PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Chaplin Sings Songs From His Slapstick Tragedy
By Harry Haun
Meet the first-nighters at the Broadway opening of Chaplin the Musical.
"Smile, though your heart is aching / Smile, even though it's breaking" — lyrics that John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons added in 1954 to an instrumental theme which Charles Chaplin had written 18 years earlier for his movie, "Modern Times" — did not come up Sept. 10 at the Barrymore in the audience-accessible, old-fashioned score that Christopher Curtis concocted for his bio musical, Chaplin.
It is possible that orchestrator Larry Hochman slipped it in anyway, via dog-whistle, because its sentimental sentiment pervades the show, and it was certainly the rule that Chaplin lived by to become the comic genius of his generation.
The tragic welcome to the world he endured as the son of English music-hall performers — a father who staggered drunkenly to an early grave and a mother who drifted into darkening madness — haunted, informed and inspired his work.
Flickers were the light at the end of his childhood tunnel, and black and white became his lifelong color scheme. Accordingly, set designer Beowulf Boritt, costumers Amy Clark and the late Martin Pakledinaz and lighting designer Ken Billington — have outfitted the show in at least 50 shades of gray, as befits the world of a silent-screen icon, and, much like Chaplin resisting The Talkies, they stubbornly refuse to go into Technicolor till the closing emotional moments.
Given the mammoth size of the talent being approximated, any raw kid from the chorus who goes out there in the title role has got to come back a Star! Clearly, Rob McClure got the memo and responded appropriately with a full-out tour de force. An Avenue Q cast-replacement, he did a previous star-turn in the Encores! concert of Where's Charley? and answered that with Chaplin.
Thomas Meehan and Curtis, who packed 78 years into a presentable book, and director-choreographer Warren Carlyle, who kept it spinning on 78 rpm, have devised a grueling obstacle course to stardom in which McClure is perpetually flexing and testing his talent, starting and ending Act One on a high wire.
When he arrived at the Gotham Hall after-party and found Chaplin movies dancing on the walls of the rotunda, McClure was still understandably wired from his first night as a Broadway star. If anything, he seemed energized by that creative marathon.
"The show is a bit of a crazy countdown for me in terms of special skills," he allowed. "It starts at 200 at the top of the show, and I go, 'Okay, don't fall off this tightrope.' And then, 199: 'Don't fall off this spinning table.' And 198: 'Don't spill this glass of wine while doing a back-flip.' And 197: '‘Play the right notes on the violin.'"
And that's just the first five minutes. Other items on his To-Do list: Tap-dance on roller skates. Waltz blindfolded on roller skates. Sing, dance and act with a British accent. Mimic Hitler in full Teutonic rant. Deliver a blistering 11 o'clock number. Portray a raging ego and libido, a cranky king-of-the-mountain that people want to knock off. Be authentically funny and touching whenever those cards are played. And, periodically, evaporate seamlessly into a screen-image of the real Chaplin.
McClure checked off all the above and has Chaplin's height (5-feet 8-inches) covered as well. It must be inserted here that he has more than a little help from Zachary Unger, a terrific child-actor who pulls all the emotional stops out in his age division, playing the boy Chaplin or playing Jackie Coogan filming "The Kid."
The idea of finding anyone else to fill the awesome job-description for the grown-up Chaplin boggles the mind, but there really are two covers on deck ready, able and thoroughly schooled in taking over for McClure, should that need ever arise.
"My understudy is named Justin Bowen — he's in our ensemble — and Eric Santagata, our male swing. We've been such a great trio. We went to tightrope lessons together, violin lessons together, roller-skating lessons together."
The demands of the role are in keeping with the character, he felt. "It's all Chaplin sensibility. If it's funny and you're moved by it, that's Chaplin. You watch his films and find yourself laughing, then somewhere toward the end, you find yourself welling up, and you're not sure when he got to you. He was the first to do that. He said, 'I think audiences are smarter than just the pie-in-the-face. I think we can go ahead and tell a much larger, deeper story on film and people will commit to that.' We owe him the way we contemporarily tell stories. We owe it to him. We really do."
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."
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."
The fourth and longest-lasting Mrs. Chaplin — Eugene O'Neill's daughter, Oona (a godsend word for crossword puzzlers) — is played by Erin Mackey. Her character arrives well into the second act, but, like the other principals, she does extra duty milling around as human scenery under Chaplin's tightrope. "Then, I sit backstage for two hours," she said. "It's actually lovely because we all get to start off together. I have one song that I sing to Charlie — 'What Only Love Can See' — and then there's a reprise, and I lead off the finale number, 'This Man.' At least with my songs, I just feel that they flow very easily from the dialogue into the music. It feels very natural, and there's definitely that sense of 'When you can't speak anymore, sing.'"
A highly hiss-worthy Hedda Hopper, attacking Chaplin as a lefty and a lothario in her gossip column, is advanced with relish and enthusiasm by Jenn Colella, who displays a voice for the barricades with "All Falls Down" and "Just Another Day in Hollywood." "She kinda becomes a villain just standing up for what she believes in. She had a home in Beverly Hills that she called The House That Fear Built."
