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December 21, 2012

Benj Pasek and Justin Paul Make A Christmas Story, The Musical Come Alive on Broadway

Santa. Frosty. Rudolph. Scrooge. Christmas comes but once a year, and so do all of the characters we associate with it. With the debut of the 1983 Christmas comedy film, A Christmas Story, directed by Bob Clark and based on the work of writer Jean Shepherd, the cast of memorable holiday icons grew to include such unforgettable characters as Ralphie, Randy, Scut Farkus, Grover Dill and Ralphie's father, aka "the old man."

Over the years, the film developed cult status, so much so that each year it receives its own marathon broadcast on either TBS, TNT or TCM. With a sizeable built-in audience, the story of Ralphie and his wish for a Red Ryder BB Gun from Santa was ripe for the picking to be made into a musical. Up for the challenge were Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, an award winning musical theatre composing team, both graduates of the University of Michigan and recipients of the 2011 ASCAP Foundation Richard Rodgers New Horizons Award.

A Christmas Story, The Musical opened on Broadway at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on November 19th to rave reviews. Playback talked to Pasek and Paul about their work, which might just become a holiday classic of its own.

What role has ASCAP has played in your career to date?

BP: We first became involved with ASCAP when we attended the Johnny Mercer Songwriters Project at Northwestern University in 2006 and shared a pancake breakfast with ASCAP's Michael Kerker. He was there moderating the program and has been tremendously helpful to us ever since. Over the last six years, he has recommended us for jobs, schlepped to productions of our shows in rural Connecticut and Pennsylvania to offer support, connected us to artists we've wanted to work with and introduced us to other writers who have mentored us. And getting a check in the mail every so often from ASCAP is always a nice surprise!

A Christmas Story has become such a beloved classic film. What did the film mean to you when you first saw it and as you were growing up?

BP: At its core, A Christmas Story is a film about a depression-era family trying to make it through the holiday season with their sanity intact. During the holiday season, TBS plays the movie for a straight 24 hours so it's something that everyone has seen and has been engrained in our collective cultural consciousness. There are moments in the film that everyone can connect to, even as a kid I would laugh hysterically at the last scene in the film because it completely embodied my version of Christmas, and everyone has that bit in it that strikes close to home.

When and how did the idea to create a musical version of A Christmas Story come into being?

BP: Similar to how an actor auditions for a show, we were actually approached by the producers of A Christmas Story to submit songs to "audition" in a way. We absolutely love the movie and were ecstatic when we were chosen to write the music for the production at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theater. From there, it's been a whirlwind three years of development with a national tour culminating in Chicago last year and a production on Broadway this holiday season!

How daunting was it to write music for a story that is so ingrained in people's hearts?

BP: Of course we were slightly terrified at the beginning because people love the film, so we've been thankful that they've responded so positively to the musical. Since it's a holiday staple, we wanted to honor peoples' favorite parts of the film and enhance them for the musical stage without tampering with them too much. For example, there's a scene in the movie where Ralphie imagines himself saving the day by shooting robbers outside his house so we knew that we'd be able to take this one small moment in the movie and expand it-if Ralphie wanted to be a cowboy then we could make him into a cowboy fighting off Indians, bank robbers and old style western villains in a six minute dance number. We were really nervous at first, but the fantasy scenes in the movie were perfect for becoming musical numbers.

There are SO many great musical numbers. Are there any that you are particularly proud or fond of? And Why?

BP: We appreciate you think that there were lots of great songs! We're really proud of the song "Just Like That," because it's one of the moments in the show that really shows its heart. At its core, A Christmas Story is about nostalgia and remembering your own childhood. In this song, we see a mother trying to capture that one moment as her kids are growing up too quickly. This is one of the moments in the musical that didn't exist in the film so it gave us the opportunity to explore the mother's character and make her the emotional anchor of the show. It's really rewarding because audiences have really responded to the moments in the show that have more heart.

In terms of musical styles that you incorporate into your songs, what guided your choices?

