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Chaplin Finds His Voice

Chaplin Finds His Voice

By Peter Filichia --

It’s been more than ten years since I had a certain conversation with Michael Kunze, but I remember it as if it were yesterday.

Kunze was in New York because the musical for which he’d provided the libretto and lyrics was about to open on Broadway. It was a period piece, as were his previous European hits concerning Elisabeth, about an Austrian empress, and Mozart.

All, he told me, contained rock music.

Here was Kunze’s explanation in 2002: “Music in our world is more than just music. It’s a way of expressing yourself. You use music like you use fashion, like a coat you wear. I think it’s unnatural to have your emotions expressed in music that is not contemporary, for contemporary music is what you hear every day. So Mozart sings pure rock ‘n’ roll.

“A show that is not terrific, like Aida, is doing relatively well because it reflects what people on the street want to hear. When you go to a Rodgers and Hammerstein show, it’s wonderful, but it’s like going to museum. Musical theater has to be alive. That’s why I don’t understand shows like The Wild Party being on Broadway. I was sitting there hearing one song of the ‘20s after the other, but it had no relationship to my life.

“Why write a show today in the musical vernacular of a time that is not ours? Why go into a world that is gone? It was a great time, yes, but if you write a new show, its music must have something to do with our lives. Musical theater is a living theater, and today’s audiences have to feel that this concerns them, this is their life. So you have to do it in a way that reaches the audience. It doesn’t matter that you have a traditional story. If I have a story to tell and I want you to feel it and understand it. I’ll use my musical language to make you get into that story.”

Well, the show for which Kunze was in town – Dance of the Vampires – didn’t succeed, although it did better than the musical he had set for this season: Rebecca. And while I continue to feel bad for the cast and crew of this century’s most notorious aborted show, I wasn’t much looking forward to Rebecca. The story takes place long before the rock era began, so the sounds Kunze would want from his composer would sound anachronistic for its characters.

And this brings us to Chaplin. The new musical is, of course, about that movie pioneer who was born in 1889 and made films for a good deal of the first half of the 20th century. Hooray for Christopher Curtis, who, in setting out to musicalize the legend’s life, selected melodies that are right for the era.

After a few ominous chords that start the new original cast album – all the better to warn you, my dears, that the show will have a serious bent, too – there’s a delightful vamp that tells us we’ll be revisiting the silent movie era, too.

Then Hannah Chaplin, Charlie’s mother (the always lovely Christiane Noll), emerges and tells him to “Look at All the People” in a song that has the feel of a Victorian woman who has a bit of worldliness about her. The song also has a strong dramatic action: Charlie doesn’t merely look at all the people, but he also mimics them. How wonderful, too, that his mother proclaims, “Oh, you’re funny! You’re very funny!” In the process, she’s giving her son the greatest gifts a parent can give a child: approval and confidence.

“What’cha Gonna Do?” in which Charlie gets his first gig sounds like a true British Music Hall song, going from a spritely 4/4 to a swirling waltz. Charlie later discovers that Mack Sennett was in one audience and that he’s interested in having him come to Hollywood. That makes Charlie muse in song “If I Left London.” He starts in appropriately apprehensive fashion, but the more he thinks about America, the more confident he and the melody build. Soon his imagination is carrying him along, and the music he uses to express the new land is, aptly enough for 1913, ragtime.

“Sennett Song” has the helter-skelter feeling and tempo worthy of the Keystone Kops. Here, Michael McCormick as Charlie’s first boss, incidentally does splendidly with one of Broadway’s classic song archetypes: the patter song, in which he drives young Charlie crazy with one demand after another.

Ah, but when Charlie comes up with The Little Tramp character and “Tramp Shuffle,” Curtis includes one of musical theater’s most delicious secret weapons: the quodlibet. Charlie sings a bit of a song; Sennett sings something completely different and then – well, as Richard Maltby, Jr. wrote in “One Step,” the quodlibet he wrote with David Shire that’s featured in Starting Here, Starting Now, “This is one of those songs with two parts where both of them go together.”

The freewheeling sound of an exuberant show song is captured by Curtis in “Life Can Be Like the Movies,” as Charlie realizes that more than all his dreams have come true. Then Act One comes to a close with “The Look-a-Like Contest,” which has a hint of the style of music that is arguably expresses the most fun: Dixieland.

An aside: what’s amazing is that the show takes the time to show us a Charlie Chaplin Look-a-Like Contest and fills the stage with Chaplins, but doesn’t make an important point: that in real life Chaplin himself entered in such a contest – and finished third!

Here’s hoping that when the Tony Awards are dispensed that Rob McClure, who plays Chaplin, will have finished much higher than third in the voting. Take it from someone who’s known McClure since he’s been a student at Montclair State: you’d never know from his pin-point perfect British Cockney accent as Chaplin that he hails from New Milford, New Jersey.

But Chaplin doesn’t just have one galvanizing performance. There’s also Jenn Colella as Hedda Hopper, who was in Chaplin’s time an omnipotent syndicated columnist. Because Chaplin didn’t pay her enough homage, Hopper became intent on destroying the star. Colella spits out the rollicking “All Falls Down” and makes it into a showstopper.

When Charlie falls in love with Oona O’Neill – 36 years his junior – she sings another Broadway stalwart: the bolt-of-lightning soprano ballad. -- Erin Mackey does beautifully by “What Only Love Can See.”

The May (first)-December (thirty-first) marriage and political leanings cause Chaplin to lose his footing and public. “The Exile,” the cacophonous musical scene with the fiddling of ominous strings making razor-sharp sounds, in the grand Act Two Broadway musical tradition, too.

In the end, however, it’s McClure’s show. He finishes up with the introspective ballad “Where Are All the People,” Chaplin asks, “who once loved me?” It becomes a genuine musical scene in itself.

True, Curtis’ songs would have been highly improved by his using and obeying a rhyming dictionary. “Journey” and “lonely” is just one example of more than a dozen so-near-yet-so-fars, and even such a major talent as Rob McClure can’t make the words sound as if they do. But the melodies are spot-on.

Alas, by this time next month, Chaplin will have departed the Barrymore Theatre and Broadway. Luckily, this original cast album will keep alive Christopher Curtis’ score, Rob McClure’s dynamic performance and the able work by his supporting cast.

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.kritzerland.com.and www.mtishows.com. His books on musicals are available at Amazon.com.