Add Limelight: The Story of Charlie Chaplin to the Left Coast’s growing trend of left-leaning stage productions. This musical stresses the personal in the first act and the political in the second act, and brilliantly, dialectically reveals the relationship between the two. Young Charlie’s (Jake Schwenke, who appeared in another play about an oppressed British boy, Billy Elliot) trials and tribulations portray the family’s eviction (foreshadowing today’s foreclosure crisis), his impoverished English childhood in the workhouse, and the madhouse where his mother (Ashley Brown, Broadway’s Mary Poppins) is confined after their father/husband abandons them. Both parents had been music hall performers, and as I recall from Chaplin’s autobiography, had initially been successful before losing it all. In any case, this is where Charlie was, as the play shows, exposed to the entertainment world.
Along with his brother Sydney (Matthew Scott), as a young man Charlie (now played by Rob McClure, of Broadway’s Avenue Q) conquers London’s vaudeville stages. The up and coming comic is lured to La-La-Land by a fateful telegram from the moviemaker Mack Sennett (Ron Orbach, who has appeared on Broadway in plays such as Chicago and Neil Simon’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor), noted for his silent screen slapstick shtick. The rest, as they say, is film history, as the athletic, imaginative Chaplin creates the beloved character of the Little Tramp, that homeless everyman who became an overnight sensation with the U.S.-born and immigrant masses flocking to flickers. As a film historian it was especially good fun to watch these sequences.
But stardom brings with it unexpected consequences and complications, as groupies take advantage of the young superstar and his high living life style, which often ends up on the proverbial casting couch. Along the way Chaplin makes the fatal mistake of snubbing a then-aspiring actress named Hedda Hopper (based on Jenn Colella’s acidic interpretation of the future gossip columnist, one would wrongly expect her Broadway credits to include the titular witch in Wicked – which they don’t – but she has starred in High Fidelity and Urban Cowboy on the Great White Way). Not even his grown up brother Sydney (Matthew Scott, whose Broadway turns include Sondheim on Sondheim and Jersey Boys), now Charlie’s business manager, can save him from the star’s playboy-like private life and the ensuing storm in act two.
Limelight’s insightful, entertaining first act has set-up the far superior second act, as the silent film comedian literally finds his voice in 1940’s The Great Dictator, Charlie’s Hitler-arious spoof of the Nazis and Mussolini’s Italian brand of fascists, in Chaplin’s first all talking picture. And boy does Charlie speak, in a double role, as Adenoid Hynkel (Adolph Hitler) and as the Little Tramp, who is here a Jewish barber. When the Jew is mistaken for the Nazi-in-chief at a Nuremburg type of rally, Chaplin — who had been criticized for not making a talkie for 13 years after The Jazz Singer revolutionized the cinema with synchronized sound – delivers what is still one of the best, greatest, most deeply profound speeches in the entire history of motion pictures. It remains unsurpassed, and the play, with its book by Thomas Meehan (2003 Tony Award winner for co-writing Hairspray) and Christopher Curtis (who is credited as co-author, as well as being Limelight’s composer and lyricist) should do a rewrite and incorporate some of the better highlights of Chaplin’s anti-Nazi ode.
The importance of The Great Dictator can not be underestimated, as it came out during the despicable Hitler-Stalin Pact that sidelined the Soviet Union from the anti-fascist struggle, the year that uber-Bolshevik world revolutionary Leon Trotsky was assassinated by a Stalinist agent, Europe was largely conquered and overrun by the Nazis, America pursued an isolationist policy, and the United Kingdom stood virtually alone during the Battle of Britain against Hitler’s hordes. Chaplin’s championing of the oppressed, especially the most persecuted people on Earth then – European Jewry – was nothing short of magnificent.
Limelight portrays this, and the by then gossip columnist Hedda Hopper’s efforts to undermine and malign Chaplin by, among other things, claiming he was Jewish in a country and world full of anti-Semitism. What the musical does not explicitly show is that the planet’s most famous, beloved man courageously refused to deny the rumors, in order to confer his prestige and status on the downtrodden Jews then being massacred in Hitler’s concentration camps. As I recall, Sydney Chaplin had a different father from Charlie, and was half-Jewish, so Charlie also did not want to deny his own half-brother.
