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Every year, families in search of kid-friendly holiday entertainment buy their tickets to productions of "A Christmas Carol" and "The Nutcracker." It's a lucrative market and producers are always looking for the next big Broadway-style holiday show. One new contender is "A Christmas Story: The Musical." A stage version of the iconic 1983 movie is on a five-city tour, with dreams of playing Broadway next year. Jeff Lunden went to the very first performance, in Hershey, Pennsylvania, and has this report.
JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: For a holiday film that's so loved - TBS runs a 24-hour marathon every Christmas - remarkably little happens in "A Christmas Story," says Peter Billingsley, who at age 12 played the lead role in the movie and is a lead producer of the new musical.
PETER BILLINGSLEY: You know, I've sort of said it's like the "Seinfeld" of Christmas movies; it's such the mundane, but it's so much of the things we go through around the holidays, you know, whether it's trying to just get a Christmas tree or get your kid into a snow suit that doesn't fit 'cause it's too cold. It's so many of the things that you deal with and it's a real family.
LUNDEN: The film is based on author and radio personality Jean Shepherd's stories about growing up in the Midwest at the end of the Depression. The plot, such as it is, surrounds young Ralphie's schemes to get a BB gun for Christmas. In the movie, we first see Ralphie pressed up against the window at Higbee's Department Store, looking lovingly at the BB gun, while Jean Shepherd speaks.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "A CHRISTMAS STORY")
JEAN SHEPHERD: (as Narrator) Ah, there it is, the holy grail of Christmas gifts: the Red Ryder 200-shot range model air rifle.
LUNDEN: But, in the musical, Ralphie gets to sing about it.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "A CHRISTMAS STORY")
CLARKE HALLUM: (as Ralphie) (Singing) I'll protect the neighborhood so (unintelligible) bang, bang. Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun.
LUNDEN: Peter Billingsley says taking a movie where people can quote whole scenes of dialogue and adapting it for the stage is kind of a tightrope act.
BILLINGSLEY: You know, I think there's a responsibility, if you hear "A Christmas Story: The Musical," there are certain scenes that instantly come to people's minds. And so you want to be sure that, you know, someone will get their tongue stuck on a flagpole and Ralphie will get kicked down the slide by Santa and you have a responsibility to give people that, but you need to be unique and you have to be your own show, as well. And so that's the challenge.
LUNDEN: One key to the adaptation, says director John Rando, is taking advantage of the film's fantasy sequences.
JOHN RANDO: The nice thing about the movie is there are so many moments where the movie goes into the child's imagination. And that's why it translates so well into musical theater, because when he fancies himself a great cowboy, it calls for a song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RALPHIE TO THE RESCUE")
HALLUM: (as Ralphie) (Singing) Your teacher is in trouble, so get there on the double, or she'll face her due.
LUNDEN: Twelve-year-old Clarke Hallum plays the singing, dancing Ralphie.
HALLUM: This kid has such an imagination, you know. He's fighting off bank robbers and chasing down cattle rustlers. It's really great.
LUNDEN: Bank robbers and cattle rustlers played by the kids in his classroom and their moms and dads.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RALPHIE TO THE RESCUE")
HALLUM: (as Ralphie) (Singing) Ralphie to the rescue. (Brave and so bold and he's just nine years old.) With (unintelligible) blue, I'm a (unintelligible).
LUNDEN: The score is written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, 26-year-old songwriters who met at the University of Michigan and weren't even alive when the movie came out. Pasek says they kept an eye out for moments which could be expanded with music - like when Ralphie's father, known only as the Old Man, wins a major award, which is a lamp shaped like a woman's leg.
BENJ PASEK: But instead of just having a 30-second moment where he celebrates a major award, we can make this a huge song and dance production number where a leg lamp kick line comes out.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A MAJOR AWARD")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) (Singing) Look what I got, a leg, a leg. (What a major award, he won a major award, (unintelligible). Yes, it's a (unintelligible) Careful, it's plastic.
LUNDEN: By the end of the show, Ralphie gets his BB gun and, even though the turkey gets eaten by the neighbors' dogs, director John Rando says there's something about "A Christmas Story" that makes it especially resonant.
RANDO: It's an American Dream story; that even in hard times, what's really important is family and being together. And I think it distinguishes it from some other Christmas shows.
LUNDEN: "A Christmas Story: The Musical" is currently playing in Detroit, to be followed by Raleigh, Tampa and Chicago. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "A CHRISTMAS STORY: THE MUSICAL")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as narrator) As the excitement of the day gradually subsided, I finally drifted off to sleep, pranging ducks on the wing and getting off spectacular hip shots.
CHORUS: (Singing) Christmas is here, this calm twilight night. It comes once a year, so you hold on to it tight. A Christmas story...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Good night, Ralphie. Good night, all. Thanks for listening. Merry Christmas.
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