Behind the Scenes: A Christmas Story Live!

These are never as timely as I would like them, but here is my recap of working on A Christmas Story Live two weeks ago!

For anyone who did not watch — this was a musical version of the classic movie, which was first produced on Broadway five years ago. It retains all the hallmarks of the classic movie while expanding moments with song and dance. It’s funny and heartwarming and kid/family-centric. (Here is a link to watch it — you may have to sign in with your cable provider.)


This was my fourth time working on a live TV musical (past recaps here: Peter Pan Live, The Wiz Live, Grease Live). They are hands down my favorite gigs and if I could work on them year-round, I happily would.

A Christmas Story Live was tremendously fun to work on. All the musicals so far have been very different from the last, and each one pushes the boundaries of the form a little further. For this show we had mostly outdoor sets, a cast full of children, lots of real snow (!), and many elaborate fantasy sequences. I remember the first time I read the script (all 340 pages of it) and thought, if they can translate this from the page to the screen, it will be magical. The whole plan was super ambitious from the outset. And we pulled it off!

I’ll go back to when I started in early November. The cast still had another week or so of off-site rehearsals before moving to the Warner Bros. lot (same place where Grease Live shot). I attended the first “stumble through” where they performed the whole show in order for the first time in front of department heads and all the producers. Many pieces were still missing but it was clear the bones of the show were in place — strong talent, a funny script, heartwarming moments, catchy music. Here’s a photo from off-site rehearsals (that is my co-worker Michael Peter at his laptop in the back; he was the script supervisor for this show) — this photo was taken by Jordan Althaus for Fox:


We had access to two stages at the off-site space — one that served as a catch-all for the various sets (each one is marked by a different color masking tape on the floor so the actors can practice blocking to the exact dimensions) and then a studio just dedicated to the Parker House set since so many scenes take place there.


A huge part of preproduction that I had nothing to do with is recording all of the music. While the vocals are live, they bring in an orchestra to prerecord the tracks. Ana Gasteyer had a brand new song for this show — she posted a photo with composer/lyricist team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who won both Oscars (for La La Land) and Tonys (for Dear Evan Hansen) in the past year. And they just did the music for The Greatest Showman (more on that in a bit).


Our production office was in the Warner Village section of the backlot — it used to be used for Westerns back in the day (Bonanza, Blazing Saddles, etc.) until that genre fell out of fashion and the studio redesigned the area to an upscale neighborhood. The curve of the street is ideal for filming because it looks like it continues on, even though there’s only around 10 houses or so. Each of the houses is really a production office — one is home to Shameless, another to Young Sheldon, another to The Fosters, and yet another to an upcoming series called Living Biblically. Occasionally I’d be walking to our office and have to stop because a small crew was filming a scene outside one of the houses. Each time I was impressed at how quickly they got their shots and packed up, leaving no trace.


We were in Building 187 — from the golf cart tours that regularly passed by, I’m told this exterior was Hannah’s house on Pretty Little Liars, John Lithgow’s house in the NBC show Trial and Error, and Jason Segel’s house in The Muppets.


Since the production office was a 5 minute walk to set (kinda far if you need to be close to the action), work tables were set up on the exterior porch of the Parker House — here are the script and talent teams hard at work (the high school exterior we used for Grease Live is in the background). This looks over the stage that would be used for “A Major Award” but it hadn’t been fully built at this point:


We shot in the Town Square part of the backlot — this will probably look familiar if you watch Gilmore Girls, as I’m told they shot extensively in this space during the years they were on the air. I kind of want to go back and watch it all now that I know the area so well.


Here are a bunch of shots from rehearsal — running the opening number outside Higbee’s on a hot day, squeezing into the interior of the Parker House, and practicing the flat tire scene in a classic car:


As script coordinator, part of my job for this show was prepping shot cards for the camera guys — my first time doing that. Shout-out to Maria at Dancing with the Stars for teaching me how to format them!


Then once we transitioned to camera blocking, I sat in the truck near our associate director Carrie Havel (you may remember her from Grease Live fame) and updated shots in the shooting script as director Alex Rudzinski adjusted them from the set.


Control room wide shot:


But it wasn’t all work and no play… one evening we borrowed a golf cart for a quick photoshoot to prank our associate producer Jeremy. There is a running joke that I can’t drive a golf cart. But I think I did just fine. (Adam has since recovered.)


Our production designer Joe Celli drove this cheerful bike around the backlot, and it brought a smile to my face every time I saw him riding by.


Occasionally we’d pass by other shows or movies shooting on the backlot. I have no idea what this set was for, but how intense are those military vehicles? They were there for 1-2 days and then disappeared. Maybe we’ll see them on screen in the coming year. Also, that above ground metal is a facsimile of the Chicago “L” train tracks — this is where E.R. used to shoot exteriors back in the day.


We primarily worked from Wednesday to Sunday, taking off Mondays and Tuesdays. Since there were no food options on the weekend, production paid for Warner Bros. catering to provide meals. On the first day they served lobster tail. What?! The rest of the meals were more typical, so I’m glad to have a photo of this one.


A few more behind-the-scenes shots… here’s a hair and make-up station next to set:


And our wardrobe department worked out of the building where Emma Stone’s character served coffee in La La Land:


This is Jeremy, our associate producer. He’s been known to go rogue with that golf cart.


