They Deserve a Win: Rob McClure honors Chaplin’s memory and changes the way I view theatre

Rob McClure in costume as Charlie Chaplin.

Rob McClure in costume as Charlie Chaplin.

It’s not often that I buy a cast recording on a whim. However, after hearing a small sample of a certain cast recording last November, I couldn’t resist.

Though the album officially dropped in December, Playbill.com released one of the songs a few weeks earlier. I played the song on a loop for a month and counted down the days until the cast recording came out.

At midnight on December 4, I bought the song on iTunes. And, after sampling a few more tracks, I decided that I’d be better off buying the entire album. Without hesitation, I clicked “Purchase Album” and haven’t looked back since.

That cold night in December, I bought the cast recording of the new musical Chaplin and fell in love.

Chaplin tells the story of the silent film star Charlie Chaplin “from the slums of London to the heights of Hollywood.” The show goes beyond recreating the star’s classic Little Tramp films onstage and delves into the man behind the movies. Chaplin opened on September 10 at the Barrymore Theatre.

Just a few short months later, Chaplin closed on January 6th. News of their closing notice upset me because I knew that I would never have the chance to see what had recently become my favorite show.

One of the short-lived show’s best assets was its wonderfully casted actors. It starred Broadway vets Christiane Noll, Jenn Colella and Michael McCormick as well as a few newer performers including Zachary Unger, Erin Mackey, Hayley Podschun and Rob McClure.

It was McClure who I heard on that sample track almost six months ago. The song was “Where Are All the People”, Chaplin’s 11-o’clock number, and it has since been played on my iTunes over 200 times.

I originally fell in love with McClure’s portrayal of Chaplin from listening to the cast recording on repeat. Throughout the album, you can hear the transformation of Chaplin’s character through McClure’s voice. There’s a certain innocence and hope that he portrays well in “If I Left London” as Chaplin embarks on his journey to Hollywood; later, you can hear that same innocence shattered as McClure breaks your heart in “Where Are All the People.”

However it wasn’t until I watched parts of McClure’s performance on YouTube that I realized how brilliant it was. He mastered the Tramp’s signature “shuffle” and went through some serious training to become the best Chaplin he could be. One video from Chaplin’s is particularly insightful into McClure’s Chaplin training—he learned how to play the violin, walk on a tightrope, and roller skate blindfolded before the show came to Broadway.

And it wasn’t just me who fell in love with McClure’s performance. Amidst Chaplin’s negative reviews, critics couldn’t stop raving about McClure fabulous turn as Charlie Chaplin.

It also turns out that Tony nominators fell in love with McClure’s magical performance as well. He was nominated for a Tony Award this year for Best Leading Actor in a Musical—Chaplin’s only nomination.

Leading up to the nominations, I was worried for Chaplin. Historically, shows that close months before the Tonys don’t stand a chance against the bigger hits that open later in the season. So, when McClure’s name was announced on nomination morning, I was a bit shocked. I shed a few happy tears for McClure and his show—Chaplin would have a piece of theatre history and was recognized for its excellence.

However, that thrill was short-lived once I thought about the nominations that Chaplin should have been a lock for. I expected a nomination for Christopher Curtis’ score and Larry Hochman’s orchestrations I had fallen in love with. I also expected a nomination for the brilliantly envisioned sets, complete with projections of remade Chaplin film clips.

I even expected nominations for a few of McClure’s cast mates. Jenn Colella’s performance as the cunning and conniving Hedda Hopper was perfect. Christiane Noll was haunting as Chaplin’s mentally ill mother, Hannah, and forever changes Charlie when she sang “Look At All the People” at the beginning of the show. Neither of them received love from the nominating committee.

Instead, the nominators chose McClure to carry on the legacy of his show and they could not have picked a more worthy nominee.

Even with its lack of nominations, Chaplin’s fans will remember all of the aspects that made the show so magical. The show forever changed the way that I think about theatre. Up until Chaplin, I was opposed to using projections onstage to create the set. I thought that it made the show look “fake,” in a sense, as the scenery wasn’t real. However, Chaplin’s use of projections inventive and effective. The projections were used to portray the part of Chaplin’s life that changed the world: his films.

Chaplin also proved that good, new musicals are still being made and can be produced on Broadway. The score was written in the classic Broadway style, featuring a full orchestra and large ensemble numbers. Even a few circus tricks were thrown in to wow the audience. Contrary to popular belief, good old fashioned musicals are not dead yet, as best proved by Christopher Curtis when he wrote Chaplin.

Even if McClure doesn’t take home the Tony, he has and Chaplin left their mark on the Great White Way. Chaplin was a labor of love for its audience, and a magical one at that, bringing about tears and laughter throughout its 135 performances. And for that, it will be loved forever.

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