BWW Interview: Chris Carsten of A CHRISTMAS STORY at Saenger Theatre
From the songwriting team behind the smash hit, Tony Award-winning musical Dear Evan Hansen comes A CHRISTMAS STORY, THE MUSICAL which brings the classic 1983 movie to hilarious life on stage at the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans Dec. 17 - 22. The production is presented as part of the Broadway in New Orleans season.
A CHRISTMAS STORY, THE MUSICAL tells the story of young, bespectacled Ralphie as he schemes his way toward the holiday gift of his dreams, an official Red Ryder BB gun. The musical is full of your favorite moments from the film including the infamous leg lamp, pink bunny pajamas, a mean department store Santa, and a triple-dog dare to lick a freezing flagpole, along with songs and big production numbers. This musical version premiered on Broadway in 2012 and was both a critical and commercial success, and was nominated for three Tony Awards including Best New Musical, Best Original Score, and Best Book of a Musical. The show's score is by the composer/lyricist team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul with a book by Joseph Robinette, based on the writings of radio humorist Jean Shepherd.
Playing the role of Shepherd who narrates the story is Chris Carsten, a veteran actor of 25-30 years. Recent credits include MY FAIR LADY, 1776 and TITANIC. This will be Carsten's first debut on the Saenger stage. BroadwayWorld.com spoke with Carsten about the show's upcoming tour stop in New Orleans, how he prepped for the role of the famous narrator and what makes A CHRISTMAS STORY so enduring.
BroadwayWorld.com: Tell me a bit about yourself as an actor, such as your previous background and some of your favorite roles?
Carsten: Well, I have been performing for probably close to 30 years. I studied it at a small school in Missouri. I graduated with a degree in musical theatre and have been working professionally for 25-30 years. I've done several productions with this particular company, Big League Productions. I started back in the late '90s with them. First show I did with them was How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. 1776 is another show I did with them, Titantic, and I played Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. 1776 was very special for me because I met my wife on that, and we have three wonderful children, and that is a really special show for me and always has a special place in my heart. I have been performing in several different shows over the years, and I've definitely had a wonderful time doing it, and I'm very grateful to be a part of CHRISTMAS STORY, and it continues a great collaboration I've had with the same company for all these years. It's extra special because my daughter comes along with me on this tour as well.
BWW: How long have you been with this tour?
Carsten: CHRISTMAS STORY started in November-December 2014, and I've been doing it every year over the holidays ever since then.
BWW: What initially drew you to audition for the show?
Carsten: Since I have such a strong collaboration with Big League Productions and the executive producer, they called me in to audition for it, and I was able to get cast, and it worked out really well. So it's really my role to turn down, as long as they're able to mount the production every year the role's available for me. You know if something else comes along and I have to shift and do something else that could always happen, but it's worked out well for me to be able to do it for these last six years.
BWW: How does the narrator fit into the stage production?
Carsten: Well, in the film, the narrator is a voice over so you never really see him, and the narrator in the film is Jean Shepherd himself, and he does do a small cameo in the film...You never see him, but in the musical, I'm a character on stage you can see. So I come in and out of different scenes, and I'm there throughout the entire production doing the same kind of commentary that Jean Shepherd did in the film.
BWW: How closely does the musical follow the film?
Carsten: Very closely. All of those iconic scenes that you have come to know and love about CHRISTMAS STORY over the years are in the musical it's just that a lot of them have a musical number attached to them. It's very heartwarming, delightful, charming, full of love and fun. It's just a great show, and we're excited to come to New Orleans and perform it.
BWW: Is this your first time in New Orleans?
Carsten: I've visited a few times, but I don't think I've performed in New Orleans proper. I think I've done shows in Houma; there's a nice theatre over there that I've performed in the past few years. But I think this will be the first time that I myself have performed at the Saenger in New Orleans.
BWW: What is appealing to you about playing as Jean Shepherd?
Carsten: Well, it's a great role. The story of a CHRISTMAS STORY is delightful; it's a lot of fun to do. I remember the first time I saw the film, and one of the things that struck me was the narration by Jean Shepherd. You've had narration in films over the years, but what struck me was his energy and the way he commented on things. The way he puts words together is unique and very, very funny. It's one of the things that makes the film so endearing. It's interesting to me personally having that memory of the first time I've ever watched the movie, and it was the narration that attracted me to it, and who would have thought years later that's the role I get to play? I'm grateful for the opportunity to perform it.
BWW: What were some of the ways you prepared for the role?
Carsten: I just attack it as I go. I've picked up a few things about Jean Shepherd over the years, and I know he did a long-running radio show in the '70s, and there's a lot of people he influenced through his radio show. I know the gentleman that directed the film got acquainted with Jean Shepherd and the things that he did with his radio show through the years in New York City and his storytelling abilities and said, 'We got to make a film of this.' He had had some success in a previous film that enabled him to make CHRISTMAS STORY the film, and he was able to put it together. It wasn't a commercial success when it first came out, but it was kind of a critical success, and it developed a following over the years. So now we get it every year at Christmas time, there's a marathon you can watch all day over and over again. That's one of the reasons why it's such an endearing show and built such a big following. I don't try to do an impression of Jean Shepherd, I just kind of do my own take on the part and enjoy and relish the way the story is told. It's a really nice opportunity for me to display some of the things I bring to the part and also be part of something that's just ingrained in our culture.
BWW: What do you think it is about CHRISTMAS STORY that makes it so endearing?
Carsten: I think that it is a universal notion. You know, there's stories about Christmas that we all kind of expect it to be magical and Santa Claus, and Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer and all the stories we associate with Christmas and to have something like CHRISTMAS STORY to come along and take hold of our hearts as it has is unique because it doesn't tell your typical Christmas story. Of course, it focuses on Ralphie and his desire for that Red Ryder BB gun, and I think we all identify with that because we probably had times in our lives when we were kids that we wanted some certain kind of gift and we went to a great length to try to let our parents know that that's what we wanted without being overt about it. What's delightful about this film is how Ralphie goes through different ways to try to manipulate his parents or whoever he can figure out to manipulate to let them know he wants this gun. There are all the other weird things that happen to him on the way that adds charm to the story like his best friend sticking his tongue to the flag pole, his dad's fake cursing, and all the wonderful stuff that has made the film such a classic over the years.
BWW: Anything you'd like to add about what audiences can expect to see?
Carsten: It's a different experience than sitting in front of your television set and watching it on Christmas morning. It's a completely different kind of dynamic with a live orchestra and a live performance right before your eyes. There's color; there's sound, there's pageantry. There's an amazing story unfolding before your eyes. It's just a terrific experience. Bring the whole family; it'll be a wonderful experience to come out and be a part of.
BWW: And there's leg lamp, right?
Carsten: Yes, absolutely. The leg lamp is one of the huge numbers; they built an entire production number around the leg lamp. It's fabulous.