This, however, does not stop the brothers from having a falling out when Charlie boldly attends pro-Communist rallies demanding that in those pre-D-Day days during WWII that the Allies open a second front in order to relieve the Russians from the Nazi onslaught. Sydney objects to Charlie’s overtly political activism at demos depicted onstage with swirling red flags emblazoned with the Soviet hammer and sickle. The politicalization of Earth’s most famous man on behalf of suffering humanity does not escape the attention of Hopper and the Justice Department, who surveill and hound Chaplin.
The play should, however, stress the point that when Charlie spoke out for a second front the USSR was our official military ally in the crusade against fascism. Another quibble I have as a film historian is that in compressing a very long life (Chaplin lived to be about 88) Limelight depicts Dictator as being Charlie’s transformation into a cinematic social commentator. Leaving aside the issue of consciousness and conscience in Chaplin’s silent oeuvre, such as his sympathetic portrayal of new arrivals in The Immigrant or his serious turn in 1923’s A Woman of Paris, Limelight makes a glaring omission by not even mentioning one of the pinnacles of Chaplin’s career, 1936’s Modern Times, with its biting satire of factory conditions during the Depression which seemed ripped right out of Karl Marx’s writings on alienation, its depiction of a Red rally, police brutality, unemployment, poverty, etc. Not to mention that while it is more or less a silent picture Chaplin performs a great number with nonsense verses as a singing waiter, signaling his awareness of sound. Chaplin’s marriage to Paulette Goddard, who co-starred in both Modern Times and Dictator, is also not mentioned nor, while we’re at it, was Chaplin’s co-creation of United Artists with D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, as an effort to give moviemakers — instead of the moneymakers –control over their films.
Nevertheless, Limelight’s superb if short 50 minute second act shows how Charlie’s troubled childhood led him to identify with cosmic injustice and for the Little Tramp to nobly stand up for the little guys and gals around the globe. The blacklist and persecution of Chaplin is harrowing, while his finally finding personal happiness in his marriage to playwright Eugene O’Neill’s much younger daughter Oona, and redemption when the exiled Charlie is invited back to America in the 1970s to win a special Academy Award (where he performed a charming slapstick trick), is heartwarming. The play informs us that their long marriage produced eight children, but for some reason does not tell us that they lived out their exile in neutral Switzerland, where the Swiss Alps buffered Chaplin from the slings and arrows of the scandal-mongers and Redbaiters.
(Nor does the play tell us that Chaplin was supposedly a very strict disciplinarian; his son Michael wrote a tell-all book called I Couldn’t Smoke the Grass on My Father’s Lawn, published in 1967, the same year Chaplin’s cinematic swan song, A Countess From Hong Kong, starring Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren, was released. This underrated film is also unmentioned in Limelight, which suggests that Chaplin’s 1952 movie of that name was his last. But Charlie also boldly directed the anti-McCarthyism A King in New York in 1957, while the blacklist was still in effect.)
Nevertheless, like many other productions at the fabled Tony Award-winning La Jolla Playhouse, the stellar Limelight is Broadway bound for glory. Projection designer Zachary Borovay and Scenic designer Alexander Dodge’s work is inventively cinematic, in particular deploying techniques that are reminiscent of movie close-ups and iris ins and outs. But before taking it to the Great White Way, Limelight’s writers, director Michael Unger, director/choreographer Warren Carlyle, music director Bryan Perri, and dramaturg Gabriel Greene may want to consider adding another act in between what is now the musical’s first and second acts. How about adding a slapstick sequence inspired by Chaplin being swallowed by the assembly line in Modern Times or the Japanese plot to assassinate the Little Tramp? After all, as Limelight’s filmic finale suggests, Charlie Chaplin’s long life provides plenty of material and was lived on an endless, open road. Speaking of which, Limelight is well worth the drive down from L.A. to San Diego!
Limelight: The Story of Charlie Chaplin is being performed through October 17 at the Mandell Weiss Theatre at the La Jolla Playhouse, on the UCSD campus at 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla, CA 92037 on: Wednesdays October 6 and October 13 at 7:30 p.m.; Thursdays October7 and 14 and Fridays October 8 and October 15 at 8:00 p.m.; Saturdays October 9 and October 16 at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.; and Sundays Oct. 10 and Oct. 17 at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. For more info: (858) 550-1010; www.lajollaplayhouse.org/ .
Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian, critic, author, freelance writer and wag who wrote the Oct. 26, 2001 Tucson Weekly cover story“Tinseltown’s Tombstone, A Look at the Real and Reel Wyatt Earp.”