NEW YORK (AP) — Charlie Chaplin grins from a giant, grainy screen in his trademark hat and oversized pants while the audience finds their seats at the new Broadway musical about the silent screen legend. People whisper, wondering what movie the clip came from. Was it "The Kid?" No, it was "Gold Rush."
They're all wrong. It's an image of Rob McClure, the actor who plays the lead and is in nearly every scene of the 2½-hour show at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. For McClure, who has played a few roles on Broadway before but never originated one, the show has been like a dream — a physically demanding dream, though.
McClure roller skates, jumps and dances on top of a spinning table, plays the violin in a sad number and walks on a tightrope, all the while mimicking Chaplin's most famous character the Little Tramp with ease, and trying to show the audience about the English actor's epic life. McClure, who has earned praise for his work even if the show drew poor reviews, spoke to The Associated Press about what it was like to prepare for the role.
AP: What was your experience with Chaplain before the show?
McClure: My great aunt Marian told me that I looked like Charlie Chaplin my entire life. I knew he was really good at falling down and looking silly, but that was about it, until I was going to audition for the show. Her daughter called me on the Amtrak train as I was headed for the audition and said, 'We found a 6-foot portrait she painted of Chaplin in 1975, do you want it?' Literally as I was on my way there. What a weird coincidence, isn't it? It now hangs in my dressing room. That was my main reference for Chaplin.
AP: So how did you learn to do the famous walk, or is it a waddle? I don't know what to call it.
McClure: Ha, yes. It's a bit of both, isn't it? I just watched every piece of footage I could get my hands on and practiced. It was almost like becoming fluent in a new language. If you think about it, Charlie Chaplin was a silent film star — so everything — every move, every expression — was for the purpose of communication. So I started to look deeper into why he was doing it and that's what really unlocked his physical lexicon for me, so to speak. In one scene, he did this sort of shoulder pop. I realized that he had been turned down by a woman, and has he turned and he was walking away it was almost like he was shaking it off.
AP: The curtain rises to you balanced on one foot, on a tightrope high above the stage and audience. And then you're on it later, doing crazy stunts with the famous hat. How on earth did you learn to do that?
McClure: They sent me to a circus school for three weeks, two sessions a week. And we learned how to walk the high wire which was crazy and something I'd never thought I'd have the opportunity to learn. I knew I was in good hands when I walked into the facility and I saw a huge piece of tightrope Philippe Petit used to walk in between the Twin Towers. But I wear a harness and I thought, 'Oh that will be holding me up,' but that was a complete mistake on my part. I have to walk it, and I can't fall or I'll be swinging around near the wall. And I have to walk it eight shows a week. It's thrilling and it feels dangerous and it should — for me and the audience.
AP: Was the tightrope the most difficult thing to master?
McClure: No, actually. With the tightrope the stakes were higher but by far the violin has been the most difficult. It's an instrument I can't hide behind. On the violin, if you're nervous, you're literally dealing with fiber on fiber, the sound is a direct correlation to every nuance on your body. So if I'm nervous, that translates into the most revolting screeching sound. As I continue to play I get better and better and better. I've got such a respect for it, and of course such a respect for Charlie. It was his instrument of choice while he was composing the music for most of his films.
AP: Do you see Chaplin's Little Tramp as a comedic or a tragic figure? He's always made me kind of sad.
McClure: I laugh but it's always for such a heartbreaking purpose. In 'City Lights,' the movie, he does this incredible boxing sequence where he's not a boxer but he enters the boxing tournament for the money prize, it's one of the funniest ballets ever. I don't think I've laughed that hard at a film since. But he entered the boxing tournament to win the money for the blind flower girl he loves and she gets the surgery and he's too embarrassed to tell her. He was beyond a pioneer. Everyone was socking each other in the face with pies and falling down. The Keystone Cops figured that our really quickly. Chaplain was the guy who said I think we need to put a beating heart under all this.
AP: Some of the film images look very old and people thought maybe they were you. Are they?
McClure: They're me. Chaplain's granddaughter came to see the show, and said she was moved and had sweet things to say. She went home and on Sunday I received an email that the composer received from her that said, 'Hey, my family has spent the entire weekend looking for the entire clip you guys used at the end of the show. Which film is it from?' But it was ours. We went into a field in San Diego and walked off into the distance. It was amazing... I cried for an hour after I read it.