NEW YORK – This Christmas, if Ralphie ever actually does shoot his eye out with a Red Ryder BB Gun, don't worry. There's a spare Ralphie.
Johnny Rabe and Joe West, both 12, are taking turns playing the bespectacled, daydreaming hero in a musical stage version of the cult film "A Christmas Story."
Both grew up watching the 1983 movie, both initially auditioned by submitting videos and both are now making their Broadway debuts.
"It's so great to be here," Rabe says during a joint interview in a rehearsal room. His co-star agrees: "I'm very excited but, at the same time, nervous."
The film and musical are based on writer and radio-TV personality Jean Shepherd's semiautobiographical story of 9-year-old Ralphie Parker's desperate attempt to land an air rifle as a Christmas gift, despite warnings from everyone that he'll shoot his eye out.
Like the film, the musical features a menacing school bully, an annoying kid brother, an eccentric father, a lace-stocking-clad leg lamp, a bright pink bunny suit and a kid who gets his tongue stuck to a frozen flagpole during a triple-dog-dare.
"It's cool to be playing such an iconic character," says Rabe. "I mean, a lot of people know Ralphie. They know who he is. They know the gun, the glasses, the cheesy smile, the daydreaming."
The show has more than a dozen catchy songs written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul — titles include "Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun" and "A Major Award" — and a book by Joseph Robinette. It also stars Dan Lauria, who played the dad in "The Wonder Years."
But the stars are really Rabe and West, who will shoulder the role of Ralphie for as many as nine shows a week. Though Rabe will take the bulk of the Ralphies, the boys insist there's no competition.
"We both have it so it's going to be great," says West, from Valencia, Calif., who has already played Oliver in "Oliver" and Jem in "To Kill a Mockingbird" in California.
"Both of us really just want to have a great time," says Rabe, from Naperville, Ill., who has appeared in productions of "The Music Man" and "For the Boys" in his native state.
John Rando, the show's director, is grateful he's landed two Ralphies oozing talent. "We're talking about these very young boys, but yet their confidence levels and their professionalism is extremely high," he says.
West was almost born to be doing this — his parents, Maura West and Scott DeFreitas, are actors who met on the soap opera "As the World Turns." Rabe's parents have no connection with show business but their son has loved theater since he was 2. Both boys are being homeschooled by their moms during the show's run.
A rough early version of the show debuted in Kansas City in 2009 with a different creative team. Since then, it's found a director in Rando ("Urinetown: The Musical") and a choreographer in Warren Carlyle ("Finian's Rainbow"). Last year, a version with a different Ralphie went on a five-city tour. That actor aged out of the role — at 13 — and a national search was launched.
Rabe knew the part since he'd been in the tour's ensemble. Rando says the creative team had been quietly considering the young man as a good choice one day to play Ralphie.
"When he was onstage, my eye kept drifting to him," says Rando. "He has a kind of young, scrappy boy quality that I think fits the part. He's hearty. He's from the Midwest and that also gave him a quality that I was really interested in."
West was cast after he submitted a video audition and was asked to come to New York to try out in person. "He had a remarkable singing voice for an 11-year-old boy. That was the thing that really perked up our interest in him," says Rando. "He, too, has this sort of scrappy quality that I think is really right for the role."
If ever they need inspiration, the boys need look no further than Peter Billingsley, the original Ralphie, who has signed on as a producer of the musical. All three have chatted.
"We've been told to play our own Ralphie. He hasn't given us a lot of advice. He's just saying, 'Be your own Ralphie and have a lot of fun,'" says Rabe.
Along the way, the two boys have bonded. Quick to joke around but equally serious when it comes to work, Rabe and West have learned how to tap dance and discovered that they both like fencing. They're also earning a paycheck for being on Broadway.
How much? They're too polite to say.
"A very nice amount for a 12-year-old," says West with a laugh.
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