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Making "A Christmas Story" a Musical How composers Pasek and Paul set the classic film to music


By LINDA BUCHWALD

As they were becoming rising stars of the musical theatre, composing team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul were told that to learn about dramatic structure, they should adapt shows from source material. So far, that's worked out well.

Pasek and Paul made their New York debut over the summer with Dogfight, based on a 1991 film, and now they're making their Broadway bow with the musical version of A Christmas Story, which is drawn from the classic 1983 film.

A Christmas Story, which like the movie is also inspired by the writings of humorist Jean Shepard, marks the ninth year of Pasek and Paul's partnership. (They met on the first day of college at the University of Michigan.)  Though Paul writes the music and Pasek writes the lyrics, they are both credited with both parts of the score.

"Our theory is that ultimately, the song is the thing that you know. You can't really separate the music and the lyrics. They become a unified thing," says Pasek. "So we try to mess with each other's work when we have issues with it or contribute or add or pipe up when we have opinions, and try to work as collaboratively as we can."

Their work on A Christmas Story---which played in Chicago last year after a mini-tour---has also required them to respect the beloved elements of their source. Anyone who watches cable television at Christmastime is familiar with Ralphie, a little boy in 1940s Indiana who wants a Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun for Christmas, and a stage version would feel thin without classic references to shooting your eye out or a lamp that looks like a woman's leg.

The team feels this story is well-suited for a musical. "Instantly, up top, we've got a central character with a big want," Paul says. "And this central character has a really fertile imagination. And all of this fantasy translates really nicely to song."

Ralphie often fantasizes about being a cowboy and a hero, which leads to "Ralphie to the Rescue," an old-time western number in which he imagines rescuing his friends and family.

The other characters also dictate the sounds of their particular numbers. "We would write something very different for a mother than we would a father," says Pasek. Ralphie's father, for instance, is a bombastic, charmingly deluded man, which is reflected in the showboating swagger of "A Major Award." Meanwhile, Ralphie's sweetly tolerant mother gets the weary-but-tender ballad "What a Mother Does."

Of course, music doesn't exist in a bubble. Bookwriter Joe Robinette provided much of the structure. The songs also have to work with Warren Carlyle's choreography and John Rando's direction. Sometimes that means losing beloved numbers and even entire characters. A quartet of radio singers, for instance, won't be seen on Broadway, and audiences won't hear their song "Kid at Christmas," which was one of Pasek and Paul's favorites. (However, it's still on the cast recording.)

"You have so many parents to one single child, and you have to make sure you all have a unified vision," says Pasek. "It's a challenge, and it's also incredibly exciting. When it's right, nothing is better."

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Linda Buchwald tweets about theatre as @PataphysicalPsi. She contributes to StageGrade and the theatre blog Pataphysical Science.