What Rob McClure really deserves is Chaplin, the 1983 musical which Anthony Newley co-wrote and headlined.
All right, that Chaplin closed out-of-town and may not be better or worse than what’s now at the Barrymore. But I’ll take it sight-unseen over this musical with a score by Christopher Curtis and a book that he wrote with Thomas Meehan.
I’ve been a fan of McClure since his days at Montclair State University. He’s remarkably gifted, but he’s been given no material to speak of. Worse, his opportunities to ape Chaplin are too infrequent.
Case in point: early in the first act, Chaplin, who’s now working as “The Little Tramp” for Mack Sennett, is at a party with his brother Sydney. Charlie gets an offer to leave Sennett, so he gives Sydney license to negotiate. Sydney stumbles through but gets the job done. In montage fashion, two other offers immediately come Charlie’s way, and we see Sydney grow as a negotiator.
Instead, we should see why Charlie is getting these offers. Between each, McClure should have been given belly-laugh inducing Chaplinesque routines that would make us say, “Yeah, no wonder everyone wants him.” But just to have one mogul after another raise his salary doesn’t mean anything because we haven’t seen Charlie earn it.
This is not a criticism of McClure. He’s marvelous when he gets the chance to be Chaplin. He walks the walk and twirls the cane. Better – he puts his cane vertically behind his back, lifts it high and uses it to tip his hat forward when meeting a lady. McClure maneuvers well on roller-skates even when he must dance on them. True, when he walks a tightrope, he has just-in-case wires attached to him, but the actor gives the impression that he’s mastered tightrope-walking so well that he doesn’t need them.
But this is a musical, and McClure rarely gets those solo moments to sing and let us know what’s on his mind. All too often he’s in the middle of book scenes delivering talk-talk-talk. At times, Chaplin threatens to eclipse the famous music-less half-hour scene in 1776.
Too bad, for early in the show, Curtis and Meehan show an eye for detail. Five-year-old Charlie is with his mother, and sees a drunk weave around the street. The kid imitates him and his mother laughs – giving Charlie his first dose of audience appreciation and having him see the value of making people laugh.
Soon he’s entertaining in small London venues and gets an offer from Mack Sennett to work for him. (This is the first we’ve heard of Sennett, suggesting that Curtis and Meehan wanted to eliminate the yawn-inducing “Mack Sennett’s in the house tonight.” Understandable.) Charlie wonders, in a nice lyric, “Will I find gold in the West?” before deciding he’ll chance it.
He finds Sennett a stern taskmaster. Movies, Mack tells Charlie, “move faster than anything you see on stage.” Yes, that’s certainly true of this slow-moving Warren Carlyle production that seems to be surrounded by arid air. What’s worse: Carlyle has interspersed genuine silent movie clips of Chaplin at work that not only remind us of how good the actual Chaplin films were, but also keep McClure from doing them.
Mack expects Charlie to be great from the first flick of a camera, and allows no margin for error. Where is the “Well, it’s only his first day” feeling? Mack immediately threatens to fire him, and this trial-by-fire forces Charlie to come up with a character whom he describes as a “poet, dreamer, wanderer” before settling on “little tramp.” Mack sees Charlie walk around the stage for about 33 seconds and is immediately sold on the character. Given that Meehan and Curtis had set up Mack as such a show-biz savvy hard-ass, we can’t believe that he’d so quickly be on board in believing that Charlie has created a can’t-miss persona.
Remember Fanny Brice’s lines in Funny Girl, when she overdramatically and ironically said, “It’s coming too easy, that’s what’s got me scared. Where’s all the suffering you’re supposed to do before you click? The hard knocks, the setbacks you’re supposed to learn from?” In Chaplin, it comes even easier.
Charlie screens one of his films for Sydney, and then shows how much fun a movie can be when run backwards. Perhaps that’s why Curtis and Meehan are willing to do something else backwards: when Charlie marries already pregnant Mildred Harris, she comes down the aisle and throws her bouquet to the single girls in attendance before he puts the ring on her finger. When has that ever happened at a wedding?
