Ralphie, on Broadway

[image]Anthony DelMundo for The Wall Street Journal

Actors perform musical numbers from Broadway’s version of ‘A Christmas Story,’ based on the 1983 movie.

With the election finally over, can we discuss something of genuine national importance? “A Christmas Story” is coming to Broadway. Indeed, it’s already here.

Before you yawn and stretch and go back to searching the Internet for property in Colorado because they just legalized marijuana—and I’d be lying if I denied I have a friend or two for whom the passage of that proposition was way more important than whether Obama or Romney won the White House—I think I probably ought to explain that this isn’t Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” which seems to return to the city in one manifestation or another this time of year. It’s also not Radio City’s “Christmas Spectacular” starring the high-kicking Rockettes.

This is a limited-run Broadway musical based upon Jean Shepherd’s cult-classic holiday film.

I suspect I’ve written in the past about Shepherd, the radio raconteur and author of “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash,” the book on which the film is based. And how I used to listen to him in bed at night as a kid on my transistor radio. But so what? He’s such a significant cultural figure, and “A Christmas Story” coming to Broadway such a big deal, that I’m not even planning to go back and see what I wrote last time so I don’t sound redundant.

I’m sure I boasted in that previous column about how I was among the first, and the few, to see “A Christmas Story” in 1983 when it was in movie houses. It came and went, not developing its cult reputation and assuming its rightful place in the pantheon of movie classics, alongside “Casablanca” and “The Wizard of Oz,” until TBS started its annual 24-hour “Christmas Story” marathon on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

To be honest, even I’m getting a little sick of it. But it’s still holds up. Here’s why: It’s not only really funny, and cozy, and even loving—exactly what you want in a holiday flick. It’s also one of the few films I’ve seen (not that I claim to be a student of cinema) that portrays family life with neither sentimentality, on the one hand, nor knowing, postmodern snarkiness, on the other.

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Actors perform in ‘A Christmas Story’

I could refer to all the iconic scenes: such as when Ralphie’s mother, played by Melinda Dillon, encourages his brother Randy to make believe he’s a disgusting little piggy to get him to eat his food; or the menacing department-store Santa who makes kids pee in their pants. But I shan’t.

Instead, I’d like to tell you about a famous celebrity I met recently, at least famous to any “Christmas Story” aficionado. It’s Peter Billingsley, who played Ralphie, the film’s 9-year-old protagonist.

By the way, that’s another thing I loved about the film. Kids are usually portrayed as unformed innocents, as if they somehow don’t know the score. I’ve felt like a grown-up since I was in second grade. The problem is that parents won’t accept the fact, for their own selfish reasons, that you can make your own decisions by the time you’re 10 or 11—such as whether you’re responsible enough to own a Red Ryder BB gun, with a compass in the stock, and “this thing that tells time.” Of course, you are.

Our encounter occurred at a recent press preview for the musical. When I arrived I received a free “Christmas Story” refrigerator magnet and a CD that contains songs with evocative names such as “Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun.” (In 2011, the musical performed an out-of-town tour, culminating in Chicago, so they’ve had time to work out any kinks.)

Just think of the scene where Ralphie’s dad, the “Old Man” played by a pitch-perfect Darren McGavin in the film, and by John Bolton in the Broadway incarnation, receives that “major award” of a leg lamp. Except that now, instead of the sexual undercurrent, the sub rosa father-son bonding, and the angst it evokes in Ralphie’s mom, imagine a dozen or so Broadway dancers waltzing around the room for over seven minutes while holding replica leg lamps, with period fringe shades, and singing “Who won? He won. It’s he. I see! Well, gee!”

The publicists working on the musical couldn’t have been more accommodating, explaining that I could have all the time I needed with Mr. Billingsley, as soon as he got a dozen or so brief interviews with the likes of “Access Hollywood” out of the way.

In my enthusiasm, I told them I’d require approximately half an hour. But as I waited around to talk to Mr. Billingsley—he’s still somewhat recognizable as Ralphie, with the chubby cheeks and bright blue eyes—I realized that I didn’t have that much to ask him. It’s not as if I had plans for a multivolume Robert Caro LBJ-style “Life of Ralphie.”

What was I going to say—”Do you ever run into Randy?”

Actually, I did. “I have seen him over the years,” Mr. Billingsley said. And referring to some of the other child actors in the film, he added, “Most of their careers have taken them out of the business.”

“I kept in touch with Darren McGavin,” who died in 2006, he said. “And remained very close to Bob Clark,” the film’s director. “He very much encouraged me. I wanted to get on the other side—in the editing room.”

These days, Mr. Billingsley, 41, is a Hollywood producer. He’s also one of several producers on the Broadway production of “A Christmas Story.”

He remembers Jean Shepherd being on the set when the movie was filming. “It took Bob and Jean 12 years to get the movie made,” Mr. Billingsley said. “He would come over and say, “Say it like this.’ They wanted it to be great.”

— ralph.gardner@wsj.com