Christmas is only 34,026 minutes away as Ralphie and the gang count down in the opening number of “A Christmas Story, The Musical!” at Detroit’s Fisher Theater. On a stage framed by cosmic sparkling snowdrifts, the trials and tribulations of an all-American Christmas take the audience for a wild holiday ride through the musical stylings of 2007 ‘U’ alums Justin Paul and Benj Pasek.
Under the musical direction of 2003 alum Ian Eisendrath, the Parker family argues about who gets to pick out the Christmas tree, where the fish-netted, high-heeled burlesque lamp should be plugged in and, of course, whether Ralphie will ever get a Red Ryder Carbine Action BB gun (“You’ll shoot your eye out!”).
“We tried to capture the mania of (Christmas) and the quirkiness of the family without ruining it,” Pasek said.
The musical, based on the movie of the same name, first hit the stage in 2006 in Kansas City. But the music and lyrics changed entirely when Pasek and Paul became involved and rewrote the score and lyrics. During this holiday season, the production is touring the country, stopping in Detroit from Nov. 15-27 before heading to Chicago.
According to Paul, big-time musical productions like “A Christmas Story” are always being perfected by the producer and musical team and often go through major musical and lyrical changes as they grow.
Eisendrath was musical director for the show’s first production in Kansas City and experienced its reincarnation after Pasek and Paul joined the group.
According to Eisendrath, five or six teams tried out for the job, each given the task to write a new opening number.
“I was immediately taken with Pasek and Paul’s take on the opening,” Eisendrath said. “I wanted to go with what sounded the best and the most theatrical — I didn’t even realize that we had gone to the same school.”
In fact, Eisendrath had just missed the creative duo at the University. In the summer of 2003, Eisendrath had just graduated, and Pasek and Paul came to Ann Arbor for the first time as incoming freshmen, becoming friends after meeting at orientation.
But regardless of timing, the three ‘U’ alums had little difficulty working with one another on the show’s newest version.
“Because we’ve all received training from (the University), we’re all very much on the same page and have similar points of view and similar vocabularies to work with,” Eisendrath said.
After Pasek and Paul were hired in March 2010, they had three months to compose a score and write new lyrics before presenting their progress in June.
“Our situation was really advantageous and daunting at the same time,” Pasek said. “The show had already been done successfully in Kansas City, so the structure and script were already there and the moments were already ripe for songs.”
Pasek and Paul began their work by “song spotting,” looking for places in the script where they thought there should be a song but previously wasn’t.
According to Pasek, an additional song created by the duo entitled “Ralphie to the Rescue,” stemmed from a 45-second clip from the movie. In the film, Ralphie daydreams about saving his family with his Red Ryder BB gun when robbers break into his home.
“In the musical, this became a big number where Ralphie gets to live out his fantasy and be a cowboy,” Pasek said. “There’s a saloon shootout scene in the song, he rescues his teacher and family, and there’s a bank robbery scene all in one song.”
The team struggled to uphold the story’s integrity, fall within a reasonable run time and all the while avoid the cheesy glitz sometimes found in musical productions.
Because of their friendship, the music and lyrics team were able play off each other while staying true to the story.
“If I don’t like what he writes or he doesn’t like what I write, we don’t have to tiptoe around each other,” Pasek said. “At the end of the day we’re friends and collaborators, so even if he hates my ideas he doesn’t hate me.”
The duo has come a long way since orientation at the University. As sophomores in 2005, they wrote the musical “Edges.” The production, which was performed the Kerrytown Concert House, marked the beginning of their careers as composers and lyricists.
When Pasek and Paul’s production of “A Christmas Story” premiered last year in Seattle, Paul remembered the overwhelming pre-show feeling, tinged with excitement.
“I remember being in the theater before the show opened,” Paul said. “I was sitting in the balcony looking down at a 2,300-seat house and realizing our show would be onstage.”
Though “A Christmas Story” has been immensely well received wherever it’s gone, Eisendrath, Paul and Pasek are especially excited to bring the show home to Michigan, the state where their musical careers began.