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It's the moments that make 'A Christmas Story,' coming to Hippodrome

The 1983 film about a young boy in a bunny suit, a Red Ryder BB gun and a leg lamp is coming to Baltimore stage, courtesy of two hot musical songwriters.

How popular is "A Christmas Story," the 1983 film about a young boy in a bunny suit, a Red Ryder BB gun and a leg lamp that ends up in pieces on the living-room floor?

Popular enough that you can actually buy one of those leg lamps on Ebay (only $169.99!).

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Popular enough that "You'll shoot your eye out!" has become a part of the vernacular.

Popular enough that it gets shown for 24 hours straight every year on TBS and people actually look forward to watching it repeatedly.

And popular enough that the story's been turned into a Broadway musical, a touring version of which will be playing the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center at the Hippodrome Tuesday through Dec. 11.

"It was such a wonderful tale, that had such heart, such nostalgia, such wonderful family values," says songwriter Benj Pasek, who, with his partner Justin Paul, would later also pen the songs for two of this year's most anticipated musicals, "Dear Evan Hansen" (on Broadway) and "La La Land" (on film). "We always knew it as part of the canon of American movies about the holidays. ... So many of its iconic moments are now part of the American culture, even if you don't attribute them right away to 'A Christmas Story.'"

Which means that fans can rest easy. The movie scenes that have passed into lore — the kid getting his tongue stuck to a lamppost, the dogs eating the turkey — have all made it to the stage. As director Matt Lenz puts it, "It would be really stupid of us to say, 'Well, we're not going to bother with the leg lamp or the bunny suit.'"

Based on an autobiographical short story by Jean Shepherd, "A Christmas Story" offers a 1940s-era tableaux replete with obsessed kids, adoring aunts, endearingly short-tempered (but lovable) dads and wiser-than-you'll-ever-understand mothers. At its core is 9-year-old Ralphie, whose only desire for Christmas is a Red Ryder BB gun that no adult seems to want to give him; as his mother admonishes, "You'll shoot your eye out."

A modest hit when initially released, the film quickly attained cult status and has become a holiday staple. When the musical version, now in its third year of touring nationally, debuted on Broadway in 2012, the creative team responsible knew they had to tread with care. "It's incredibly daunting," says Pasek, 31. "You don't want to mess with everyone's favorite moments."

Adds Lenz, who has been directing the show's touring production since it hit the road in 2014, "There are examples of movies becoming musicals, but there are a lot more not-so-successful examples of that."

Understanding what audiences have found so appealing about the film was key, says Pasek. "It's not a sort of glossy, shiny, perfect representation of what Christmas is — it's really true to life, in the sense that not everything works out. In fact, many things don't work out. ... When you think about the moments that you really remember with your family, it's not the moments where everything went perfect and you got along. It's the fights, and the times that the turkey gets eaten by the dogs, when everything is a mess."

In fact, says Lenz, the movie's genius is that it takes a story from the 1940s and focuses on characters and situations that are timeless. Kids will always get obsessed with certain presents at Christmastime, whether it's a BB gun or a Pokemon Go accessory. Similarly, bullies will always be bullies, dads will always have their quirks, furnaces will always misbehave and kids will always be taking dares they'll quickly regret.

Audiences of any age can relate, says Lenz, a native of Rockford, Ill., which is not too far from Hammond, Ind., where Shepherd grew up. For the 52-year-old director, much of the movie rang especially true.

"I have a genetic understanding of the family in there," he says. "When I look at Ralphie, I think, 'That would have been my dad.' I look at my grandparents growing up in Rockford, and I see the old man and the mother written all over them."

But it's not necessary to have grown up in the Midwest, or even be of a certain age, to appreciate the story that Shepherd and the movie's director and co-screenwriter, Bob Clark, came up with.

"I'd see older folks who, I think, were delighting in the nostalgia of the 1940s, and probably seeing their parents up there, and Middle America and all that," Lenz says. "Then I realized, there's also the nostalgia, for people who are in their middle years, for the movie — the nostalgia for growing up and seeing that, watching it on television with their families. And then the kids come, and they see all of these kids onstage, and they see the bloodhounds and the bunny suits, all that kind of stuff, and they love it."

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For Pasek and Paul, "A Christmas Story" retains a special place; it was their first work to make it to Broadway. The pair have come a long way in just a few years, and this month looks especially promising: they've got a play opening on Broadway Sunday ("Dear Evan Hansen"), a movie opening Dec. 16 that's already generating buzz as an Oscar favorite ("La La Land," starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone) and another film about ready to start production ("The Greatest Showman on Earth," with Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum).

But it was "A Christmas Story" that gave them their first success, and its success has made everything else possible.

"The live experience of getting to see a story that you really like, but told in a way that has hopefully enhanced it, is really a joyful one," Pasek promises. "If you loved the film, hopefully you'll find that the musical stays true to what you appreciated about the movie, but offers the story in a new way."

Twitter.com/chriskaltsun

If you go

"A Christmas Story: The Musical" runs Tuesday-next Sunday at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center at the Hippodrome, 12 N. Eutaw St. $42-$147. france-merrickpac.com.

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