If you thought that Charlie Chaplin’s career as a silent movie star denies his fans the opportunity to enjoy his talent with voice and music, well, the 2006 musical production of Charlie Chaplin’s life will be nothing short of a treat. Highlighting key areas of his career and life, ‘Chaplin: The Musical’ steps us through Charlie’s formative years, his career high points, his shining moments, his controversies, his most challenging periods, and of course, his love for Oona. Given the fact that Chaplin lived through a very interesting time in modern history, ‘Chaplin: The Musical’ can’t help but interest the viewer due to its treatment of some of the political, cultural, and social realities of the time. ‘Chaplin: The Musical’ is also a treat because it gives one a time machine view of the sights and sounds of the era in cinematic history that Chaplin did not just live in but dominated. No physical fitness was necessary to dominate in that earlier time–just a penchant for laughter.
One of the biggest hassles with being human is that it is too easy for us to yearn for an earlier age and project our hopes and dreams onto that earlier period of human history. We subconsciously try to compare our problems, challenges, dilemmas, and headaches now with a ‘simpler’ age. Thankfully, most of us are aware of our tendency to oversimplify and paint ourselves into tight corners of impossible comparisons. The hard reality is that we will always be living in the best of times and the worst of times. Take the times Chaplin lived in. Sure, there was a certain joy to life and innocence back then but it was also an era of racism, colonialism, alcoholism, imperialism, sexism, disenfranchisement, pre-penicillin disease epidemics, manifest destiny, and social darwinism. It was also the exciting time of invention, poetry, and a world focused on the possible.
In a weird way, knowing all this now helps frame Charlie Chaplin’s time into something nostalgic, ironic, and a bit campy or cheesy all rolled into one. This is one subtext of Charlie Chaplin: The Musical that one can’t avoid but acknowledge. At the very least, understanding that we, as a species, will always live in the best of times and the worst of times gives us the permission to enjoy Charlie Chaplin: The Musical’s treatment of Chaplin’s life and era set to music for the fun it dispenses. Sadly, not everyone gets this. Charlie Chaplin: The Musical opened to mixed reviews in 2006 with some of the most influential critics totally missing the fun aspects of the musical.
Keep in mind that this 2006 musical is something for true Charlie Chaplin fans. It didn’t get much love from the critics. Some critics found its frequent referrals to Chaplin’s childhood as tired, formulaic, and eye roll inducing. Others found its overall treatment of the subject matter as bland and superficial. Still others found the show an exercise in futility, as the medium of theatre could never capture the essence of silent film. One of the worst critiques of Charlie Chaplin: The Musical finds the whole production very shallow and says that its inability to delve deeper and truly deliver something more valuable as mocking the viewer with a clown’s faux remorseful smile. Ouch. Still, Charlie Chaplin: The Musical debuted in 2012 on Broadway. Thankfully, most of the bad reviews this production has gotten was targeted at its 2006 La Jolla production.