When A Christmas Story: The Musical! was slotted to take the stage in Kansas City last winter, Walt Spangler accepted the task of designing a set for the fun-filled musical. This season, the show about 9-year-old Ralphie Parker and his quest for the Christmas present of his dreams is coming to Seattle with Spangler’s design in tow. Inspired by a brand new score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Spangler has adapted and enhanced his design to suit The 5th Avenue Theatre’s vast house. This is not the first time Spangler’s designs have graced The 5th’s stage. Loyal patrons may remember his eye-popping sets for both Mame (2008) and On the Town (2010) and can look forward to seeing his work in Oklahoma (2011).
Audience members can expect a grand set with magically quick transitions and plenty of beautiful pieces to please the eye. “I really enjoy fantastical, very imaginative, very theatrical ideas…(the show) offers a nice combination where there are some scenes that are very theatrical and vivid and colorful. And then there are scenes, especially in the house, that really pull you back down to a sense of almost Norman Rockwell holiday intimacy.” Because the setting changes so often, Spangler strove to create a design that matches the pace and the rhythm of the music, as well as maintains a cinematic flow to echo the feeling of the film.
The first step in Spangler’s process of recreating the world of the Parker family for the stage was to re-watch the iconic movie. The film premiered in 1983 when Spangler was a teenager, and he soon became one of its countless annual viewers. “Getting the opportunity to design it, I already felt like I was ahead of the game because I was so familiar with the story.” he reminisced.
However, there was an aspect of the musical that the film could not prepare him for: The Jean Shepherd Show. “(The musical) begins in a 1960s radio station as a story that’s being told on the radio by a man and a bunch of foley artists. The idea is to visualize that for the audience so we have a framework that suggests the 1960s radio station, and then when we open up the curtain we reveal onto the world of Hohman, Indiana back in the 1940s.” Spangler was inspired by many elements when creating the town. The Higbee’s Department Store Santa Land plays a crucial part in some pivotal moments of the show so Spangler felt the need to integrate it throughout. Furthermore, when watching the movie, he was struck by the constant blanket of snow enveloping the town. Spangler and his team decided they wanted to frame the town in a frozen blizzard, “seen through the eyes of a Higbee’s Department Store decoration.”
More importantly, Spangler calls on his own yuletide memories to put a personal stamp on the town. “I really love when you go get the Christmas tree, and when I grew up we did that as a family ritual. We actually didn’t purchase Christmas trees because we had family who lived up in the mountains of Virginia and they had a lot of pine trees on their property, so we as a family – my mother, my father, my sister and I – would drive up at some point right after Thanksgiving and get a Christmas tree. We’d go get it, find it, cut it down, and bring it back! That really is my favorite part of the pre-holiday season, more so than the actual day of Christmas which is usually much more chaotic and hectic. And that’s the way it is in the show.” Spangler uses his own family’s holiday aesthetic and traditions to adorn the Parker’s home: a mix of heirloom and hand-made ornaments, a homemade table cloth on the dining room table for a special Christmas spread, and a medley of wrapped and unwrapped gifts beneath the tree.
Spangler is confident that A Christmas Story: The Musical! will appeal to those who have never seen the movie and to die-hard fans alike. He was careful to include the memorable landmarks from the film while keeping in mind the demands of a live show. Ultimately, it’s the spirit of the season that will make audiences fall in love. “It’s one of those things where we all have our memories. I think that certainly my memories of Christmas are classic American ones. [The audience] will be reminded of their own family and that’s the point of the show. It’s very much about family and the relationship and the ups and downs of the family but then ultimately Christmas gels it all together. It makes everyone realize how much they appreciate their family members.”
-Lauren Smith, Education Intern, The 5th Avenue Theatre
To get just a taste of the gorgeous set design, watch this short clip from A Christmas Story the Musical, as the cast sings the title song, "A Christmas Story".