along and Blackbirds of 1928.



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A Christmas Story The Musical!
To review, or not to review; that is the question. The cast recording of A Christmas Story — the holiday musical which played a successful five-city tour last fall — was released some months back, sold only in the five theatre lobbies. The production is presently in hiatus, with plans to regroup in the fall; this cast album, or conceivably a newer one, should reappear at that point.

Readers have been talking about — and asking about — the Christmas Story CD since it first appeared. My inclination was to wait until it is once more available for purchase. I have nonetheless been eyeing the copy on my shelf for eight weeks, with a hunch that the score by the up-and-coming team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul was something out-of-the-ordinary. I first came across the pair in early 2009 at Birdland, when John Bucchino invited them onstage to perform a song during his act.

I finally gave in and broke the cellophane seal the other day, leaving me with a conundrum of my own making: do I go ahead and write about it now, when it is fresh in my mind? Or do I wait until A Christmas Story is in the stores (or on the web) and readily available? As this turns out to be an entertaining and exciting score — and as a fair number of readers have already discovered it — I have opted to review it here and now. There are copies floating around at this point, and hopefully the CD will be back on official sale sooner rather than later.

The musical is derived from the 1983 movie, based on stories by humorist Jean Shepherd, about a nine-year-old in Indiana who knows just what he wants for Christmas: an Official Red Ryder Range Model Carbine Action BB Gun. (While this is a warm and friendly family film — and musical — suitable for all audiences, some of the Shepherd stories were first published in Playboy Magazine.)

Benj Pasek and Justin Paul

A Christmas Story, with a book by Joseph Robinette, has received three distinct productions thus far. It showed promise at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre in late 2009, after which the producers saw fit to part ways with songs and songwriter. They gambled on the all-but-untried team of Pasek and Paul — a very wise gamble, it turned out — and opened the second version at the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle in late 2010. The results were even better, encouraging the producers to schedule a holiday tour for 2011. They continued to make changes, adding to the mix Broadway talent in the persons of director John Rando (of Urinetown) and choreographer Warren Carlyle (of this season's Follies and Hugh Jackman Back on Broadway).

The present CD was recorded at the end of the Seattle run, with most of the Seattle cast performing the pre-Rando/Carlyle version. So the recording represents the show a few steps earlier than the most recent production; at least one of the songs seems to have been replaced in the interim.

The recording indicates that the film has been effectively adapted to the stage, although it is always dangerous to judge a musical by its score without the book. After a swinging overture — the time is the late '40s, just after the war — Pasek and Paul launch into an impressive opening sequence (recorded in four tracks) which introduces time, place, characters and theme. Imagine, doing all that in an extended musical scene, somewhat in the manner — though not the style — of Into the Woods.

The plot is derived from intertwined stories about the boy Ralphie (Clarke Hallum), who wants nothing more than that BB gun for Christmas; the Old Man, Ralphie's father (John Bolton), whose life is a continuous struggle; and the Mother (Liz Callaway), who gets two of the best songs, "What a Mother Does" and "Just Like That." Hallum and Bolton have been with the show since Kansas City, although the former — who is said to be excellent — might by now have outgrown his role. Callaway positively soars her way through her solos, which makes the songwriters and the show seem pretty wonderful. She has not appeared in any of the stage productions thus far, but from the sound of it would be a prime asset the next time out. Also brought in for the recording was Tom Wopat, as the narrator (Jean Shepherd).

Clarke Hallum
Photo by Carol Rosegg
There are a good handful of additional musical high spots, including the sweetly nostalgic "A Kid at Christmas" and the warm-as-chestnuts-on-the-fire "A Christmas Story." But the craft Pasek and Paul display is typified by "Somewhere Hovering Over Indiana." This is one of those kids-staying-up-late-on-Christmas-Eve-waiting-for-Santa-to-land songs. But the writers don't chose something generic like "somewhere high in the sky of Indiana" or "somewhere over the trees of Indiana"; Ralphie, an unusual and imaginative boy, would pick such a word as "hovering" (and repeat it every time the title phrase rolls around). I don't know if the authors got the word from the film, or from the original story, but it is a tricky word to use in a lyric. This results in a song that is not only good and all-embracing, but so very right for the show.

