‘A Christmas Story’: Enduring Affection for a Cult Holiday Classic

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A Christmas Story began life in the mind of author, radio host, raconteur and comic genius Jean Shepherd.

During the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, Shepherd was the sardonic host of a nightly radio program in New York where his scorching comedy and witty observations on the human condition made him one of radio’s most popular personalities. On his largely improvised program, Shepherd would wax philosophical about life, his childhood, his Army days and the general human condition. He addressed his listeners as “you fatheads,” and used his favorite word, “excelsior,” repeatedly with varying definitions.

Perhaps his most lasting legacy is evidenced in the tales he spun about his childhood in 1930s Indiana, like “Duel in the Snow or Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid” and “Flick’s Tongue.”  Shepherd, with screenwriter Leigh Brown and director Bob Clark, wove these stories and others together into a screenplay for the 1983 MGM film, A Christmas Story, starring Peter Billingsley, Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillon.

Set in late Depression-era Indiana and with Shepherd serving as the narrator, the movie introduces Ralphie Parker, who undertakes a great quest to ensure he gets an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200-shot Range Model Air Rifle for Christmas.  The biggest obstacle standing in his way is his mother’s fear that “You’ll shoot your eye out!” But Ralphie is a man with a mission, and he hatches a series of schemes designed to win his coveted prize.

Along the way, he has to deal with his annoying little brother, a friend with his tongue frozen to a lamppost, a yellow-eyed bully, a cantankerous department store Santa, the neighbor’s dogs, his old man’s obsession with a “major award” he’s won in a contest, his mom’s militant defense of her Christmas turkey, a smoke-belching furnace and an untimely, four-lettered slip of the tongue.

The film’s original box office performance was mediocre, but the movie found new life when it debuted on cable television. It became a perennial favorite due to Shepherd’s uproariously funny, ironic and honest portrayal of the euphoria and manic anticipation families experience around Christmas time.

Today, A Christmas Story is a cult classic, and occupies the top spot on several prominent lists of all-time favorite Christmas movies. For more than a decade, TNT has broadcast a 24-hour marathon of the film each holiday season.  Such is the film’s popularity, the Cleveland house where parts of the film were shot has been turned into a museum.

Given the enduring affection for the film, it made sense that a stage adaptation could be a natural fit.  A creative team was assembled to transform the beloved film into a Broadway musical, including composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.

Pasek and Paul, a pair of talented 30-somethings, is currently having what many might say is a very good year.  They won Oscars for Best Original Song and Best Original Music Score for the movie La La Land, and they also wrote the music for one of the true bona fide hits of the current Broadway season, the heartfelt musical Dear Evan Hansen, which opened to resounding levels of Tony Award buzz.

Pasek and Paul’s funny and sentimental songs for A Christmas Story: The Musical, along with a faithful yet inventive book by Joseph Robinette, bring the famous scenes of the film to life on stage.  The musical made its Broadway debut in November 2012 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, where it was both a popular and critical success.

A Christmas Story plays the Aronoff Center December 5-10, 2017 as part of the Fifth Third Bank Broadway in Cincinnati season presented by TriHealth.  More information

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