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December 13, 2013

Twelve Days to Christmas

As I write this, there are 12 days to Christmas. And if you’re one of those Christmas shoppers who is still wondering what to get your friends, relatives and colleagues, I have a few suggestions.


(Hey, charity begins at home.)

Caseen Gaines’ A CHRISTMAS STORY: BEHIND THE SCENES OF A HOLIDAY CLASSIC doesn’t just deal with the hit musical (now at The Theater at Madison Square Garden through Dec. 29), but tells us the property’s history from Jean Shepherd’s story to Bob Clark’s film.
As actor-writer Wil Wheaton says in his introduction, this tale has gone from A CHRISTMAS STORY to THE CHRISTMAS STORY.

Now usually a show that starts out with one bookwriter, composer-lyricist and director winds up with completely different ones usually doesn’t work out. Hurricane Sandy caused some problems, too. But Joseph Robinette’s Tony-nominated book, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s Tony-nominated score and John Rando’s direction turned the show into a Tony-nominated winner.

Gaines’ hardcover coffee table book is truly handsome, and makes for a much better Christmas present than a Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun.

If you can’t afford tickets to see Dan Lauria in A CHRISTMAS STORY, you can give little kiddies the children’s book he co-wrote with Cathryn Farnsworth: THE BLUE HAIR CLUB AND OTHER STORIES, an 82-page picture book with beautiful drawings from Brandon Marino.

The club doesn’t involve old ladies who attend Wednesday matinees. It’s started by a young boy named Julian who befriends Jack, whom bullies have terrorized. Julian has learned that the best way to handle bullies is (to quote Kate in HOW NOW, DOW JONES) walk away.

And the next day Julian awakes with blue hair.

That doesn’t sound good until Julian’s folks take him to the doctor’s office, where he meets a girl who’s bald and would love to have blue hair or any other color. Good point.

The second story’s message is “If life gives you carrots, bundle them and make a bundle.” The final story has Lauria fabricating how turtles and armadillos got their shells, vultures their bald heads and foxes their black-rimmed mouths. Scientists may take issue, but such invented explanations do serve a marvelous purpose: they allow kids to wave a dismissive hand and say, “Oh, that’s not true” and make them feel smart.

The stories began because Lauria is the godfather of Farnsworth’s son Julian, and he spun many a bedtime story for the lad. Here’s hoping that Lauria can rival Scheherazade and that he has 997 more stories so we can have 332 and 1/3rd more books of his fanciful fables.

Lauria and I will do a sit-down to discuss the book at The Society of Illustrators, 128 East 63rd Street, on Monday, Dec. 16 at 5:30 p.m. As I said, charity begins at home.

Luckily, the words “Volume One” follow the title of Jennifer Ashley Tepper’s THE UNTOLD STORIES OF BROADWAY. Although Tepper is a young woman, she doesn’t believe that Broadway musicals began with RENT or WICKED and that all the ones that came before are irrelevant. Not only is Tepper is interested in Broadway’s past and present, but she’ll also be part of its future; right now, she’s director programming at 54 Below.

Tepper’s book is the result of her interviewing over 200 Broadway luminaries and journeymen. On the cover are the names of many that she’d consulted. Did Rose M. Alaio, who works the stage door at the Shubert, ever dream that her name would be on the cover of a book? But there it is between Chad Kimball and Lynn Ahrens in the panoply that Tepper emblazoned around her title.

In citing recollections that range in time from THE GREENWICH VILLAGE FOLLIES (OF 1925) right up to THE NANCE, we learn of the most atypical closing night gift that the cast gave Donna Murphy when she was leaving THE KING AND I. Who knew that Ruth Gordon was a MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG groupie (and I don’t mean the Kaufman-Hart original; she was a repeat visitor to the, yes, Sondheim-Furth musical). And speaking of both gifts and MERRILY, discover what Sondheim gave Lonny Price when the lad turned 22.

Tepper tells us that when Applebee’s came to the corner of Broadway and 50th, we not only wound up losing a good deal of the Winter Garden sign, but that the theater also forfeited a dressing room. On the credit side of the ledger, we see that those touring companies of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA did not only benefit theatergoers, but also the theaters themselves (and Tepper is NOT simply talking grosses).

The author punctuates many stories with her own terrific perceptions. The 1970-Tony winning musical insists that APPLAUSE is “the sound that says love,” but Tepper’s words say “love” much more definitively.

For those who rued that the original production of SHREK was gone forever – not so fast! There’s a big, bright beautiful video of the lavish edition that played Broadway from 2008 to 2010. Close-ups allow us to see that, yes, that IS Brian d’Arcy James’ face under that ghastly green headpiece. Tight shots and excellent sound also allow us to understand and lip-read lyrics we might have missed in the theater.

SHREK follows in the tradition that was (I believe) established by THE ADVENTURES OF ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE: the occasional joke that only adults understood, all to give the grown-ups something to enjoy in a kids’ show to which they dutifully took their children. On stage, after the Donkey made a reference to THE STEPFORD WIVES and kids turned to their parents and asked “What does that mean?” they were probably rewarded with a harsh “Shhh! I’ll tell you later.” And then, of course, by the time intermission arrived, both parent and child forgot.

But at home, when a child loudly asks about the meaning of “yin and yang” or “sturm und drang,” all a parent need do is reach for the remote, press “Pause” and give as long an explanation as he wants or the child needs.

All right, our next selection won’t be out for a couple of months. But if you’re the type who gives a gift certificate, attach a little post-it note that says, “Use this in late winter when Warren Hoffman’s THE GREAT WHITE WAY is published.”

This is an erudite and entertaining examination of the way people of color have been treated in Broadway musicals. Hoffman points out the unfortunate irony that when musical theater historians talk about OKLAHOMA!’s role as “an integrated musical,” that they’re not talking about matters of race. And here’s the irony: the word “Oklahoma” itself, as Hoffman teaches us, means “red people” in the Chocktaw language.

Indeed, Hoffman doesn’t just deal with blacks in (and out of) Broadway musical history, as you’d expect, but he also includes perceptions and facts about other races that have and haven’t been represented in musicals. So FLOWER DRUM SONG makes the cut as well as the terribly un-p.c. stage direction on the first page of ANNIE GET YOUR GUN.

Hoffman meticulously takes us through the genesis of WEST SIDE STORY starting with its roots as EAST SIDE STORY – when Jews fought Italians. (The hero was then called Tonio.) By the way, does anyone see an irony in that a Jewish character in the show was named A-rab?

See some dropped WEST SIDE STORY lyrics, as well as some from A CHORUS LINE – especially those in a song that the Asian Connie and black Richie used to have. Bless Hoffman for all those trips to the library to find them!

This book may go down in history as the first to mention and quote CASTRECL. As is the case for MOST of the posts on that website, this one is intelligent -- but not as intelligent as THE GREAT WHITE WAY.

BACKSTAGE AT THE LINCOLN ASSASSINATION is Thomas M. Bogar’s astonishing look at the events of Friday, April 15, 1865 at Ford’s Theatre in Washington. This one is so significant I’ve got to give it a column of its own – undoubtedly in April when we mark the 149th anniversary of the nation’s first presidential assassination.

Bogar doesn’t dwell much on Booth, Dr. Samuel Mudd or Mary Surratt; they’re almost footnotes to the story he wants to tell. Instead, he’s concerned with the 46 employees who worked backstage and front-of-house that infamous night. He tells who they were before, during and after the assassination, and how one chance remark wound up getting one stagehand four-a-and-half years of hard labor. It costs 27,950 Lincoln pennies, but it’s worth it.

Oh – and if you want to take someone to the theater and can’t afford even off-off Broadway prices, may I suggest a free (okay: donation) trip to St. John’s Lutheran Church at 81 Christopher Street on Friday, Dec. 20 at 7 p.m. or Saturday, Dec. 21 at 2 and 7 p.m.?

As I said, charity begins at – well, you know where -- for I’m plugging MY play, (yes, my OWN play) called ADAM’S GIFTS – a very different take on A CHRISTMAS CAROL.

How different? Well, have you ever seen A CHRISTMAS CAROL where there’s only one Ghost, the main character is named Willard Pront and the other three are Jason, Lisa and Adam Pinewski? ‘Nuff said.

How lucky I am to have director Daniel Neiden, who’s co-producing with June Rachelson Ospa, not to mention the phenomenal cast: William Parry, Maureen Silliman, Philip Hoffman, Julia Peterson and Hayden Wall.

Reservations are required, so contact And for those who had planned to come to the Thursday, Dec. 19 performance, alas, it had to be switched to that Saturday matinee because one of our actors received an offer he couldn’t refuse. (In other words, they’re paying him MUCH more than we are.)

Anyway, do attend. The price is right, isn’t it? I just hope that afterward you won’t be muttering as you leave, “You get what you pay for.”

         — Peter Filichia

You may e-mail Peter at

Check out his weekly column each Tuesday at

and each Friday at

His book, Strippers, Showgirls, and Sharks: A Very Opinionated History of Musicals That Did Not Win the Tony Award,
is now available at

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