It is choices like this which make much of the score so very special. While there is no need to compare one songwriting pair to another, these guys seem to have something of the sensibility and taste of Bock & Harnick. Which is a very good place to start.

Let it be added that the score is buoyed by a fine set of orchestrations by Larry Blank, in a '40s eclectic swing mode and accompanied by all sorts of humorous touches (including recurring strains in Baby Boomer cowboy music style when Ralphie gets carried away with dreams of his BB gun). Blank's judicious use of a harp helps camouflage the fact that the 17-piece band is without strings. Ian Eisendrath, from the 5th Avenue in Seattle, conducts. It all sounds especially good for a non-label affair, not surprisingly so as the album was produced by David Caddick and David Lai.

The twentysomething Pasek and Paul — both of whom graduated from the University of Michigan in 2006 — seem to be furiously active these days, with several musicals in development. (Their college musical Edges, with which I am unfamiliar, is already available on the stock & amateur market.) The boys' next project will beat A Christmas Story to town; Dogfight, under the direction of Joe Mantello, is scheduled to open at Second Stage in June. It is hoped that A Christmas Story will follow before Macy's Thanksgiving Parade next rolls through Times Square. If the cast album is any indication, A Christmas Story just might be a musical for all seasons.

Cover art

Songs from Shuffle Along/Songs from Blackbirds [Masterworks Broadway]
We're all familiar — or should be familiar — with the series of studio cast recordings that Goddard Lieberson and Columbia Records made in the '50s and early '60s. These undertook to present theatrical renditions of Broadway scores from the pre-LP era, and some of them remain indispensable. Columbia was king of the original cast album, at least from 1949 (when it overtook the originator of the form, Decca Records). Far less familiar, and hidden from memory, was a series of EPs from Columbia's competitor RCA. EPs were extended play recordings; in 1952, when they were introduced, they were seven-inch 45s which could hold up to seven-and-a-half minutes per side (as opposed to the usual four-minute 45).

These EPs, thus, contained four tracks and were released as the "RCA Victor Show Time Series." At least 16 mini-collections were made in 1952-53, ranging from Victor Herbert's Mlle. Modiste (1905) to Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate (1948). While four songs give only the briefest taste of what a musical sounded like, RCA provided top Broadway conductors of the day (like Milton Rosenstock, Lehman Engel and Jay Blackton) along with interesting Broadway performers (including John Raitt, Helen Gallagher, Jack Cassidy, Lisa Kirk, Harold Lang, Doretta Morrow, Brenda Lewis and Patricia Neway). Some of these recordings used original orchestrations, so there are a number of highly interesting tracks salted away.

As RCA switched to 33-1/3 RPM long playing records, many of the titles were paired on 10-inch LPs (as opposed to the usual 12 inches). One of the two-fer LPs has now been sprung from the vaults by Masterworks Broadway, featuring the Show Time recordings of Eubie Blake's 1921 Shuffle Along and the Jimmy McHugh/Dorothy Fields revue Blackbirds of 1928 (here simply called "Blackbirds").

The Shuffle Along recording stemmed from that show's forlorn 1952 revival, which shuttered after just four performances at the Broadway. Thelma Carpenter and Avon Long are featured on three songs (including the big hit, "I'm Just Wild About Harry"); Louise Woods and Laurence Watson sing "Love Will Find a Way." All four appeared in the revival, although apparently not singing the same songs. Composer Blake conducts. Carpenter also stars on the Blackbirds recording, singing three of the four tracks. The fourth is the hit of the show, "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," from Cab Calloway. Engel conducts.

I've always found the score for Blackbirds to be far more interesting than that of Shuffle Along; the shows were produced only seven years apart, but a lot happened musically in the interim. The eight songs included support my hypothesis; the other three Blackbird selections — "Diga-Diga Doo," "I Must Have that Man" and "Doin' the New Low-Down" — instantly worked their way back into my musical memory, and onto my iPod. As for Shuffle Along, I'm still not wild about anything but Harry.

(Steven Suskin is author of the updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations"” (now available in paperback), "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)