Chaplin

The new musical Chaplin just opened on Broadway without much fanfare, and there was not much buzz in the air about it. Its original writer, Christopher Curtis – book (later joined by Thomas Meehan), music and lyrics – did not offer much opportunity for ballyhoo. Mr. Curtis’ credits – a contract writer in the songwriter program at Disney Animation perhaps was best known for writing the theme to a film called “The Break”- didn’t create much stir. Though the show, then titled Limelight: The Story of Charlie Chaplin, had won “Best Musical” Award for its original run at the LaJolla Playhouse in San Diego, it was dismissed in the press and did not show much promise.

Rob McClure as Charlie Chaplin (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Sticking with two of the principal actors from that production, Rob McClure and Jenn Colella as Chaplin and Hedda Hopper (who became one of his powerful Hollywood enemies) was admirable, but as McClure would be making his Broadway debut in the role and Ms. Colella had not had much breakthrough success in her previous New York appearances, there was no way to create much excitement about the cast.

Warren Carlyle, who choreographed the San Diego production, took over the directing reins as well, which indicated there was trouble in that department as well.  The composite group of producers didn’t help much either to generate heat. Only one of those groups offered any Broadway credits at all, and the lead producers, Rich Entertainment Group, John and Claire Caldwell and Roy Gabay, were comparative newcomers. 

Chaplin has been previewing at the Barrymore Theatre since August 21st, but the blogs and the tweets and the talk on the street has been quiet, and the box office take has been around 70% of capacity, in the high $300,000 range, which means it’s been adding to its deficit with each performance, as those figures do not come close to approaching break even figures.

The house was full of willing customers at one of the final preview performances I attended. But as those in front and immediately behind me were related to the actors onstage, and they seemed to know everyone in the immediate vicinity, I can only assume there were well wishers with greatly discounted tickets mixed among us, who were there to support the show.

But the miracle of theatre is that none of this matters once the curtain rises.  And once this curtain rose, hard work and vision and talent took over. From the opening view of Charlie Chaplin on a tight rope, we were in the hands of a director with a point of view, aided and abetted by a cast that had the chops to deliver it for him.

For starters, in Rob McClure, who gave us a brief glimpse of his potential when he played the lead in Where’s Charley? at Encores! last year,  a star has been born. The notices for Where’s Charley? acknowledged his talent, but it was Rebecca Luker and Howard McGill who stole the top raves for their work in supporting roles. This time out, Chaplin does for Rob McClure what Barnum did for Jim Dale, what The Music Man did for Robert Preston, what The Man of La Mancha  did for Richard Kiley — McClure, to quote a famous line in 42nd Street, “went out there a youngster and came back a star.”

In return for that big chance, he kept the musical afloat, sometimes to soaring heights, for 2 1/2 hours.

The show desperately needed him to do that, for though  the score contains a welcome return to the melodic music and the intelligent lyrics that so many of us have been waiting for through all the new stuff that’s been offered us in exchange.  It’s not exactly a memorable score, but it’s more than serviceable, and as staged and choreographed adroitly by Mr. Carlyle, the show moves smoothly and in several instances, surprisingly.

Ken Billington’s lighting and the team of Amy Clark and Martin Pakledinaz have given the show a look that spells early 20th Century. Beowolf Boritt has supplied a simple unit set that’s not quite up to snuff — it looks like the scenic department is where the money ran out — but it is the concept of the show that everything involving Chaplin’s early abuse and poverty, right through his rise in silent films, and his early triumphs in talkies, should reflect that he never worked in color. A little dangerous to do an entire musical in black,white and gray but I bought the concept and applaud them for sticking to it. I just wish it didn’t, on occasion, look a bit like a run through before the set was completed.

Like the earlier Barnum, this musical sets out to show us Chaplin’s entire life from his young boyhood to his entire American screen career to his banishment from the United States for supposedly communist sympathies, through his 20 year marriage and production of eight children as well as a couple of not very successful films right through his triumphant return to Hollywood to receive a  lifetime achievement award from Oscar. That night meant so much to him, for he had decided that it was to be one of forgiveness — he for those in the  Industry that shunned him, and they for him.

That is a powerful lot of material to cram into one musical; as a result we get a series of headline scenes and numbers:  Chaplin and his brother Sidney are committed to a work house in London because his Mother cannot look after them, Chaplin takes to the music hall stages, Chaplin is seen by Mack Sennett and offered a contract,Chaplin rises to major stardom under Sennett’s banner, then moves on to greater triumphs at his own studio, Chaplin marries three women and strikes out three times, he meets Oona O’Neill, young enough to be his daughter, and in his 50s, he begins a new life with her in Switzerland.

With all this to stage, not much time can be devoted to any episode, but with a number of tuneful tunes and some intelligent lyrics, it’s okay, much as Barnum  was okay.  Funny Girl did it better but it wisely only covered the rise to stardom of its heroine Fanny Brice. It also contained a crackerjack score by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill. I don’t think there is anything in Christopher Curtis’ score that can match the excitement of “People”, “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” “The Only Music That Makes Me Dance”, but it is engaging.

In “Just Another Day in Hollywood”, “Look at the People,” “All Falls Down” and a big eleven o’clock nunber for Chaplin, “Where Are All The People?” he proves himself a welcome addition to the Broadway community, and number for number, it outperforms the Cy Coleman-Michael Stewart score for Barnum, which was a great crowd pleaser, and ran for 860 performances in 1980-1982.  Of course musicals in that period cost $2-3,000,000 to mount, and you can triple that in these thirty years since.  And operating costs are equally oppressive.   

Chaplin  is not a big show, and it should be interesting to see if it can thrive in these difficult times. It is backed by people of major means, and if the notices are really first rate, I am hoping they will spend some of it to promote what is clearly a show for all audiences (except little kids oddly enough, for its overriding quality is warmth – it is often very moving, but it could send some youngsters fleeing in tears.)   When Chaplin is separated from his beloved mother, when later in life he must face the fact that she’s gone mad and no longer recognizes him, that she doesn’t know anything at all about his international successes, I don’t think that’s what kids take joy from in Annie and Oliver!

But for the rest of us, who’ve been starved for a new musical that has great heart, an excellent cast, an acceptable score, and in young Zachary Unger, a little kid who will tear your heart out as young Charlie and as young Jackie Coogan in Chaplin’s film “The Kid”. This boy is a singer, a dancer, an incredibly gifted actor, and a joy to behold all night long.

When he and Rob McClure are onstage together, and they often are, Broadway has the best combo of that sort since Bill Robinson and Shirley Temple or Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper — two stars, one tall, one short.  Jenn Colella as the villainess columnist Hedda Hopper joins them as another big discovery as she parades around being mean and powerful, stopping occasionally to belt out a song reminding us what musical comedy is all about.

Wayne Alan Wilcox has less to do as Sidney Chaplin, but he does it all well and is another great help all evening. Christiane Noll is also powerful as Hannah, Chaplin’s mother, who goes from cheap music hall soubrette to madness and in “Look At All The People,” you can feel the tragic sadness at abandoning her beloved  boys.  As a matter of fact, the casting directors (Telsey + Company and Patrick Goodwin) have come up with a company of principals and an ensemble of the  sort that give Broadway its big time stature.

Chaplin is now onstage at The Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street, (between Broadway and 8th Avenue), NYC.
Details and tickets

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Richard Seff, who, in his career on Broadway has been a performer, agent, writer, and librettist, has written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stagecelebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.  Read more at RichardSeff.com

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