It's okay with Colella that their politics are poles apart. "I do believe in a lot of what she believed in, but I value that everyone has different opinions. It's interesting to have to sympathize and empathize and play someone so totally different from me."
Mr. Karno, a music-hall impresario who first spotted the potential in Chaplin, is played by William Ryall, who's also a star-spotter: "Rob McClure's the new Jim Dale," he declared firmly, Dale being the last to attempt a tightrope walk on Broadway (in 1980's Barnum) and earning a Tony for the effort. "He's the most generous and fearless actor I've ever met. He will try anything and everything, at least once — well, I'm talking about in show business, mind you."
Michael Mendez, whose sister Lindsay Mendez is having a good theatrical year (Godspell, Dogfight), landed a small but appetizing plum in the show — Fatty Arbuckle, a soft-sweet presence with hard times to come. "This is my first Broadway show, and Warren is so amazing," he said. "It's such a beautiful show, and he was so smart with it. He just threw me in there. He showed me a few Fatty Arbuckle videos. It was, like, 'This is what his shtick was.' I took what I could from that and did my own Fatty. I couldn't ask for a better first Broadway experience."
Chaplin's brother, Sydney, who played agent for him and nursemaided their mad mother, is staunchly delivered by Wayne Alan Wilcox. "I love coming to work every day with this show," he remarked. "For me, the big throughline is the family that Charlie never had except for his brother. Sydney was there to the very end — through all of his scandals, through all of his trials and tribulations."
Ragtime's Tony-nominated Mother, Christiane Noll, is quite a different mother in this show. "I read quite a bit about Hannah Chaplin," she said. "Some people surmise what she had was due to complications from syphilis, but I don't think that it was ever documented that she had that. Throughout the first act, I continue to make little appearances. Every time Charlie's having a little issue, Mommy shows up, and every time I'm in a different state of mind, whether I'm manic or completely distraught or a puddle of a person. I'm never in the same place two times in a row. It's always flip/flop, flip/flop, so I'm actually happy it's spaced out the way that it is because it gives me a little bit of a time to breathe. Act One you see how he chooses to remember me, and Act Two you get to see how I turned out."
Hair designer Paul Huntley has bewigged her well for both acts. "The first Hannah is very reminiscent of pictures of her. The second shows how she went gray, and that's taken directly from photographs of Hannah, and it's so striking."
Noll's hope for Chaplin is that it finds the same audience Chaplin found when he communicated to the world without the complications of words. "I want everyone to love it, but I hope we get the non-English-speaking tourists. Chaplin is super-iconic internationally. The way that we're telling this is as a visual story about a visual artist. It's going to translate really well to people who don't necessarily speak English. And I want to see a lot of little boys because, if you show young boys the old Chaplin movies, they flip out. They're seeing something they've never seen before. I hope it catches on so little boys want to go see more than just Spider-Man."
Kiera Chaplin, a dazzling blonde holding up the family bloodline and cheekbones, led the list of first-nighters. Charlie's actress-granddaughter, by way of Eugene, approved heartily, and Phyllis Newman, going into the Barrymore, suspected she might be the only one in the theatre who had actually met Chaplin and his wife. "Adolph and I used to summer with them in Europe," she said.
Also in attendance: Annie and her Daddy Warbucks (Lilla Crawford and Anthony Warlow) from Meehan's next show; Robert Creighton from the next show Carlyle will choreograph (The Mystery of Edwin Drood) and Adriane Lenox from the next show that he will direct and choreograph (Cotton Club Parade at City Center and, maybe, after that, on Broadway); Brian d'Arcy James, newly booked to fill Rock Hudson's boots in Michael John LaChiusa's Giant musical at The Public; Ron Raines, an authentic Texan (from Nacogdoches, no less); Broadway mimes with notepads intact (Bill Irwin and David Shiner); Olympic silver medalist Sasha Cohen; Peter and the Starcatcher's Celia Keenan-Bolger and husband John Ellison Conlee; two-thirds of the Jonas bros (Joe Jonas and Nick Jonas); a smashing-looking Megan Hilty; eternal redhead Arlene Dahl and husband Marc Rosen, both booked for buddy Robert Osborne's next TCM cruise; Brandon Victor Dixon, Broadway's future Berry Gordy; director Kenny Leon, fresh from filming "Steel Magnolias" for TV with Queen Latifah and Phylicia Rashad; pianist-singer Peter Cincotti, whose "Metropolis" album just hit Europe; Tony Danza; Follies-free Danny Burstein, who's currently coaching Golden Boy (the War Horse-less Seth Numrich) to box, and his wife, Rebecca Luker; Montego Glover, going Hollywood after Memphis; Tony winners John Lloyd Young, back in Jersey Boys and Alice Ripley; TV's "Kitchen Cousins" (Anthony Carrino and John Colaneri) and Dr. Ruth Westheimer.
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