PLAYBILL BRIEF ENCOUNTER: Peter Billingsley, the Original Ralphie of "A Christmas Story," Takes Aim at Broadway
By Adam Hetrick
Peter Billingsley, the child actor who played Ralphie in the film-favorite "A Christmas Story," is all grown up and serving as an above-the-title producer of the Broadway musical stage adaptation of the picture.
After nearly three decades, the beloved 1983 film "A Christmas Story" has danced its way to Broadway this season in a new stage musical adaptation that is kicking up a leg-lamp chorus line at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre for the holidays, now to Dec. 30.
The songwriting team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, along with book writer Joseph Robinette, transformed the classic Jean Shepherd story for the stage. The writers have also been given some sage advice and guidance by 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!" He is now among 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 to speak with Playbill.com and look back at "A Christmas Story" past and A Christmas Story present.
You were pretty young when you did the original film. What do you recall about the experience?
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. It was also done in a time before cable and video were really popular, so when it came out in theatres, it did okay at the box office based on what it cost but you sorta thought, "Well, that was fun, it was good, got some good reviews and maybe did okay at the box office and that's it." 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?
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 kick line.
The musical takes all those great moments of excitement and blows them out into larger levels. So, that was the first time I was really inspired to do anything with it. Fans are protective of the title and of the brand. Probably moreseo than me. For them it's a tradition, it's something they watch. So, for them, it works and I don't think they need anything else on the big or small screen that really represents that. But the response has been overwhelmingly positive for fans who have seen the musical because... it carefully reminds them of what they loved in the film. It has all the set pieces in there that they want to see, there's the tongue that gets stuck on the pole, the leg lamp, but they're presented in a really fun musical ensemble/dance way. It's very much a complementary piece. We hope it becomes a tradition much like the film. Going to this musical will be a tradition for families.
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?
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.
This is your first foray into Broadway. Are a musical fan?
Late "Christmas Story" writer Jean Shepherd is now a character in the musical. Did you have any sort of relationship with him?
I imagine you must really carry Jean's spirit with you as you work on this.
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.
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