For Rob McClure, Robin Williams is Mrs. Doubtfire. So much so that when the Tony nominee learned he'd landed the title role in the upcoming Broadway musical adaptation of the raucous family comedy, he didn’t have to debate whether or not he would re-watch the original movie. “Mrs. Doubtfire is in me if I didn’t watch Mrs. Doubtfire ever again,” McClure says. “I would still have every single frame of that movie under my eyelids when I close my eyes.”
Yet, as he steps into the pleated skirt for the film's musical adaptation—which began its pre-Broadway tryout in Seattle November 26—he’s working on compartmentalizing. “Of course, I’m terrified of Robin Williams’ shadow, but I also so want to honor it,” says McClure. “I wouldn’t be doing a service to him if I was doing a bad impression of him, and I wouldn’t be doing a service to him if I was doing a good impression of him.”
McClure plans to calibrate a balance between what Williams created and his own sensibility. And the actor actually has previous experience on which to draw.
“Mrs. Doubtfire as a human entity kind of exists outside of Daniel Hillard,” McClure poses. The more he examines the role the more the housekeeper exists in the mind of the zeitgeist than in one actor. “What [Robin] tapped into for that woman is so iconic, it actually feels a little bit like Chaplin. When I played Chaplin the man, I could bring a lot of Rob McClure to that. But once the hat and the cane and the mustache go on and The Little Tramp shows up, people have a pocket of their heart that responds a certain way to that thing—and if you screw with it, they’re going to resist it.
“I feel like Daniel Hillard can very much be me, but when Mrs. Doubtfire shows up, if I don’t honor the expectation enough, they’ll resist giving me the love they already have for her,” he continues.
But it’s also important to remember that this Mrs. Doubtfire is inherently differently because the musical is more than a staging of the movie with songs.
Moving the property to theatre means reimagining technical moments—“when we get to that restaurant scene, every time [Robin] goes into the bathroom to change he gets five hours in a trailer, and I’m doing it in real time”—exploring the roles of the kids, and new moments of comedy and musicality. Book writers Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell, composer Wayne Kirkpatrick, and director Jerry Zaks have updated the story for 2019, which, according to McClure, simply means a better picture of “who we all are now. Ignorance we’ve moved past since the movie came out, we don’t need that.” What Mrs. Doubtfire does need is farce and family.
Equal parts bleeding heart and comic whiz, McClure may be the one man on Broadway who can pull off simultaneous earnestness and absurdity.
Between leaning into an ancestral accent (“my grandmother on my dad’s side talked like Mrs. Doubtfire”), his new fatherhood (he and his wife Maggie welcomed Sadie into the world between readings and workshops), or the trove of comic roles he’s played (from Avenue Q’s Princeton/Rod to Beetlejuice’s Adam Maitland), McClure’s arsenal is stocked.
Parenthood, in particular, enriches his perspective in the role. “I’m a very practical actor. I don’t believe you need to do heroin to know what it’s like to play a heroin addict, you know what I mean? But there are some things that just get richer, and being a parent is one of them,” he says. “I would do anything to spend time with her, especially if someone was taking it away from me. It really is a story about how far a parent would go for their kids.”
The importance of that story has been ingrained in McClure since childhood. “My earliest memory of the movie is all of my friends who were from divorced households and what that movie did for them,” he says. “Because every movie up until then was a parent trap: Mom and Dad are getting divorced, let’s, as kids, figure out a way to keep them together, and the happy ending was them getting back together.
“Mrs. Doubtfire was the first one that said, ‘You know what? I think they’re better off separate and so are you for it. But it doesn’t mean you’re not a family. It doesn’t mean that you don’t love each other, and it doesn’t mean you’re not going to be OK,’” McClure says. “That’s a story worth adapting, and it just so happens to be at the core of a really brilliant comedy.”