Charlie Chaplin on Broadway

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.

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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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Charlie Chaplin: The Musical

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.

Nostalgic look

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.

Bad reviews

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.

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