Writer and radio artist Jean Shepherd’s memories of his Indiana childhood and hunger for an “official Red Ryder, carbine action, 200-shot, range model air rifle, with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time” were famously arranged into Bob Clark’s 1983 holiday perennial, “A Christmas Story.”
That movie was arranged into a 2012 stage musical — "A Christmas Story: The Musical," naturally enough — which was arranged further into the three-hour broadcast of “A Christmas Story Live!” Sunday night on Fox.
Since NBC’s revival of “The Sound of Music” in 2014, the live television musical has become a new form of an old-fashioned television event. (One should really capitalize Event, so intent are the producers upon their eventfulness.)
That these productions have so far been the exclusive province of NBC and Fox does not make them seem any less inevitable, for the cultural time being. They have not come off equally well, but in every case, they have given fans of musical theater months of excited anticipation.
It’s true that live TV is something of a stunt now, rather than a technological exigency. Mary Martin performed “Peter Pan” multiple times on TV, because that is just how things worked then. But “live” retains a distinctive appeal. (It matters that “Saturday Night Live” is performed live, whenever you choose to watch it.) One of the small but real pleasures of the Sunday broadcast was watching night fall in real time.
Like Fox’s previous live musicals, “Grease!” and “The Passion,” “A Christmas Story Live!” ranged across the Warner Bros. back lot and many soundstage interiors; though the practical demands of the production made it less-than-arresting visually, and sometimes awkward, it was nevertheless magical on a kind of military level. (The opening credits listed what looked like a dozen stage managers.)
The potential for disaster is part of what makes live performance exciting, but there were was little in the way of flubbed lines or missed cues. (Just enough, one might say, to keep that flavor alive.)
Although it played on Broadway and around the country, “A Christmas Story: The Musical” is not among the stage’s better-known works. Its stock increased by the fact that its composers, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, later scored the critically acclaimed musical “Dear Evan Hansen” and the Oscar-winning “La La Land.”
“A Christmas Story,” the film, on the other hand, I could perform for you extempore, although I might possibly confuse the sequence of, say, Flick’s tongue sticking to the flagpole and Randy eating like a little piggy.
Shepherd’s voice-over narration is integral to the film; the musical actually puts him onstage, a ghost from the future hovering over nearly every scene, here in the person of Matthew Broderick, who found his own, gentler way through Shepherd’s pointy prose.
Maya Rudolph was affecting as Ralphie’s mother, Chris Diamantopoulos gruff if less than epic as his father, the Old Man.
As Ralphie, Andy Walken was a good visual match for the movie’s Peter Billingsley, and he seemed to have studied Billingsley’s readings. It was not an original interpretation, as Olivier’s Hamlet was distinct from Burton’s, but originality was not really called for, and Walken’s was an assured performance with the right touch of madness and wonderful vocal command. The whole company of kids, in fact, was energetic and on their marks, and possibly inspirational to children in the audience who may now be nursing Broadway dreams of their own.
There was an expanded role for Jane Krakowski’s teacher, Miss Shields — a “Bugsy Malone” fantasy number was her big musical moment — and non-singing, non-dancing small turns from Ken Jeong as a Christmas tree salesman (and later as the proprietor of a Chinese restaurant), David Alan Grier as a department store Santa and Fred Armisen as his helper. Schwartz’s mother, previously an offended voice on the other end of a phone call, was here gloriously embodied by Ana Gasteyer, who brought in a Hanukkah theme (“We got matzo balls / And the Maccabees”) and a “Fiddler” melody.
The film does not exactly boast a strong plot line. Ralphie’s gun madness is just a string on which to hang on a number of wintertime episodes. (It is a kind of rondo, in musical terms, returning occasionally to the theme, represented here by the song “It All Comes Down to Christmas.”) But the movie is a humble, compact, comfy thing; it feels like family.
And though much worked easily into musical business — lines like “You’ll shoot your eye out” and “a major award” are song titles waiting to happen — the virtues that have made the movie a seasonal perennial were somewhat swallowed by the narrative digressions and showstopping gestures of the musical.
And they were diluted again by its expansion into three hours of commercial-filled television, beginning with a perfectly irrelevant prologue in which Bebe Rexha performed a new work of ready-to-stream, pitch-corrected pop, “Come on Christmas.” The white background upon which it was set had the look of a Target ad. (Target was not a sponsor, but Old Navy, which was, got its name on a store in the backlot downtown.) There was also a “live commercial,” also shot on the Warner lot, in which Hugh Jackman and a cast of dozens pitched his new movie, “The Greatest Showman.”
It is a risky business turning a near-perfect thing into a somewhat less-perfect thing, but it feels churlish to cavil about so much hard work done in a celebratory spirit. Especially when the curtain calls have been taken and the cast, even as I write this, may be basking in the glow of their accomplishment.