It began as a couple of chapters of a book of short stories by radio humorist Jean Shepherd, then a sleeper movie with a cult following and now “A Christmas Story, The Musical!” hopes to get a leg up on the other holiday theater traditions with a seasonal run at the Chicago Theatre.
And yes, Scrooge and the Nutcracker Prince better watch their backs.
Shepherd’s 1966 collection of short stories, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, served as the basis of the 1983 film, which starred Peter Billinglsey as a Ralphie, a kid who dreams of the ultimate Christmas gift, a Red Rider BB gun.
Both book and film have legions of fans, the creative team behind the musical adaptation hope to catch lightning once again with their Broadway-styled show.
Playwright Joseph Robinette, who wrote the book for the musical version, says one of the things that works so well about both musical and film is its relative simplicity of plot.
“It’s real life. Ralphie doesn’t want the universe. He wants one thing. We can all relate to wanting that one gift, whether we eventually got it or not,” he says.
Woodstock, IL.-based Dramatic Publishing held the rights to the material and had some success with region productions of the non-musical version of the holiday classic (including a 2007 Chicago production by Theatre Wit). A musical version was perhaps inevitable. Dramatic Publishing approached Robinette about writing the book for a musical adaptation.
Robinette was no stranger to Dramatic Publishing or adapting other works for that matter. Dramatic Publishing licenses Robinette’s musical adaptations “Ann of Green Gables” and “Charlotte’s Web,” to name a few.
For his part, Robinette says he was quite well versed in the original source material.
“I have four sons who all have the movie memorized. I’ve probably seen the movie ten or more times,” he says with a chuckle. “We did have someone transcribe the movie into hard copy for us, but I can’t say I really needed to refer to the hard copy much.”
Nonetheless, he says the task at hand was daunting.
“There is always an apprehension. You can’t help but think ‘how are we going to do this on stage?,” he says. “And then you know you also have to find a way to make it just more than the movie played out on stage.”
Composer and lyricist team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul agree that the task of adapting a beloved classic was a bit intimidating.
“Artistically, it is both a blessing and a curse,” Paul says. “You have a built-in audience of fans of the movie, but there’s only so much you can stray.”
“It’s seen by millions of people every year,” adds Pasek. “When we initial approached it, we were very aware and cognizant about what people loved about the film.”
Playwright and lyricsts/composers all realized they had to scale back some of the film.
“It’s an hour and a half film and we had to add an hour of music to it,” Robinette explains. “We knew we had to get some of the iconic moments into it, but you can’t put everything in there.”
“What are the moments that have to be in. no matter what happens these have to be in the show,” adds Paul. “We want to put everything on stage, but we can’t. What ultimately is helping us to tell story about a kid who wants this one thing and how his family celebrates Christmas.”
Ralphie daydreaming about his gun became “Ralphie to the Rescue”
“A little boy’s fantasy about how he saves the day is the stuff of musical theater,” Pasek says. “That moment in the show came the easiest for us.”
Ralphie’s dad winning a leg lamp in a newspaper contest became the show-stopping “A Major Award” complete with a leg lamp kickline, natch.
Robinette says one of the iconic scenes that was most tricky for him was the “tongue stuck to the flag pole” bit.
“It’s a very cinematic scene. You’ve got a kid with his tongue stuck to a pole, fire trucks and police cars arriving, a view of things from the window of the school and the kids’ reactions. It was a challenge to make that all work on the stage, but I think we pulled it off.”