The Sounds of Silence
By Laura Hedli
September 7, 2012
Early in the first act of “Chaplin,” the new musical about the silent-film icon, a young Charles Chaplin, played by newcomer Rob McClure, pays a visit to his new boss, Mack Sennett, at Sennett’s Keystone Studios in Edendale, Calif. Having cut his teeth on the English stage, the burgeoning actor is struggling to find his motivation on film, where there is no live audience, no spontaneity—and no sound. Sennett only confirms Chaplin’s fears: Gesturing with his arms open wide, he explains that there’s a huge gap between the theater and the cinema.
The creators of “Chaplin: The Musical,” which opens Monday at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, faced a similar challenge in bringing his life to the theater. How would they tell the story of the world’s first great movie star, who built his abiding legacy in the era before his fans could hear his voice, on the 21st-century stage?
This was the paradox that led Christopher Curtis to conceive the musical, which got its start at New York Stage and Film at Vassar College in 2005. At the time, Mr. Curtis, a pianist, songwriter and arranger who has recorded with Stevie Wonder and composed film and television scores, was new to musical-theater and enamored with Chaplin’s story. Some years before, he had met one of Chaplin’s sons, Sydney, who had said that if his father hadn’t been orphaned, the classic proletarian Little Tramp character never would have been created.
Not long after, Mr. Curtis enlisted the help of Thomas Meehan, the librettist behind “The Producers,” “Young Frankenstein” and the coming revival of “Annie,” and the two set about creating a voice where there once was none. After a while, they realized that gap may not be so wide after all.
“Even the pacing of silent films and with the piano music underneath, there was a feeling of almost a musical, the way [Chaplin] moved almost like a ballet dancer at times,” Mr. Meehan said. “It was kind of theatrical. Chaplin is adaptable to a musical because there was a sense of music. It’s not such a stretch.”
Added Mr. Meehan, “You try to make a scene in a musical seem like it’s a scene from a real play, but meanwhile it’s really only a minute and a half long. That I knew from my other musicals—you have to get to the songs. It’s not called a musical for nothing.”