PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Chaplin Sings Songs From His Slapstick Tragedy

By Harry Haun
11 Sep 2012

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Attempts have been made in the show to tag key Chaplin moments — the creation of The Little Tramp (who lived as his world-known persona from 1914 to 1940's "The Great Dictator"), the exquisite cry-for-happy fadeout of "City Lights," the dance of the bread rolls in "The Gold Rush." The myriad of finite mannerisms and miming that Chaplin put into his performances are reflected in Carlyle's choreography.

"I think what Warren has done so masterfully is capture the spirit of Charlie Chaplin," said McClure. "There are moments where we suggest the boxing scene from 'City Lights,' but it's used to tell a different part of his story [i.e., being beaten up by his three ex-wives]. There are moments where we suggest the tightrope scene from 'The Circus,' but it's for a different purpose of telling our story. Any Chaplin aficionados will know the references, but it was also important to us that people didn't feel like, if they're not Chaplin experts, they won't get it. Also, the stage limited what we take from the screen. Charlie Chaplin could walk into a room, take off a top hat, throw it. It flips eight times and would land on a stuffed ostrich's head in the room. He only had to do it once, and that 'take' lives forever, so we had to come up with things that are impressive but that I can reasonably do eight times a week."

Another case in point of not being able to follow Chaplin's act was the ballet with the world globe in "The Great Dictator." Carlyle didn't even try. "Charlie Chaplin could manipulate film, and I can't manipulate live action in that way," Carlyle explained. "There are things that are untouchable. I don't think that I could come anywhere near that."

Otherwise, he canvassed the turf completely. "We looked at all the movies, and I pulled moments I thought I could make theatrical." The Act One finale where everyone darts about in Chaplin disguise came from a real-life incident — a Chaplin look-alike contest in San Francisco in which Chaplin entered (and finished third).

"Even though it's about Chaplin, it's not really a comedy," Meehan pointed out. "What I like about it is that it has a lot of heart, and Rob McClure brings so much to it. He's amazing. I wrote a note to him saying, 'Let's face it: Without you, there is no Chaplin.' That's the way I feel. Everybody contributed, but he's the one who's on stage virtually the whole show. I wrote one scene toward the end of Act Two that he wasn't in — a scene with his brother and Hedda Hopper. I wrote it so he could have a breath — to be off-stage for just a couple of minutes before that last big section — but the scene didn't work without him in it, so I rewrote it and put him back in it."

Christopher Curtis
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Composer Curtis, where all roads of this project lead back to, started it up because of a casual encounter with Chaplin's Broadway-actor son, Sydney Chaplin, at a Los Angeles restaurant where Curtis played piano. He perfected the score on this coast in the nine years he played piano at Jean-Claude Baker's Chez Josephine, testing out his own Chaplin compositions in between "Feelings" and "Memory."

"I must have written more than 20 songs that didn't make the show," he figured. "Sometimes, I'd write a song, and I'd go, 'No, I'm not going to use that.' Other times, we had songs in the production, and, when the script changed, they came out. I started writing songs for three years before I started working on a story. Then, Tom Meehan got involved. I had a version of the book, and we started working on it together. Then there were more songs written in after that. It was a whole process."

Chaplin's stage manager, sounding board and confidante from the old days of London Music Halls, Alf Reeves, is played by Jim Borstelmann, who is marking a milestone with this performance and graduating to a new level.

"This starts my 17th consecutive year on Broadway, and I'm so grateful for it," he beamed. "Seriously, I cannot believe it. You want to live your dream, and I've been doing it for 17 years — straight." It has taken him four shows to reach this distinction — Chicago, The Producers, Young Frankenstein, The Addams Family — and he has evolved from a dancer-dancer in Jerome Robbins' Broadway to a character actor with lines and backstories.

"It's a chorus boy's dream," he confessed. "Bob Fosse is one of my favorite choreographers of all time. You couldn't be just a chorus boy. You couldn't just do high kicks and look pretty. There had to be some reason behind the movement, so, even in my dancing my whole life, I always tried to be an actor while I was dancing, and, working with Mr. Robbins, you really had to be Tony in West Side Story. Even if it was just a ballet we were doing, you had to really, really act.

"[Susan] Stroman found me, put me in The Producers, gave me lines and parts to play. In a way, I feel like Charlie Chaplin because he started as a silent actor — almost a dancer, I suppose, because of his movement and his mime. As a dancer, I had to do the same thing, and finally I now get to speak. It's lovely."

Michael McCormick executes a trio of primary people in Chaplin's life — Mack Sennett, who discovered him for movies; U.S. Attorney General McGranery, who kicked him out of the country for two decades, and his alcoholic, absentee pop — a kind of push, pull, take a nap combo. "It's always fun to shift it around," he said. "Normally, I find the audience loves to travel with one character as they go through a show when you're playing one, but sometimes it's fun to play several in a show."

These three contributed importantly to Chaplin's character. "To think that this man came out of that environment, which was very close to what Dickens was writing about in Industrial Revolution London at the time," said McCormick, who knows Dickensian, having boarded the business in 1965 via Olivier. "Davey Jones, who just passed away, was my Artful Dodger. I was a workhouse boy. I joined it in its first stop in Chicago and toured the whole country. Then we came back to the Martin Beck. Then I took over as The Artful Dodger in the last couple of months in the run."