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A few years ago, Rob McClure knew relatively little about Charlie Chaplin. Now, in the new musical Chaplin, he turns himself into the early cinematic giant every night at Broadway’s Barrymore Theatre as if he was a lifelong scholar.
“I knew his image, I knew what he looked like and that he was a great comedian,” McClure says, speaking with an infectious passion that makes him want to reintroduce Chaplin to a new generation. “The more I dug, the more I got on this endless journey to find more. He is endlessly fascinating.”
In preparation for his breakthrough role, McClure screened and read everything he could to give him the freedom to play Chaplin the man—a deeply ambitious and difficult actor, director and producer haunted by childhood abandonment.
As for the Little Tramp, Chaplin’s soulful comic vagrant and most iconic cinematic creation, McClure felt he had to achieve perfection. “The hat, the cane, the mustache—anyone coming to see the show wanted to see it and see it right,” he says. “I knew I couldn’t screw that up.”
Chaplin toyed with proportion to create the Tramp—tiny bowler and oversized shoes and pants. “Those clothes didn’t fit him because he’s homeless; they’re picked out of trash cans,” McClure explains. “There was a bittersweet, comic melancholy and that shaped the way I built him.”
While McClure’s Chaplin is the centerpiece of the musical, it is also packed with memorable characters that follow him from his ragamuffin days in south London, through his rise in Hollywood, to his scandal-triggered exile.
Also outstanding are Christiane Noll, who portrays Chaplin’s mother Hannah, a singer who succumbs to mental illness; Wayne Alan Wilcox as his brother, Sydney; Zachary Unger, who plays young Charlie; Michael McCormick as Mack Sennett, the Keystone Kops impresario who brought Chaplin to Hollywood; and Jenn Colella, who plays gossipmonger Hedda Hopper.
With a book by Christopher Curtis and Thomas Meehan and music and lyrics by Curtis, the show evokes Chaplin’s times with black-and-white sets and screen projections of scenes recreated from Chaplin classics. McClure says that one of his recreations—walking away from the camera—prompted one of Chaplin’s grandchildren, Keira, to write an e-mail saying she had been moved to tears.
The Tramp’s walk was one of the most identifiable, indelible aspects of his persona. “I wanted to incorporate these little bursts of energy Chaplin had when he did the Tramp waddle and I noticed that his left shoulder popped as he was walking and then his right knee kicked out,” McClure says, adding that when he started incorporating these moves, they didn’t feel quite right. “Then I watched The Circus, where he’s left behind as the circus pulls away, and as he turns, the shoulder pops and the knee kicks out but it’s not random; it’s a coping mechanism. He’s shaking off what happened and trying to get the speed and grace back in the waddle.”
McClure applied a similarly detailed technique to analyzing the brilliant roll dance that Chaplin performed in The Gold Rush, in which he stabs two dinner rolls with forks and executes a vaudeville-style dance complete with tiny kicks and spins.
His wife, Maggie, recorded his version of the dance on an iPhone and saw a key flaw: he wasn’t using his head correctly. “It’s the angle of his head in relation to where’s looking—a coy, playful, flirtatious expression.” (Warren Carlyle, the show’s director, transforms the dance into a kick-line of Chaplin imitators.)
McClure can see the impact of Chaplin in the tears of the audience and the reactions of fans waiting outside the Barrymore’s stage door. “There was a 13-year-old boy who said he’d never seen a Chaplin movie and that the show was awesome and he was back the next weekend with his father and 10 friends.”
“I’ve talked to a lot of Eastern European and Japanese people who say Chaplin meant so much to them,” concludes McClure. “They were the American films they could watch because there was no language barrier. He really was speaking the universal language.”
Chaplin the Musical is playing at the Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St. For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or click here.
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