JP: You know, we didn't go to one particular source or style to influence what we wanted to write for this score. I think something we respect a great deal about the old Broadway show music of the 40s/50s/60s is that it was really a style of its own. Sure, much of it was jazzy and influenced to an extent by the popular music of its day, but often times it WAS the popular music of its day. I think we aimed to write a score that could somehow live in that world. Not straight-up pastiche in that one could identify which particular old song we were copy-catting, but rather write songs that were influenced by the sound of those older eras, yet hopefully filtered through us - our voice and our sound. 

How do you two collaborate? What do you think are your individual strengths?

JP: Much of our time collaborating is really spent discussing (i.e. fighting about!) exactly what we want our songs to say. We each have strengths that compliment each other well, including greater strengths in music & lyrics. But in the end, it's a song where (hopefully) the words and music are seamlessly woven together and you can't tell what's what. But that brings us back to the arguing...hammering out all those details and deciding where we want the song to go, what its message should be, what the character is feeling...that all usually happens before a note or word is written. Once that's ironed out, then we often start with a musical draft, no words yet, just to understand how it will sound, what our rhythmic structure might be, etc. Or we'll start from a lyric if it's a word-based song. There's really no formula for it at all - it's always changing!

You are relatively young at this game. What was the experience like to see your musical open on Broadway?

JP: In a word: surreal. In fact it still feels surreal. When we first got involved with the project we had no idea where it would go, and where it would take us. So to have landed on 46th Street at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre is just a dream come true. We went to school to study musical, and to study all the great Broadway shows of years past. No matter what happens, we feel like we've in some small way joined in that legacy of Broadway shows and Broadway songwriters. What could be better than that? For us, really not much!

In what ways did the final production I saw on Broadway evolve from your original presentation of the musical?

JP: The show has evolved in 1 million small ways that, hopefully, have added up to a large difference. Since its initial production, we've cut about 3 songs, replaced 1 or 2...quite standard for this sort of development. But we've also made so many small changes to numbers. We've rewritten entire lyrics, we've repurposed songs to serve a new function or for a new character. We've restructured the second act. A lot of things that might not be immediately noticeable but have helped in both small and big ways. When we originally presented the show, we were really in many ways flying by the seat of our pants. We had about 5 months to write the whole score. So doing multiple tryouts out of town really gave us the opportunity to go back and revise, fine-tune, and hone our work.

What are your hopes for the production?

JP: Well I think we've achieved a major dream on Broadway! Having this show play New York over the holidays is really the ultimate hope for the show...and we've been so lucky to have that happen. From here - we'd just love to see it spread across the country to theaters everywhere. As soon as possible we'd like to make the show available in licensing so that schools and theaters all over America can do the production if they so choose. Because this is such a beloved movie, we're hopeful that we can bring some Christmas joy to folks across the nation when they can go and see a local production of the muiscal adaptation of one of their favorite Christmas movies. We'll see!

What else do you have on your creative plates at the moment?

JP: We're sort of the in the process of deciding what's next for us. We've been working on an adaptation of James and the Giant Peach that we're about to wrap up and hopefully get into licensing. We're working on a new original musical with a wonderful playwright named Steven Levenson. We've been writing for SMASH on NBC which has been gobs of fun. We hope to do some more work in that vein. We're really sort of recharging the batteries after a couple of years of consistent work on A Christmas Story and our Off-Broadway show Dogfight.

What are your plans for the holidays?

JP: RELAXING!!!! Ha! I'm heading to Kansas City for a few days to be with my wife's family for Christmas. We'll see my family after Christmas...and beyond that...just trying to rest up! I'm wiped!

BP: Like a good little Jewish Boy, I'm planning to spend Christmas at a Chinese Restaurant with my family. We will see about the duck, however.

For tickets to see A Christmas Story, The Musical visit here:
http://achristmasstorythemusical.com

For more on Pasek and Paul visit here:
http://www.pasekandpaul.com