Charlie Chaplin’s Life in Music

Considering how crazy, zany, tumultuous, and downright interesting Charlie Chaplin’s biography is, one would think that it would be a slam dunk as a musical adaptation. Unfortunately, given the history of Charlie Chaplin: The Musical, some ideas that may seem like downright no-brainers are actually very hard to translate to musical successes. Charlie Chaplin: The Musical shows that simply picking a historically engaging and amusing figure from cinematic and cultural history as a musical’s source or central figure is not as easy as one would think.

Too much material, too little time

There are just some personalities that are so mulch-faceted, so complicated, and so deep that it is very hard to reduce their lives to print, to film or into a play without doing one of the following. You can chop up their lives into different historical eras and do those. You can just focus on one aspect of their life and building the movie or play around that. You can cover a large chunk of their life but do a half-ass job of it by spreading yourself too thin. Sadly, Charlie Chaplin: The Musical took the last approach. If it is makes any fans of this production feel any better, this is precisely the kind of mistake many productions make when dealing with larger than life figures in art, science, society, culture, or history. In many cases, it is understandable why producers want to go this route-they don’t want to leave anything out. Unfortunately, what separates middling musicals from truly great ones is precisely the kind of hard editing choices that is bold enough to cut. This boldness is what separates great musicals from mediocre ones.

The enemy of any quality musical: formulaic approaches

Chalk it up to our contemporary era’s penchant of rationalizing or excusing personal flaws as ‘rooted in childhood issues,’ (perhaps thanks to the life experts or “coaches” out there) but Charlie Chaplin: The Musical tends to dip a bit too liberally in this common and formulaic thematic device. Again and again, objectionable or ‘complicated’ aspects of Charlie Chaplin’s personality, life, and choices are explained again and again by his childhood. It does get old after a while. Considering how big Chaplin got, it seems downright insulting or demeaning to the talent, skill, perseverance, and personal willpower of this great cinematic pioneer to reduce him to some half-warmed pop psychology series of factoids. A more charitable interpretation of Charlie Chaplin: The Musical’s over reliance on formulaic gimmicks is that maybe it is the only workable way of trying to handle as many themes in Chaplin’s life. We are, after all, covering a huge span of time.

At the end, we only get a clown look

Maybe one of the biggest revelations Charlie Chaplin: The Musical brings to the table is that, given how big certain cultural, historical, and artistic figures are, the best we can hope for is a less than satisfactory experience. After all, we just don’t have the luxury of time to truly delve into their personal realities. Maybe this is an underhanded compliment to just how larger than life they really were.

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