It’s Christmas (Story) Time in the City
Of all the musicals that have been nominated for Best Musical, only one has been Christmas-centric:
A Christmas Story: The Musical.
Yes, Tony-winners Annie and Rent as well as Tony-nominees I Love My Wife, Irma La Douce, She Loves Me and Promises, Promises all involve Christmas in one way or another.
Needless to say, Fiddler on the Roof and The Rothschilds eschew the holiday. So does Mame – although that show’s title character still sings about needing a little Christmas now (despite the fact that the Big Day was still three weeks away).
But until last season, there had never been a Tony-nominated musical for which Christmas was the main event. Oh, Elf, Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Here’s Love and Irving Berlin’s White Christmas certainly would like to have been the first. Nevertheless, A Christmas Story: The Musical remains the sole honoree.
A Christmas Story is back with us now, not on Broadway as it was last year, but at The Theater at Madison Square Garden. So while the show will only play through Dec. 29, more attendees can be accommodated because the seating capacity is more than twice as large as it is at the Lunt-Fontanne.
(Understand that this is NOT the Madison Square Garden where the Knicks and Rangers play, but a gen-u-ine theater that’s downstairs and underneath. Luckily, the building’s construction is so solid that the moans from the Knicks and Rangers’ fans while they incompetently play and lose won’t be able to be heard even during the show’s most quiet moments of dialogue. Better still, there’s not a chance in the world that the sports fans’ pain-filled gasps will be heard once the music and applause start for A Christmas Story.)
So the frenzy to get seats for A Christmas Story will be a little easier this year (as well as for the Knicks and Rangers – but that’s another story). However, if you can’t make it to New York between now and the closing performance, there is a cast album that will show you the glory of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s score.
Admittedly, A Christmas Story has a very generic title. And yet, ever since the film version of Jean Shepherd’s story took to the screen in 1983, it’s managed to overcome its not-terribly-descriptive name. Certainly Ted Turner’s stations have done their part in spreading the word, for his TNT and TBS networks have been showing the film the entire Christmas day since 1988. So now when people mention A Christmas Story, few if any start thinking about Scrooge, Rudolph, Buddy the Elf, Santa Claus or Kris Kringle. Instead, the person who now comes to mind is little Ralphie Parker and his quest for a “Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun” as his ultimate Christmas present.
Indeed, the tale has morphed into such a genuine franchise that author Caseen Gaines felt compelled to write about the entire journey that A Christmas Story has taken since Shepherd wrote the story in the early ‘60s. Given that the tale is such a quaint and innocent one, we might not have gleaned that it would have seen light of day in Playboy when that was the nation’s most salacious magazine. (My, have times changed!)
Gaines takes us through the musical’s growing pains: the
bookwriter, composer-lyricist and director who started on the project were long gone before last season’s Broadway debut. Many shows that suffer such an artistic hemorrhaging usually die a quick death, but the powers-that-be behind A Christmas Story weren’t scared that poisonous theatrical gossip would kill them. They wanted to get it precisely right and wouldn’t settle for less.
The result was Joseph Robinette’s Tony-nominated book, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s Tony-nominated score and John Rando’s much acclaimed-albeit-Tony-denied direction.
(Getting a Tony nomination for directing is always harder than getting one for book or score. After all, the book and score categories only involve new shows, while the Best Direction of a Musical category includes stage revivals as well – and we’re in an age where there are always plenty of revivals. In fact, half of last year’s nominees as Best Director got their nods from having staged revivals.)
Gaines’ hardcover coffee table book is printed on gloriously heavy stock and offers a generous number of pictures from the film and many from the musical, including some that show the previous incarnations of the show.
To paraphrase Grand Hotel, actors come, actors go. But John Bolton, who portrays Ralphie’s “Old Man,” has been with the show for quite some time. The performance that would later nab him a Drama Desk Award nomination is here on the recording.
Bolton puts the show’s subplot into gear. For just as Ralphie wants his gun, “The Old Man” wants to be acclaimed as “The Genius of Cleveland Street” for his puzzle-solving ability. As fine a song as that is, it’s trumped when Bolton finds that he’s won “A Major Award.”
Well, that’s his opinion. You may consider a lamp that’s shaped in the image of a woman’s sexy leg less than a major award. But that’s the fun of the idea and the production number that follows.
Ralphie’s first excellent number – the aforementioned “Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun” – also gets trumped by an even better song: “Ralphie to the Rescue,” which has that marvelous wide-open-spaces, Western-flavored music that Elmer (The Magnificent Seven) Bernstein would have admired. Lay’s Potato Chips used to have an ad where it boasted “Bet you can’t eat just one.” Similarly, bet you can’t just listen to “Ralphie to the Rescue” without pressing the “Repeat” button.
Of course, the lad who played Ralphie on the recording – one Clarke Hallum – is no longer portraying him. If there’s one thing that kids do, it’s grow up so fast; as a result, a new Ralphie is required each year the show is produced. (Jake Lucas and Eli Tokash are currently sharing the duties at Madison Square Garden.)
While the recording features the estimable Tom Wopat as narrator Jean Shepherd, the current production stars this year (as it did last year) Dan Lauria. This is only fitting, because A Christmas Story actually wound up inspiring the creation of The Wonder Years, the TV series that made Lauria, who played Jack Arnold, a star.
And just as Here’s Love includes “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot like Christmas,” Irma La Douce has “Christmas Child,” Mame sports “We Need a Little Christmas,” and Promises, Promises features “Christmas Day,” A Christmas Story has a Christmas song, too. Even better: just as Here’s Love, Irma La Douce, Mame and Promises, Promises all have title numbers, A Christmas Story makes “A Christmas Story” its title tune, too. (And a quite lovely one it is.)
One doesn’t have to be the genius of Cleveland Street or Cleveland, Ohio or anywhere else to appreciate A Christmas Story in Shepherd’s tale, Bob Clark’s film, Caseen Gaines’ book or Robinette, Pasek and Paul’s musical. If you can’t get to it this year at the Garden, well, that’s what the cast album is for.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.kritzerland.com.and www.mtishows.com. His books on musicals are available at Amazon.com.