To Matthew Broderick, “A Christmas Story” is more than just a beloved holiday hallmark. It’s also something of a family heirloom.
The veteran actor — who’s set to play a grown-up Ralphie Parker in Fox’s musical staging of “A Christmas Story Live!” airing Dec. 17, inspired by both that film and its more recent Broadway musical adaptation — was in his early 20s by 1983, when the now-classic Bob Clark comedy was released. But by that point, Broderick had already been introduced to writer and narrator Jean Shepherd by his father, actor James Broderick, who’d appeared in two PBS telefilms based on Shepherd’s semi-autobiographical stories that had also featured the Parker family.
“I remember meeting [Shepherd] when I just was a kid, when my father was shooting one of them,” recalls Broderick, 55. “They were very delighted by each other as my memory goes; my father and Jean Shepherd admired each other a lot. He was extremely joyful when I met him; he was incredibly smiley and nice.”
Watching his father take on the role of Ralphie’s dad, known as the Old Man, in 1976’s “The Phantom of the Open Hearth” and 1982’s “The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters” left an impression on the young Broderick, who faintly remembers auditioning for the role of Ralphie in the latter.
“Matt Dillon got it,” he says, chuckling.
Fast-forward 35 years, and it’s finally Broderick’s turn to tackle Shepherd, though he acknowledges he’s aged — gracefully — out of the demographic required to play young Ralphie. Instead, as that character (played by 11-year-old casting-call discovery Andy Walken) endeavors not to shoot his eye out with the Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle he so desperately wants from Santa, Broderick will exist outside of the musical’s main story, narrating events in a role reminiscent of Shepherd’s.
“It’s very strange, certainly,” says Broderick. “And in a sense I’m playing [Shepherd], though not exactly, and I still want to do well by him, certainly.”
A Broadway veteran and two-time Tony winner, Broderick says the jitters he gets ahead of a live production never really go away, and “A Christmas Story Live!” is more ambitious than most. Overseen by veteran stage director Scott Ellis and featuring music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul — Tony winners for “Dear Evan Hansen” and the duo behind “A Christmas Story: The Musical” — it’s a three-hour broadcast that employs multiple stages and a star-studded cast, including Maya Rudolph (Mrs. Parker), Chris Diamantopoulos (the Old Man), Jane Krakowski (Miss Shields), and Ana Gasteyer (Mrs. Schwartz).
With rehearsals already under way, it’s an undertaking none of the actors — even Gasteyer, a “Saturday Night Live” alum who appeared in Fox’s “Grease Live!” last year — is taking lightly.
“There’s a unique grammar, as [“A Christmas Story Live!” producer] Marc Platt says, to these live TV musicals,” Gasteyer, 50, explains by phone. “It’s a strange marriage between the preparation that goes into live theater and the immediacy of live television.”
Diamantopoulos is nervous but giddy to take on a production he feels harkens back to TV’s golden years.
“One of my long-time inspirations is just the good, old-fashioned movie musical,” says the actor, 42, referencing Gene Kelly and Danny Kaye. “I always had the notion that at some point in my career I’d be able to experience elements of those old films that made me want to get into the business to begin with.”
In stepping into the role of the Old Man, Diamantopoulos studied Shepherd’s voice, along with those of other radio personalities from the 1940s.“If I can find a voice that feels right for the character, then I can get into their shoes,” he says.
Envisioning “A Christmas Story” as a “moving-picture musical Norman Rockwell painting,” Diamantopoulos feels particular pressure to capture a sense of soul amid the spectacle through his beleaguered character. To prepare, he studied the telecasts in which Broderick’s father starred, discussing them repeatedly with his costar. Broderick’s willingness to look back on his father’s work with Shepherd was instrumental, says the actor, in mastering the character.
As much as the performers have to juggle, one factor none of them express concern over is attracting an audience. “It feels like appointment television,” Diamantopoulos says. “That element of expectation can be so delightful.”
Broderick agrees. The production is wholesome and family-oriented, he says, but, beyond that, it has an aura viewers already associate with Christmas time.
“We’re just a group of good people trying to make a good show, and I still love doing that,” he says. “For audiences, there’s still something wonderful about seeing a trapeze act while it’s happening.”
A Christmas Story Live!
Starring: Matthew Broderick, Maya Rudolph, Chris Diamantopoulos, Jane Krakowski, Ana Gasteyer, Andy Walken. On: Fox, Dec. 17 at 7 p.m.
Isaac Feldberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org