This Charlie is a hard character to like. Perhaps Curtis and Meehan were interested in a warts-and-all portrayal, but what they’ve delivered is warts-and-little-else. He’s not a good son to his mother who needs him as she descends into madness. (The show incessantly centers on this neglect.) He fires his brother for making a suggestion that he doesn’t want to hear: do talkies. Charlie eventually takes the suggestion, of course, but never admits that he was wrong.
But by far worst of all is the scene in which Charlie is directing four-year-old Jackie Coogan in The Kid. Because Coogan isn’t emoting enough, Charlie banishes the lad’s mother from the set and tells the boy that she’s never coming back. That certainly makes the kid cry, and Charlie seems utterly unconcerned that he may have inflicted psychological damage on the child. Curtis and Meehan want to show us Charlie’s perfectionism, and that he’d spare nothing to get an excellent film. But how can we appreciate Charlie’s going so far for a mere movie?
Now comes the inevitable workaholic scene. Mildred shows up on the set and reminds Charlie that he promised to take her to the Brown Derby that night; he says he’s too busy. Compare this to Dot and Seurat. Sondheim didn’t make him critical of her and all the women who came before. George rued, “They have never understood -- and no reason that they should.” After he asked himself, “Do I care?” he had to admit, “Yes.” That’s much more moving that trying us to get behind a guy who wants to work all the time and feels no remorse on its effect on other people.
Charlie will now get a big surprise: Mildred wasn’t pregnant after all; she juts lied to trap him into marriage. Here would have been a logical place for someone to point out that being lied to – as he just did to Coogan – isn’t fun, is it?
Somehow this leads to a Charlie Chaplin Look-Alike contest, which allows most everyone in the cast to dress in little-tramp get-ups. Given that Chaplin in real life famously finished third in just such a contest, wouldn’t you assume that this ironic piece of information would show up in the musical? No.
Act Two begins with a scene that dispatches Charlie’s first three wives in short order by using a boxing match motif. The song “Just Another Day in Hollywood” is reminiscent of the concept that Oscar Hammerstein II had for Me and Juliet: just another day on Broadway. That idea resulted in R&H’s poorest-regarded musical. But Ockie wrote lyrics that were far superior to “If you play the game, you’ll get a shot at fame.”
Curtis’ lyrics are occasionally anachronistic -- “Some just cope” from Charlie’s mother sounds too contemporary for 1894. His music suggests a fondness for Jerry Herman.
Charlie finally visits his mother in an asylum, and finds that she’s forgotten him. Is this supposed to be devastating? He hasn’t cared very much about her, so how does this matter? If it does, we should have heard him do a song here. Seconds later, he’s talking about how he “wanted to make a film for her.” That line would have had more power if he’d said it earlier.
Now comes mention that Charlie’s had “teenage brides” but the book hadn’t stressed that Mildred and Lita, Wife #2, were that young. (Paulette Goddard, Wife #3, was 21 at the time of their marriage). Also cited is Charlie’s infatuation with “underage girls,” but we have to take that on faith, because we weren’t shown much about it.
Most of the second act centers on Hedda Hopper, so miffed that Charlie refused her interview requests that she tries to dig up any and all dirt on him. What’s very effective here is that both Mildred and Lita don’t try to get revenge on their ex-husband, but take the high road. (Paulette isn’t approached.)
The oft-repeated theme of the show has the chorus and others continually asking, “What’cha gonna do when it all falls down?” That doesn’t seem to be a specific enough question to Chaplin. After all, what will any of us do when we inevitably decline and fall? Granted, we should all do some planning for those hurricane-level rainy days, but why are people badgering Chaplin about his future? They come across as being jealous of his current success.
Most of the show is done in shades of black-and-white. Even when Russian and American flags are shown, they’re in black-and-white, too. At show’s end, there’s some color when Charlie is given an honorary Oscar. Although no one thought to put McClure in the gray hair that Chaplin had at that point, the actor is superb in aging himself.
But most of the script is black-and-white, too. Some shows are accused of being “paint by numbers” and while Chaplin fits that description, Curtis and Meehan have painted with far fewer colors.
— Peter Filichia