THE LEADING MEN: Rob McClure, the Little Tramp of Broadway's Chaplin

By Michael Gioia
31 Jul 2012

McClure as Charlie Chaplin
Photo by Joan Marcus

I hear through mutual friends that you're very good at impressions. You list "dinosaur impressions" under your special skills on your resume?
RM: [Laughs.] Yeah! When I was a kid, I was hugely impacted by "Jurassic Park." I think I was just the right age when that movie came out, and I remember running around my town like a Velociraptor. And, when you go in for an audition, it doesn't matter what you go in for — you can go in for Man of La Mancha — and you finish singing, and they say, "Great! Can you do your Velociraptor impression?" [Laughs.]

We studied at the same college — Montclair State University in New Jersey.
RM: No kidding?! Unfortunately, I didn't graduate. I was blessed to be doing Avenue Q and I'm Not Rappaport, but I part-timed a double major for as long as I could! [Laughs.] I would love to go back and finish someday, but luckily I've been blessed with work since then.

You also worked at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse?
RM: I did. I actually feel like I owe a lot of my career — especially the beginning years — to Paper Mill. They have this really great program called the Rising Star Awards, which is like the Tony Awards for New Jersey high schools. I was doing theatre in high school, and they gave me the award in 2000 for Best Actor for Where's Charley? — which strangely I ended up playing at Encores! a season-and-a-half ago. So I won the Rising Star Award in 2000, and then they offered me a job in their mainstage production of Carousel, and that was my first Equity gig. The following season, they asked me if I wanted to do a cover in their production of I'm Not Rappaport, with Ben Vereen, which I thought was going to be a short gig. And, two weeks into that run, we found out that [the show] was [transferring] to Broadway, and that was my Broadway debut. I really do feel like I owe it to Paper Mill for my start.

McClure and Jenn Colella in the La Jolla Playhouse's world premiere
photo by Craig Schwartz

Getting back to Chaplin, can you give me a sense of the production? How does the show balance drama and comedy?
RM: I think the show has a wonderful balance of drama to comedy… There are people who know everything there is to know about Charlie Chaplin, and there are people who — like I did when I first went into this — don't know much. His life was full of huge, massive ups and downs, which provides a really interesting night at the theatre. It was hugely poverty-stricken, so the audience gets to see the ultimate rags-to-riches story. He really does go from nothing to becoming the most famous man in the world, which is an amazing arc. But, what a lot of people don't know is that he had a pretty drastic fall from grace, too. There were some huge issues in his life towards his later years that were just fascinating. It's a beautiful, beautiful life, and, for me as an actor, to get to spend that kind of evening just feels epic. I do think that people come to a show about Charlie Chaplin expecting to laugh, and they will. We've got that covered. [Laughs.] But I don't think they'll expect to be as really, really moved. In previous incarnations of this show, I've had a lot of tearful faces at the stage door, who've come up to me and told me how much this story meant to them… I remember I walked out one day, and there was a 12-year-old boy at La Jolla who said, "I've never seen a Charlie Chaplin movie, but this was so great." The following Friday, he came back with ten of his friends, saying that this was his birthday party, and they rented ten Chaplin movies, and they're sleeping over for the weekend and having a Chaplin marathon. And, I welled up. The idea that I could be a small part of reintroducing this man to generations that might not be familiar with him is a huge honor for me.

How has Chaplin evolved since its run at La Jolla?  I'm sure that you've been through changes for Broadway.
RM: Yeah. It's very different. [Director and choreographer] Warren Carlyle dreams big, and I'm so stoked for the New York audiences to see what he's dreamed up. Chaplin's life deserves this type of show. It deserves this type of storytelling on the scale that Warren's telling it… The design has largely changed. I'm so excited about what they're doing in terms of playing with color and texture and the cinematic nature of the show. There are moments where Warren is really combining the biographical, the cinematic and the theatrical. And, getting that balance right is so wonderful.

Tell me about the choreography. Is it in the Chaplin vein? Is your staging choreographed as well?
RM: There are moments where Warren encourages freedom, but a lot of it is blocked within an inch of its life. Because Chaplin was so specific, getting those specifics down has largely shaped moments and [musical] numbers. The choreography — I think Warren, in the same spirit of Chaplin, has captured that balance of comedy and romance in the movement. There are moments where it gets very silly, and it finds that Chaplin charm — physically — and there are other moments where it's sweeping, sweeping romance. Not a lot of people know that Chaplin wrote the music for every one of his films. He was this incredible composer… A lot of people, when they think of Charlie Chaplin, they think of the rinky-dink piano stuff. Chaplin was not that. Chaplin had huge, sweeping orchestrations with strings. I think Chris Curtis' score largely captures that romantic, large sound.