On a backlot in Burbank, it’s an oven-like December day — but no matter, because Christmas is on its way.
Maya Rudolph is roaming “snow-dusted” streets wearing a surgical mask — to keep the rampant particles at bay. Matthew Broderick has stopped to snap photos of trees that are only partially frosted in an area meant to resemble a nippy Indiana neighborhood. Every which way actors are braving ’40s-era winter clothing — sweat stains be damned. And, not to go unnoticed, a cluster of life-size “leg lamp” cutouts stand watch on a nearby stage.
Come Sunday — four days from this moment on the backlot — all the moving pieces will come together for Fox’s live musical rendering of the classic holiday tale “A Christmas Story.”
“It’s like pushing the baby out now,” Rudolph says of nearing the big day. “We’ve been having contractions for a while now. I think I’m ready to push.”
The three-hour production, a follow-up to last year’s stagings of “Grease Live” and “The Passion,” is inspired by the 1983 film and its subsequent 2012 Broadway musical adaptation, “A Christmas Story: The Musical.”
Fox’s extravaganza, dubbed “A Christmas Story Live!,” will unfold on the Warner Bros. lot and stands as the only live TV adaptation of the holiday season. (NBC, which has broadcast a live musical every December since 2013, postponed its staging of “Bye Bye Birdie” starring and executive produced by Jennifer Lopez to 2018.)
The yuletide yarn is based on the short stories of humorist Jean Shepherd and is set in 1940s Indiana. It follows 9-year-old Ralphie Parker and his unrelenting desire to get his hands on a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. The film, which starred Peter Billingsley, Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillon, is responsible for some of the most notable pop culture hallmarks of the holiday season — such as the sentiment “You’ll shoot your eye out!,” the tacky lamp that resembles a woman’s leg, and the fear of getting one’s tongue stuck to a frozen light pole.
In Fox’s live re-imagination, Rudolph stars opposite Chris Diamantopoulos as Ralphie’s mother and father. Cherub-faced Ralphie is played by newcomer Andy Walken. Broderick plays the on-screen narrator, who is an adult version of Ralphie. Rounding out the cast are Ana Gasteyer, David Alan Grier, Ken Jeong and Jane Krakowski.
The network’s production arrives as the movie, which took in $19.3 million at the box office when it opened, is making its rotation on DVD players, in select movie theaters and on cable networks (TNT and TBS have aired a 24-hour marathon of the film every Christmas Day, a tradition that goes back to 1997).
“I’ve watched the movie every single year since I can remember,” says 11-year-old Walken, as wide-eyed as his alter ego.
“It’s the perfect movie in some ways,” adds Diamantopoulos. “Because even though it was made in 1983, it captured this little pocket of what our perception of 1940 [was] and that story that Jean Shepherd created — this idea of a kid whose one Christmas wish is a Red Ryder BB gun. It’s a great telling of a time gone by and a great reminder of the simple pleasures … we hope to take elements from that and the Broadway show and create something new.”
Marc Platt, who won an Emmy for producing last year’s “Grease Live!,” serves as an executive producer alongside Adam Siegel (the Broadway revival of “The King and I”). Scott Ellis is overseeing stage direction, while Alex Rudzinski, znow a veteran of TV’s live musical productions, serves as the show’s live director.
“You have to have a feeling of family and there has to be heart underneath it,” Ellis says of the goal of Fox’s adaptation. “It’s not just razzle-dazzle stuff and big musical numbers. Our challenge is to never lose sight of the family aspect. And I think — I hope — we’ve succeeded in that.”
The telecast, which is produced by Warner Horizon Unscripted Television, features music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the Tony- and Oscar-winning duo behind “Dear Evan Hansen” and “La La Land.” In addition to songs from the Broadway musical, for which Pasek and Paul were also nominated for a Tony, the duo wrote three additional tunes for the TV adaptation, including a new song, “Count on Christmas,” to open the event and a Hanukkah song, “In the Market for a Miracle,” to be crooned by Gasteyer’s Mrs. Schwartz character.
“It’s fun and brings back a lot of memories,” Paul says as bits of the opening number blare over the speakers. “But it also feels like a gift you don’t get very often, which is to complete something. There’s always more that you want to do in a show, or more you want to fix, but you run out of time. To be able to have the opportunity to go back and revisit it, and adapting it, it felt like closure but also a new chapter, because doing it for television is something we never imagined.”
Adds Pasek: “One of the trickiest parts about working with an established story is: how do you maintain the things that people want to hear exactly like they remember in the film? And how do you take opportunities to expand it and be inspired by it? There are certain moments where we want to stay true to what people remember and then there’s other moments where we have permission to do what only musical theater can do and turn the dad’s fantasy into a tap dancing number.”
Like “Grease Live!” and NBC’s “Hairspray Live!,” the staging of “A Christmas Story” will have moving parts. But unlike its predecessors, none of the performances will occur on a soundstage. Instead, exterior sets on the Warner Bros. lot dressed to resemble the Parker’s Indiana town take center stage. There are houses and kitchens and bedrooms in which to play. In fact, the Parker home will be outfitted with a 360-degree camera to capture the various goings-on within.
Adding to the challenge of making the show as seamless as possible are real dogs and a 1937 car whose horn sometimes lasts too long.
“I’ll feel full panic until we do it,” says Gasteyer, a veteran of live TV as an alum of “Saturday Night Live” and cast member of last year’s “Grease Live!” as well as several turns on Broadway. “No matter how much I am used to it, the nerves are there. But then, the night of, the building can be burning, but you just become laser focused on your mission as soon as the show starts.”
Even Broderick, a Broadway veteran used to no do-overs, is feeling a bit of anxiety in the lead up to Sunday.
“I think I feel OK — I’m 70% ready,” he says. “I think I’m pretty close with all my lines. There are only a few spots that I’m worried about, but I think it’s going to be OK. I just hope I’m able to enjoy myself and not just worry about what I’m going to say next.”
And, if nothing else, maybe the barometer of success is just in knowing that no eyes were harmed in the process.
‘A Christmas Story Live!’
When: 7 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children with an advisory for coarse language)