By Peter Filichia —
Although we still have a few weeks before the holidays, no time is too early to begin listening to Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s A Christmas Story.
Today, any young songwriting team is amazingly fortunate to get a musical produced off-Broadway – let alone on Broadway. But Pasek and Paul must be doing something right: they’ve landed one show in each arena this season.
In July, their Dogfight, about soldiers who play cruel hoaxes on unsuspecting (and unattractive) young women, opened off-Broadway. Now, from November 5th through December 30th, Broadway will play host to their very different A Christmas Story.
It is, of course, the musical version of Jean Shepherd’s stories. Joseph Robinette’s book takes us back home again to Indiana in December 1940 to the fictional town of Hohman. The beloved 1983 film became a Yuletide perennial — and this score suggests that this musical deserves to be on Broadway each and every year, too.
In between Decembers, we’ll be able to hear the winning score through this cast album from the out-of-town tryout. For those who love the Broadway musical sound of, as Dolly Levi sings, “way-back-when,” here are two young men not yet in their thirties who love it, too. While they may have listened to plenty of original cast albums on Spotify or CD, they’re obviously enamored with musicals old enough to have been originally issued on long-playing records.
So they start with an overture, an endangered species if there ever was one. They return us to the days when the brass began playing before the flutes came in. Here, too, the segue leads to the pretty ballad before matters heat up again with a song you’ll soon come to love as one of the show’s best production numbers. Of course, having Larry Blank on hand to orchestrate helps immeasurably; these days, who better knows the sound of a true Broadway musical?
Lehman Engel used to rebuke shows that opened with a chorus giving exposition. “Merry villagers,” he chidingly called them. Ah, but aren’t merry villagers right for a show involving a Merry Christmas? Everyone – adults too – is “Counting Down to Christmas.” It’s a terrific reminder of when entire families looked forward to this holiday and didn’t regard it as a coming-too-soon, don’t-have-time-for, expense-laden pain that so many do now.
Time for everyone to be “At Higbee’s,” for the big event in a small town is seeing the Christmas window revealed at the local downtown department store. Little nine-year-old Ralphie Parker certainly sees what he wants: “A Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun.” Need we add that it has “a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time”?
Of course, considering the schoolyard killings we’ve witnessed over the years, the idea of a gun in a kid’s hands is now disconcerting. Pasek and Paul were wise to retain an important component found in the stories and the film: Ralphie doesn’t want the gun to cause mayhem, but to prevent it, as he shows in the marvelous number “Ralphie to the Rescue.”
This is the one that I cited in the overture. I’ll bet I’ve listened to it dozens of times thanks to the “repeat” button. Ralphie fantasizes how he and his rifle will save his teacher’s life when she is abducted in a scenario that only a kid could imagine. ( “A tiger could escape the zoo and try to rip Miss Shields in two.”) And there’s another collateral benefit: “The girls will sigh.” Pasek and Paul have written an intoxicating cowboy-styled melody that’s “Ghost Riders in the Sky” mixed with the wide-open, clean feel of Aaron Copland and Elmer Bernstein of The Magnificent Seven fame.
Ralphie’s father Frank (a/k/a “The Old Man”) has his own fantasies. He enters word-puzzle contests in the newspaper so that he can become known as “The Genius of Cleveland Street.” (Notice how modest his goals are.) The swinging melody that Pasek and Paul give him shows his belief that he has the world by the tail and that he thinks of himself as sophisticated. He’s not.
In “When You’re a Wimp,” Pasek and Paul demonstrate that they know precisely where to put the joke in a lyric. As Ralphie and his friends all complain about bullies, listen to where the songwriters insert the telling line, “You’re picked on and the last one picked.” It’s right where it gets maximum exposure. There’s equally perfect placement when the character named Schwartz complains of his own personal indignity: “And your last name is Schwartz.”
According to Stephen Schwartz, Pasek and Paul have a point. Stephen once told me that during his college days, he changed his last name to Stephen Sandford and then Laurence Stephens. As he said, “I hated that the name ‘Schwartz’ was often used for a gag: ‘Private Schwartz from Rockaway’ in Funny Girl. ‘Mary Schwartz and Ethel Hotchkiss’ in Bells Are Ringing.” In A Christmas Story, little Schwartz obviously feels the same way (although he never heard of either Private or Mary).
Needless to say, a show called A Christmas Story would try to make room for a new Christmas song. But Pasek and Paul show that they’re more interested in writing for their script than for the charts. “A Kid at Christmas” – in which we’re all urged to feel like one — is the type of song that would have risen to the top of the Hit Parade in December, 1940. Would that it could now!
But Pasek and Paul have written a keeper for a different holiday. “What a Mother Does” will or should be sung on every second Sunday in May. It’s a lovely tribute to the women who kept hearth and home together while staying at home to make certain that all was well in the house. “A mom knows her kid,” Mrs. Parker sings. “She’ll get him to eat without knowing he did.”
It’s all sweetness and light until Ralphie comes out with a word not usually heard in polite company (and certainly not in 1940 Indiana). Now he knows that his chances of getting his simple Christmas wish are diminished. So are some of Pasek and Paul’s chords, as “Counting Down to Christmas” is now heard in a minor key.
Good dramaturgy has everything turn sour after a triumph, and we get one just before Ralphie’s profanity. As it turns out, The Old Man does score in a contest and “I won a major award!” he crows in song. You’ll be nodding as you remember that his prize is a lamp in the shape of a woman’s leg. The entire town joins him in a big production number: a kickline, of course, with each Hohmanian alternating between kicking a left foot and then lifting the artificial limb. Blank’s zippy orchestration helps put the number over in the best Broadway tradition.
Here’s betting that at Tony and Grammy time, Frank Parker won’t be the only one attached to A Christmas Story who sings, “I won a major award.”