Jeremy with our script department, Adam and Michael (notice the fake snow being installed in the background):


This is the day they loaded in fake snow. Over the following week they experimented with layers of both fake and real snow to make it look good on camera, as well as something the kids could dance on without slipping.


Workers painted the exterior houses and trees to make them look frosted:


This is the “A Major Award” stage, located just outside the Parker House:


A western backdrop for “Ralphie to the Rescue” fantasy number:


The day they put in the overhead greenery around the Town Square made me SO HAPPY. Every time I turned a corner to see it, I was reminded how magical this whole process is.


Here is a video my friend and boss Adam shot one day while walking on set — he turns a corner to reveal the full splendor of Christmas: the greenery, classic cars, holiday music playing over the loudspeaker. It’s pretty magical.

The evolution of a playground set…






Isn’t that cool? I loved watching the playground scenes come together, especially when those giant lights came in to stimulate daytime. Here is how they added the real snow — it was sort of like a giant snow cone machine; guys loaded up enormous ice blocks into a chipper:


… and then snow sprayed out of a hose attached to the other end:


Adam took these photos; both made me laugh:


A few more exterior shots as the sets came together that final week:


At the very end of the night, I was among the last people to leave after dropping off script revision pages and schedules for the following day. Those last few nights I spotted our lighting designer Al Gurdon working his magic in the wee hours to make sure all those storefronts lit up properly. He pulled off such an impressive look for this show, capturing the atmosphere of a midwest town at Christmas time.


And now in the daylight:









Here’s the “A Major Award” stage for the Old Man’s big song and dance number — this set had to come down the night before the live show because the wind forecast was too high, then be put back up the next morning. How crazy is that — the same thing happened on Grease Live in this exact spot (in front of the high school). Fortunately in both cases the wind died down enough on show day for us to be able to shoot here.


Adam took this photo of the department head meeting in the classroom set — how funny to see everyone squeezed into child desks:


We got cozy sweatshirts as a wrap gift! I love mine and have been wearing it regularly now that I’m back east and the temps have been freezing.


Racks of costumes ready to go for quick changes on show day:


Our jib camera operator has his shot cards ready to go:


The food stylist is hard at work — there were a lot of food props in the Parker House scenes, and it was this woman’s job to make sure it was all edible and looked good. We got a kick out of the fact that she had to prepare turkey, etc. in a tiny oven.


On show day, I took a walk around the Warner Bros. lot to mentally say good-bye.


You can feel the history walking past the endless rows of soundstages. We had our sexual harassment meeting on an empty soundstage (Stage 17) and upon Googling I found out that both Casablanca and A Streetcar Named Desire both filmed there. And here we are in 2017 in the very same space, using “Weinstein” as a verb and trying to win a free WB backpack by guessing terms like gender expression.

I noticed this new soundstage being built:


The Warner Bros. backlot tours start and end by this replica of Central Perk from Friends — you can get real coffee there.


One exciting aspect of our show was that we had a live commercial happening during one of our commercial breaks — it was for the movie musical The Greatest Showman, starring Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, and Zendaya.


Since their set was right next to ours, I got to see one of their rehearsals — that is Hugh, Zac, and Zenada in street clothes performing on the platform:


Cool, right?!

Jeremy wore his special ears for show day:


Script team photo time! It was a total pleasure to work with Adam and Michael on this show. We had a lot of fun.


I feel like I’ve already shared way too many photos of the set, but this was about 90 minutes before the live show. Final touches were being made, but everything was pretty much set to go at this point.






Here are a few photos that Adam took — there is production designer Joe Celli on that bike I mentioned earlier!


During the live show (and the three dress rehearsals leading up to it) I sat in the truck, which is where the director directs the show from. It was my first time watching one of these live musicals from the truck so that was a neat experience.


Immediately following the show, the town square area was abuzz with excitement. Some press interviews were going on and everyone was congratulating each other and taking photos.



You can see the turntable leading to the “Major Award” stage — that is where the father does his fast change while the platform spins to the award show set.




And then we went to the wrap party! It was held in Stage 26 where we shot Grease Live — this was the high school gymnasium set almost two years ago.


Leg lamps galore!



The kids were super adorable. Do you remember the Lin-Manuel Miranda SNL skit Crucible Cast Party? There’s a joke in there about watching the DVD of their play during the wrap party. I thought about that as the kids from A Christmas Story Live gathered around a big TV to watch the west coast feed of our show. This is pretty good, kids — enjoy it now because high school theater parties will not be this cool! It was sweet to watch them all cheer each other one when their big scenes came up.


A few fun photos — here we are posing with Andy Walken, the tremendous young talent who played our lead Ralphie Parker. Followed by photos with Scott Ellis (theatrical director) and Jane Krakowski, who played the teacher Miss Shields:


And some more photos with behind-the-scenes people — I was beyond thrilled to chat for awhile with the legendary costume designer William Ivey Long, who maybe wins the award for nicest human being. Below that is a photo of me and associate director Carrie Havel — it was such a pleasure to work with her on this show. And then we pose with production designer Joe Celli, who I discovered is also an Emerson grad!


And a few photos with the crew — our line producer Brett Ostro, production coordinators Anthony and Sam, associate producer Jeremy, and Wedge our protools operator (he and Adam have now worked on five of the six live TV musicals of the past few years — an impressive track record!).


That’s a wrap! Hope to see you all on the next one!

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