'A Christmas Story Live!': How Ardmore's Benj Pasek approached a holiday tradition

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Clockwise from top, Chris Diamantopoulos, Maya Rudolph, Andy Walken and Tyler Wladis will star in Fox's live musical event, "A Christmas Story Live!" at 7 p.m. Dec. 17

One grew up in Ardmore, the other, fictionally, and decades earlier, in Indiana, but Benj Pasek’s Christmas story and Ralphie Parker’s have at least one thing in common: Chinese food.

In A Christmas Story, the 1983 film that became a 2012 Broadway musical with songs by Pasek and his writing partner Justin Paul, 9-year-old Ralphie and his family end up dining at a Chinese restaurant after the neighbor’s dogs eat their holiday turkey.

The Paseks’ restaurant visit involved no such accident.

Their tradition was to go to Chun Hing, in Bala Cynwyd, “like right before you get on 76,” Pasek, 32, recalled in August. “And I went there every single Christmas, my big Jewish family.”

At 7 p.m. Sunday, with Fox’s A Christmas Story Live!, Oscar and Tony winners Pasek and Paul (La La Land, Dear Evan Hansen) become part of a TV holiday tradition — the retelling of Ralphie’s desperate bid to have Santa Claus bring him a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle. (The basic-cable marathon of the original marks its 15th anniversary this year, beginning at 8 p.m. Dec. 24 on TBS.)

The TV musical stars Maya Rudolph as Ralphie’s mother, Chris Diamantopoulos as his father, Matthew Broderick as the narrator, and Andy Walken as Ralphie. Pasek and Paul, who are nominated for a Golden Globe for one of their songs from The Greatest Showman, have written some new music (including a song, “Count on Christmas,” that stands outside the ’40s-set story, and is to be sung by Bebe Rexha, Fox announced on Wednesday).

“The telecast will start in a more contemporary place and will go back in the past, and then at the end will go back to a contemporary setting. So one of the songs we’re most excited about, it’s a contemporary Christmas song,” about the universal meaning of the holidays. It’s something Pasek said he relates to.

Justin Paul and Benj Pasek
Camera icon Evan Agostini/Invision/AP
Justin Paul (left) and Benj Pasek at the Tony Awards in June.

“I think [as] a Jewish writer, you’re observing a culture and a holiday that you don’t necessarily participate in but that you kind of are fascinated by and that you love, and that really is a part of the DNA of what it means to be Americans,” he said.

“The universality of A Christmas Story is that every family, whatever holiday it is, whether it be Christmas or whether it be Hanukkah or whatever … the holidays that you remember with your family, the moments you remember with your family, they are not when things went perfect. Even vacations, road trips – it’s when the tire went flat, it’s when you wanted to kill your brother, or whatever. Those are the moments that last a lifetime,” he said.

Read more: Benj Pasek tearing up Hollywood, Broadway

The story “beautifully captures the sort of chaos that years later become the memories that you hold dearly for the rest of your life. The movie resonates, I think, with everyone because it is about a celebration of family and a celebration of how those messy moments in your childhood become the things that … you’re most nostalgic for,” Pasek said.

The Friends’ Central graduate isn’t Philadelphia’s only connection to A Christmas Story Live!

Marc Platt, who produced Fox’s successful Grease: Live and who’s next scheduled to tackle live TV productions of Jesus Christ Superstar and Rent, is a University of Pennsylvania alumnus, and is married to Penn trustee Julie Beren Platt. Penn’s Platt Student Performing Arts House is named for the couple.

“Marc is our favorite producer that we’ve ever gotten to work with, and he delivered Grease so beautifully as a live event,” Pasek said.

Platt also contributed indirectly to the success of Pasek and Paul’s Dear Evan Hansen, which until last month featured Platt’s Tony-winning son Ben in the title role.

“We love both father and son. They’re an extraordinary family, and we feel really lucky that we get to work” with them, Pasek said.

Marc Platt, whose career has largely focused on theater and film, described working in live TV as exhilarating.

“I’ve often said that I don’t think I realized until the night of the broadcast [of Grease: Live] really the true power and relevance of network television, and how an event that’s a happening and a celebration can really galvanize and unite and bring all these eyeballs at one time,” he told reporters in August.

A Christmas Story Live! has the potential to be even livelier.

“It’s live TV. There will be live animals all over the place. So it’s going to be … tap-dancing kids, live dogs, snow, and Christmas all in one night. Everybody’s coming,” Platt said.

Including Rudolph, the Saturday Night Live veteran who may get a little bit more time in the spotlight than Melinda Dillon did as Ralphie’s mother in the film. The musical that premiered on Broadway in 2012 included two songs for the character, Pasek said.

Read more: Maya Rudolph to star in Ardmore native’s A Christmas Story on Fox

“Because you would have more real estate in a Broadway show, you have more time,” he said. “She sings some real moments.”

Pasek created a big moment for his own mother, Temple psychology professor and child-development expert Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, his date at this year’s Academy Awards, when, as he and Paul accepted their Oscars for La La Land, he told the world  she let him “quit the JCC soccer league to be in a school musical,” and dedicated the award to “all the kids who sing in the rain and all the moms who let them.”

So what was it like to be a mother’s dream son for a night?

“It was really wonderful to get to celebrate her, because she’s been such a wonderful parent and so supportive of me, and letting me chase dreams my whole life. And so I felt really lucky to get to brag about her publicly,” Pasek said.

A Christmas Story Live! 7 p.m. Sunday, Fox.