Tramp! Tramp! Tramp! Charlie Chaplin is Marching to Broadway

‘His life was a giant story, and we cover it from workhouse to Oscars—from London in the 1890s to Hollywood in the 1970s.’

It’s a sprawling cavalcade, Chaplin’s life and work, but Mr. Carlyle said he takes it one step at a time, subscribing wholeheartedly to the God-is-in-the-details theory.

“I spent a lot of time researching those movies and the way he moved. Just finding a way to develop his movement into choreography was a challenge.”

Boldly—and maybe not seen since Oklahoma!—he has opted to end the first act with a ballet. “It doesn’t end with a big song. It ends physically. This ballet is based on a famous Chaplin lookalike contest that was held in San Francisco. He entered it and came in third, but I took that as a jumping-off point. I thought it was such a fun way of filling the stage with Chaplins and allowing me, as a choreographer, to dance a little bit.”

Heretofore an understudy (I’m Not Rappaport) and replacement (Avenue Q) on Broadway, Rob McClure has accelerated like Charlie on the Sennett lot, answering Where’s Charley? with Chaplin. The former, an Encores reprise in which he pranced out a passable Ray Bolger, proved he can physicalize a role, and that’s the key to Chaplin.

This “Where’s Charlie?” started with the films he left behind. “I watched every piece of footage I could find of both The Little Tramp and Chaplin,” said Mr. McClure.  “At this point, I think, I’ve seen them all at least once and several of them many times.

“When I was first approaching it, I thought, ‘How am I going to fall down like he did and not get hurt when I do that silly gag?’ I was approaching it physically. Then, the more I watched those old Keystone films, the more I realized everyone was falling. What made him the most famous man in the world in a decade was that he was doing something else—something tiny, something beautiful—and that’s the thing I honed in on, trying to get a handle on that physical vocabulary that was so specific.”

Chaplin famously added mime to the mix, finding his fun in a myriad of finite gestures and flourishes. “There was this lightness, this brevity, this comic melancholy to him that’s really a beautiful sensitivity and sensibility he had back then,” Mr. McClure continued. Watching the films, he discovered that Chaplin’s every move was carefully choreographed.

“I remember when I was first learning the walk—The Tramp’s sort of shuffle-waddle—I noticed in one of his films his left shoulder would pop and his right knee would kick out while he was walking. I thought, ‘Oh, I’d love to incorporate some of that.’ I thought it was random, but, the more movies I saw, the more I realized it was usually after he had been turned down by a woman or an opportunity, and, as he would walk away, the shoulder would go up and the knee would go out. He was shaking it off. Nothing was not on purpose. It all had a beautiful, specific purpose.”

Some movements in the show, he said, do several things at once. “Warren has been searching for moments where he can be biographical, theatrical and cinematic at the same time. A boxing scene of Charlie battling his ex-wives is a great example of that: It’s biographical because it deals with his marriages, it’s cinematic because it’s referring to the famous boxing scene from City Lights, and it’s theatrical because using that convention to tell that part of the story is theatrical.”

Not unexpectedly, the actor’s biggest kick occurs when Mr. Chaplin turns into The Little Tramp—“the moment he reaches into his own life experience and the audience sees that character come to life in front of them for the first time. I can feel this wave of third-party energy from them for the man himself—all this familiarity and affection being thrown at me. Feeling the whole audience leaning forward is thrilling.”

That inspired moment of Tramp-trumping remains much as Mr. Curtis conceived it in his first draft of the Chaplin story, Behind the Limelight, which The New York Musical Theatre Festival showcased in 2006. Mr. Meehan attended a performance because his original Annie, Andrea McArdle, played the Chaplin adversary, Hedda Hopper. He met Mr. Curtis afterward and came aboard, initially as a mentor and eventually as a co-book writer. “I think it was more linear back then,” Mr. Curtis recalled. “There’ve been a lot more structural changes. It’s more abstract now, but some things haven’t changed, like when he discovers The Little Tramp.”

Chaplin didn’t come about because Mr. Curtis is a passionate cinephile. Rather, it grew out of a chance meeting—a casual conversation that he once had with a customer at the swank Beverly Hills restaurant Jimmy’s, where he worked as a singer-pianist.

The customer, who was going on and on about the struggles his father had had and how spectacularly he overcame them, turned out to be—until this musical—Mr. Chaplin’s sole contribution to Broadway, his actor son Sydney (Bells Are Ringing, Funny Girl). “I thought it was really interesting, just hearing him talk about his dad, and that prompted me to take a course on Chaplin’s life, which really inspired me. I also loved the time period—the English music hall, early Hollywood—and I thought that was a great musical palette to play with, so I started writing music for it, then lyrics and eventually a book.”

It was an accidental encounter, but it is finally—after many trials and errors—giving a cinematic great his long-overdue day on Broadway.

editorial@observer.com