The life of legendary screen actor Charlie Chaplin is immortalized in Chaplin, a new musical by Christopher Curtis and Thomas Meehan, which opens September 10 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre with Rob McClure in the title role. Read on to find out how the beloved comic icon made ’em laugh (and cry!) all the way to Broadway.
If I Left London
Although he possessed no official birth record, Charles Spencer Chaplin was reportedly born on April 16, 1889, in Walworth, South London. When Chaplin was five, his mother, Hannah, a music hall performer, was booed off of the stage during one of her performances. Waiting in the wings, the young boy was urged by the manager to step on stage in her place. Chaplin delighted the audience and earned his first round of applause.
A star was born, but Hannah Chaplin was unable to witness her son’s rise to fame—she was committed to a mental institution when Chaplin was nine. While living in extreme poverty, Charlie struggled to make a name for himself on the vaudeville circuit with help from his older brother, Sydney. In 1913, the now-well-known young vaudevillian received an offer from Keystone Studios to move to Hollywood and become a film actor. Keystone comedies were “a crude melange of rough and rumble,” Chaplin recalled in his book My Autobiography. The opportunity “would mean a new life,” so he headed to America.
Just Another Day in Hollywood
In the 1914 Keystone film Mabel’s Strange Predicament, Chaplin invented a persona that would change the world of comedy: The Tramp. “I wanted everything to be a contradiction,” he recalled. “The pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large. I added a small moustache, which, I reasoned, would add age without hiding my expression. I had no idea of the character. But the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the makeup made me feel the person he was.”
As the Tramp, Chaplin became an international celebrity. He co-founded the United Artists distribution company and began to direct, produce and write his own films, including The Kid, The Gold Rush, The Circus, City Lights and Modern Times. But while Chaplin produced one hit film after the next, his personal life began to interfere with his success. Rumors swirled about the womanizing actor, who married four times and infamously carried on affairs with much younger women. He finally found happiness with Eugene O'Neill's daughter Oona, whom he married when he was 54 and she was 18. The couple had eight children, including actors Sydney and Geraldine Chaplin.
As he gained popularity, Chaplin began to incorporate his political beliefs into his films. In The Great Dictator, Chaplin’s Tramp spoke onscreen for the first time in a chilling examination of Adolf Hitler: “Do not despair,” Chaplin begged his audience, dressed in full Hitler regalia. “The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed, the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people.”
During the height of McCarthyism, Chaplin was accused by the press, including gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, of participating in communist activities. Upon returning to England for the London premiere of his 1952 film Limelight, Chaplin’s re-entry permit to America was revoked. He was exiled from the country—and removed from his life in Hollywood. In 1972, 83-year-old Chaplin finally returned to Los Angeles to accept an honorary Academy Award. The visibly moved actor received a 12-minute standing ovation—the longest in Academy Awards history. Five years later, Charlie Chaplin died due to complications of a stroke, with Oona by his side.
In the Limelight
In 2006, pianist and singer Christopher Curtis premiered Behind the Limelight, a musical inspired by the life of Chaplin, at the New York Musical Theatre Festival. The production starred Luther Creek (Spider-Man) as Chaplin and Andrea McArdle (Annie) as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. In 2010, Curtis teamed up with Tony-winning book writer Thomas Meehan (Annie, Hairspray), and the duo retooled the musical for a full production at the La Jolla Playhouse in California. The show was initially directed by Michael Unger, but choreographer Warren Carlyle (Hugh Jackman, Back on Broadway; Finian's Rainbow) took over by opening night.
“[It’s] a giant story,” Carlyle told Broadway.com of the new musical. “From London 1890s to Los Angeles, Hollywood, to the Academy Awards [in] 1972, when [Chaplin] was given an honorary Academy Award. We get the great loves in his life, and we get the great losses in his life.” The creative team set out to cover Chaplin’s life in its entirety, from the dizzying highs to the devastating lows.
To fill Chaplin’s enormous shoes, the team took a chance on relatively unknown actor Rob McClure. An Avenue Q alum, McClure was tasked with learning to walk a tightrope, play the violin, roller skate, and of course, embody Chaplin and his iconic Tramp persona. But the star-making performance didn’t only deliver laughs. “McClure has the stiff-backed waddle, the wide, sad eyes, the gift for spontaneous pratfalls down pat,” noted The San Diego Reader in a review of Limelight. “The combination of vulnerability and a house-sized, operatic delivery makes McClure ever unexpected, ever watchable.”
After a revision of the book and score, Limelight was briefly renamed Becoming Chaplin, then simply Chaplin. For the Broadway production, Beowulf Boritt, the Tony-nominated designer of The Scottboro Boys and Rock of Ages, was tapped to create striking black and white sets that transport audiences to the silent film age in which Chaplin achieved stardom, with complementary costumes by Broadway newcomer Amy Clark and stark makeup design by Angelina Avallone. “The show is going to be absolutely stunningly beautiful,” Rob McClure told Broadway.com.
Directed and choroegraphed by Carlyle, the show began performances at Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre on August 21, starring original La Jolla cast members McClure as Chaplin and Jenn Colella as Hedda Hopper, as well as Broadway vets Christiane Noll as Hannah Chaplin and Erin Mackey as Oona O’Neill. Fans are lining up to see the comic legend come back to life onstage—a tall order that is not lost on McClure.
“I’m not Charlie Chaplin and will never, ever claim to be,” McClure said. “But when I become the Tramp, I can feel the hair stand up on the back of my neck. I’ve had sobbing people at the stage door tell me how much the evening changed their lives. The idea that this musical can channel Chaplin’s spirit for someone and move them is truly profound.”