Cedar Rapids is the only place you can see the evolving “Chaplin The Musical” before the new version goes to London in 2020.
Revival Theatre Company is staging the play May 30 to June 2 in Dows Theatre at Coe College — with rewrites “hot off the press,” said Cameron Sullenberger, Revival’s co-founder and musical director.
“Our version will end up being different than any version out there,” he said.
About three years ago, the company’s other co-founder and artistic director, Brian Glick, came upon “Chaplin” when searching for potential shows to stage.
“We’re always looking for shows that no one’s touched or (are) not on anyone’s radar,” Glick said.
But he couldn’t find out who held the production rights, so he worked his New York connections, and still came up blank. He shelved the idea for a while. Still curious, he dug a little deeper, and found playwright Christopher Curtis online. (Curtis, who wrote the music and lyrics for the show’s original version, also has assumed the rewriting duties after original playwright Thomas Meehan died.)
“Chaplin has to be able to laugh and has to be able to cry. “That resonates through the piece. Sad things happened, but he laughed through it. He was able to see the laughter and the joy through all of it.”
~ Cameron Sullenberger
Glick contacted Curtis, and “within 20 minutes,” permission was granted, providing the show could be mounted before 2020. Curtis holds the rights, rather than a publishing company like Music Theatre International.
“I think he likes it that way for now, since nothing’s set in stone,” Glick said, noting that since the materials came in PDF files, rather than printed scripts, the process feels like Revival is workshopping the show.
“It’s really exciting to work that closely with a Broadway composer,” Sullenberger said. “We can pick up the phone and call him, and he always has time to talk to us.”
Whether or not Curtis is able to come to Cedar Rapids to see the show will depend on his work schedule, but Glick remains hopeful that he might be in the audience.
The Broadway connections don’t end there.
For Chaplin character insights, Glick and local actor Zane Hadish spoke via FaceTime with Rob McClure — who played Charlie Chaplin in previews and on Broadway — while McClure waited to go onstage as the ghost husband, Adam, in Broadway’s “Beetlejuice.” And Adrian Danzig of Chicago, an actor/teacher who specializes in physical theater and clowning, came to Cedar Rapids in April to work with Hadish to capture the slapstick and physical aspects needed for portraying the title role.
“Adrian is a well-trained, well-versed classical actor,” Glick said. “He really understands why and how to work with an actor and how to safely and appropriately and effectively go about that process. At that level, it is more than just walking on stage. There’s lots of depth and layers....”
Chaplin, best known for creating the Little Tramp character in silent films is a complex character, and all of this advice has helped Hadish, 21, step into the role.
“There’s so many different elements I have to keep in mind when I’m trying to mold myself into this character,” said Hadish, who has finished his first year at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids, and is focusing full-time on acting and music. “There’s a difference between Charlie and the Tramp, and when I’m Charlie, it’s kind of nice because I can show signs of a character that I think might have some interesting similarities with me, such as performing and music and composition and acting.
“And there’s also some things that I didn’t know about Charlie, such as he knew how to roller skate and I was actually a ‘class one’ roller skater back in my elementary days, if I would say so myself,” he added with a laugh.
Loralee Songer, 36, an assistant professor of music at Coe, plays Chaplin’s mother, Hannah, through the ages. A vaudeville singer, she inspired Chaplin’s professional endeavors.
As an actor, director, soundtrack composer for all of his movies, screenwriter, author, musician, producer, editor — Chaplin seemingly had the world by the tail. His tale, however, was anything but flawless.
By age 10, the British-born Chaplin and his older brother, Sydney, were left to fend for themselves in the wake of their father’s death and mother’s illness. They gravitated toward the stage, and through various twists and turns, Sydney, always his brother’s protector, eventually became his business manager.
Once Charlie found the spotlight, it dogged him through vaudeville, silent films, four marriages, 11 children, and an affair that garnered unfounded FBI attention. Furthering his decline in popularity, his political leanings drew scrutiny in the age of the Hollywood communist scare. Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper fanned those flames, which ultimately led to Chaplin giving up on the United States and moving his family to Switzerland. However, he continued to make films abroad.
In 1972, he returned to the United States to accept an honorary Oscar, where he received a 12-minute ovation from the crowd. Chaplin was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1975. He died at home in Switzerland on Dec. 25, 1977, at age 88.
Because the musical isn’t well known, “I think people are going to come in and think it’s gonna be slapstick — and they’re gonna be brutally awakened,” Glick said. “It is heavy. It’s also very funny. It’s very moving, and we’re doing it all in grayscale, so everything is in black and white, and that’s exciting for us.”
The music isn’t all Tin Pan Alley, but does hearken a bit to that 1920s sound, while mixing in a little Broadway razzmatazz and beautiful melodies, Sullenberger said.
“Chaplin has to be able to laugh and has to be able to cry,” Sullenberger said. “That resonates through the piece. Sad things happened, but he laughed through it. He was able to see the laughter and the joy through all of it.”
In the words of his most famous song:
“Smile though your heart is aching / Smile even though it’s breaking / When there are clouds in the sky, you’ll get by / If you smile through your fear and sorrow / Smile and maybe tomorrow / You’ll see the sun come shining through for you.”
WHAT: Revival Theatre Company: “Chaplin The Musical”
WHERE: Dows Theatre, Coe College, 1220 First Ave. NE, Cedar Rapids
WHEN: May 30 to June 2; 7:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday
TICKETS: $35 to $45, Paramount Ticket Office, (319) 366-8203 or Artsiowa.com/tickets/concerts/chaplin/
DISCOUNT: $25 students, veterans in person at ticket office, 119 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids