The original 1983 film A Christmas Story has its detractors, but it occupies such a special place in the pantheon of Christmas classics that nothing can destroy it…not even being made into a musical that has no interest in any of the qualities that actually made it great.
The thing that makes the original film so unique among the canonical Christmas movies is just how aggressively real it is…at once a model of old-fashioned simplicity and displaying an almost brutal honesty about how childhood actually feels in the moment. That’s why this slick, manufactured Holiday-novelty-item approach is so profoundly wrong for this material, even more so than it was for the other holiday classics thus adapted.
Of course, the most interesting thing about this show is that the songwriters are Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who, thanks to Dear Evan Hansen and the movie musical La La Land, are now one of the most acclaimed teams in modern musical theater. Unfortunately, it’s clear from the noxiously bland score they contributed here that they were working on autopilot for this project. This isn’t a case of artistic immaturity, either…Pasek and Paul were responsible for the brilliant and brutal off-Broadway masterpiece Dogfight that very same year, so they clearly already knew how to make honest and dramatic music. Presumably they just saw this show as a piece of soulless product not worth their actual effort.
One could argue this is similar to Jeanine Tesori working on ‘commercial’ projects that are unworthy of her talents, but when Tesori ‘slums’, she at least elevates the material by her presence (for example, the Shrek musical would have been far worse without her tuneful and sophisticated music). Here, Pasek and Paul’s score might as well be the work of any random hack songwriters. That’s a shame, because their other scores point up exactly the qualities that might have worked in a true musicalization of A Christmas Story, so they were ironically the perfect team for the job if they or the producers had had any interest in actually matching the film.
The only number that is even remotely successful at capturing the feel of the film is the touching “What a Mother Does”, particularly as performed by Liz Callaway on the cast album. The two centerpieces are a pair of grotesque, embarrassing production numbers, “Ralphie to the Rescue” and “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out”, and the score in general follows the Young Frankenstein school of musicalization, simply turning every famous joke into a musical number…even the familiar flagpole scene becomes a song, “A Sticky Situation”. The lyrics are mildly clever in places but have no real content, mostly just continually rehashing aimless wordplay to fill in for the lack of it, and the music sounds like your typical borderline-Muzak Christmas novelty music.
The score also has a very non-period-specific sound, which might be an advantage in a musical fairytale like How the Grinch Stole Christmas but drains a lot of the character out of a movie that was specifically focused on capturing the authentic color of a bygone era…the movie is full of very meticulous period detail, and it needed a period-flavored score to match it.
An even bigger problem comes from the fact that in the film, the child actor playing Ralphie barely speaks at all…the vast majority of his ‘dialogue’ comes from his future self as the narrator, looking back on his own internal monologue at the time. But because Tom Wopat’s adult narrator doesn’t participate in the music, the original film’s ruefully philosophical commentary on childhood becomes much more of a straightforward story from the perspective of a child, which makes the material far less sophisticated and interesting. In short, this is ultimately just a glorified Radio City Music Hall-type production…big, flashy production numbers to entertain the kiddies in the audience…that tries to cash in on the name recognition of the film without actually understanding it.
Fortunately, this is not one of those terrible adaptations that wind up eclipsing their more worthy predecessors…the musical is already forgotten just a few years after its debut, while the film itself is still being marketed to the point of overexposure. And while the critics were fairly generous at the time, it should tell you something, given what passes for seasonal holiday fare on Broadway, that this show has not made another appearance there. Remember that such dubious items as the Grinch and Elf musicals were brought back multiple times over the years, whereas this show essentially vanished after one holiday season, leaving nothing behind but an incomplete cast album and a bad taste in Broadway-goers mouths. I hope Pasek and Paul’s next ‘commercial’ project, the upcoming live-action film version of Disney’s Snow White, goes better than this, but given their apparent belief that they have to ‘turn off’ their talent on projects like that in order to communicate that such things are beneath them, I’m not especially hopeful.