December 4, 2012

It is a classic good news / bad news situation. Just as the original Broadway cast album of Chaplin: The Musical starts its entry into the music market, the show it documents begins its departure.

Masterworks Broadway is releasing the recording today for digital download, but the physical disc won’t be in stores until January 8. That will be just two days after the show plays its last performance at the Barrymore Theatre on New York’s 47th Street.

This is the second new musical to premiere on Broadway this season. It is also the second to have an original Broadway Cast album. The album for Bring It On, which opened at the St. James Theatre in August, was released in October. That show, however, was announced as a limited run so the fact that it is closing on December 30 is less disappointing than yesterday’s announcement that Chaplin will close January 6.

Chaplin drew more approval for the performance of its star, Rob McClure, than for the show itself. But based on the evidence provided in the nicely done recording, it offers a score that is a pleasure to hear.

It is the first stage musical score by its composer/lyricist/bookwriter, Chris Curtis. He’s a television and movie songwriter who bills himself on his website as: “Singer / Songwriter / Author / Composer / Lyricist / Arranger.” In short, a musical jack of all trades.

That website says he “was signed to the songwriting program at Disney Animation.” He seems to have learned his lessons well and brought some real talent to his chores. This being his first stage musical, it isn’t surprising that he doesn’t seem to have found his own voice yet, however. 

Musically, some of the songs sound like they were composed on the frame of another composer’s approach. A few have a faint feeling of John Kander’s work with Fred Ebb. Some others, Jerry Herman. Still others, Stephen Flaherty.

Lyrically, each stakes out its message and drives it home without much ado. Subtlety isn’t one of Curtis’ tools and he seems to fill in the blanks between his rhymes with an eye toward how many beats he needs to fill. But each song plays its role in the overall storytelling and they all add up to a satisfying whole.

While he’s listed as composer, lyricist and book writer on Chaplin, he has a colleague in the later function, a book writer who is far from making his debut on Broadway. That would be Thomas Meehan, who has no fewer than three musicals playing on Broadway right now. In addition to co-writing Chaplin, he’s the author of Annie which is being revived at the Palace, and the co-author with Bob Martin of Elf, which is holding forth again this year at the Al Hirschfeld. The eight other Broadway credits to his name include the huge hits The Producers and Hairspray as well as less successful efforts like Bombay Dreams, Cry-Baby and Young Frankenstein. In all of these, he has shown a propensity for crafting musicals that are strong in the story-telling function, and that build a solid dramatic arc while landing as many laughs as the project needs. His touch is evident here as well.

The story they are telling is the life of Charlie Chaplin. Like all bio-musicals, it attempts to find the dramatic arc and then streamline the story to something just over two hours. In this case, it is the poor English lad with a mother coming unbalanced by the pressures of a marriage to an alcoholic. To earn her approval, the lad finds a talent for comedy which leads to success in English music halls and a call from Hollywood to make “flickers” for Mack Sennett. In front of Sennett’s cameras he creates the role of “The Little Tramp” that becomes an international phenomenon, and makes him the first real movie star. But his failure to court the likes of Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper and his left-of-center political views lead to his exile from the US. The story comes to an end at the final curtain with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences bestowing on him an Oscar for lifetime achievements twenty-some years later. The show doesn’t seem to deal much with the sexual scandals that contributed to the banishment but, hey, they just have two hours before they have to launch into the anthem-like finale “This Man.”

The recording gives us a chance to witness the vocal portion of the much praised performance of Rob McClure, who made a splash in the Encores! concert staging of Where’s Charley, and who the country came to know when he toured as Rod and Princeton in the national touring company of Avenue Q. Without the visual aspects of his appearance as the famous Charlie Chaplin, the movement he brings to the dance numbers and the connecting tissue of the dialog scenes, the glimpses we get on the disc aren’t enough to create a fully formed portrait of a man of Chaplin’s complexity. However, each song he sings is undeniably well delivered.

The supporting cast is quite strong. Christiane Noll, who was nominated for the Best Actress in a Musical Tony in 2010 for her performance as “Mother” in Ragtime, plays another mother – Charlie’s mentally deteriorating mum. The creative team did a smart thing in giving her the opening number, the recurring “Look At All The People.”

The super-talented Jenn Colella gives yet another memorable portrayal in a short-lived musical. She made her Broadway debut as Sissy in the country-pop musical version of Urban Cowboy that played the Broadhurst for nearly three months in 2003, and then she starred in High Fidelity at the Imperial for its less-than-a-month run in 2006. Here she’s the ruthless Hedda Hopper who sets out to ruin Chaplin.

Other members of the cast who make an impression include Erin Mackey and Michael McCormick. Mackey sings Chaplin’s praises in “What Only Love Can See” as Oona O’Neill who was the daughter of Eugene O’Neill. She was Chaplin’s last wife and the mother of his eight children. McCormick is Mack Sennett who teaches the talented young Charlie Chaplin to act in the movies in “Sennett Song” and then recognizes it when Chaplin’s talents exceed what he could teach in the “Tramp Shuffle.”

Using a full sounding pit orchestra with arrangements by Curtis and Bryan Perri orchestrated by Larry Hochman, the entire package sounds like the big Broadway bio-musical it is. One that fits the traditional mold with catchy tunes for the lighter moments and lush melodies for the touching ones. 

Those who, like me, enjoy just such a sound will find a lot to like in this recording and may find they are listening to it many times, for it just seems to get better with repeated hearing.

Chaplin: The Musical
Original Broadway Cast Album
Masterworks Broadway
Running time 52:12 over 20 tracks
Available to ship Jan 8, 2013
Downloads available now.

Chaplin: The Musical