Charlie Chaplin: The Musical was originally a 2006 La Jolla musical production that set one of the world’s greatest cinematic talent’s life to music. It got produced again in 2012 in its current form. One would have expected that Charlie Chaplin: The Musical would truly clue people living in the 2000s just how tremendous Chaplin was as a cultural, cinematic, and historical force. Unfortunately, given the superficial treatment of Chaplin’s life, formulaic responses to some of the biggest questions raised Chaplin’s biography, as well as, in fairness, how expansive the time frame it tries to cover, Charlie Chaplin: The Musical simply falls flat. It commits the all too common error many other productions centering on oversized personalities tend to make: trying to cover too much with too little.
What could have been and what actually happened
Considering its ambitions, Charlie Chaplin: The Musical should have released on a smaller theater venue off Broadway first. Doing so would have given it the feedback and opportunity it needed to produce a more polished and tighter product. Sadly, Charlie Chaplin: The Musical found out the hard way many other productions find out-Broadway is not the place to debut if your production has a few loose ends to tie up in both the story and production quality department. Launching a play on Broadway is like debuting a new sportscar model by racing it at the Indy 500 or Formula Grand Prix-bold, daring, and probably doomed to fail. Considering the high expectations of Broadway, it is not a surprise that Charlie Chaplin: The Musical caught quite a bit of bad reviews. While it did manage to get a few good reviews, on the whole, most reviews were mixed along with a few highly respected papers giving the production a thumbs down. If there is anything to gain from the rather disappointing experience of this musical it is this: don’t try to cover everything when you only have so much time to work with. If it gives any measure of comfort, Charlie Chaplin: The Musical is hardly alone in committing this strategic error. Many musicals that cover outsized personalities and events make the same mistake.
Trying to capture the sunset in a bottle
If there is one figure in all of cinematic history who can definitely meet the criterion of a ‘big personality,’ it would have to be Charles Chaplin. He was, after all, the biggest movie star the world produced in the silent movie era. His career, his rise and fall, and his controversies don’t just belong in that interesting time in cinematic history when it was transitioning from silence to sound but Chaplin’s career also happened during a major global cultural and historical crossroads. You have to remember that Chaplin lived in a world that is very very different from ours. Nobility versus middle class, racism, sexism, sectarianism, class-based antagonism, you named it. This is precisely the immensity of both personality, culture, and history that Charlie Chaplin: The Musical tried to capture. It was like trying to catch the sunset and bottle it. It didn’t, not unexpectedly, quite work out.
Still, Charlie Chaplin: The Musical did manage some victories. It got a Tony nomination and six Drama Desk award nomination.