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Musical About Charlie Chaplin At La Jolla Playhouse

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Aired 9/8/10

The La Jolla Playhouse is staging a world premiere musical about the life of Charlie Chaplin. "Limelight" named after one of Chaplin's late films, focuses on the personal life of the film legend and includes a book written by the Tony Award winning writer of "Hairspray" and "The Producers." We'll talk with the musical's creative team.

Thomas Meehan, Co-Author of "LIMELIGHT: THE STORY OF CHARLIE CHAPLIN."
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Above: Thomas Meehan, Co-Author of "LIMELIGHT: THE STORY OF CHARLIE CHAPLIN."

Christopher Curtis, Composer, Lyricist and Co-Author of "LIMELIGHT: THE STORY OF CHARLIE CHAPLIN."
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Above: Christopher Curtis, Composer, Lyricist and Co-Author of "LIMELIGHT: THE STORY OF CHARLIE CHAPLIN."

"Limelight: The Story of Charlie Chaplin" opens tonight and runs through October 17th.

ALISON ST JOHN (Host): You’re listening to These Days in San Diego. I’m Alison St John in for Maureen Cavanaugh. It's always exciting to hear about a new world premiere opening at the La Jolla Playhouse. So many productions that have started there have gone national, and you always wonder if the next one will hit the big time. The performance opening tonight is a musical about a legendary movie character. He has a mythical quality but he’s real: Charlie Chaplain. The show is "Limelight," and we have the co-authors of the book in studio. Tom Meehan is the Tony Award winner writer of “Hairspray,” and “The Producers,” and “Annie” and the recent production of “Crybaby.” Tom, thanks so much for being with us.

THOMAS MEEHAN (Writer): I’m very pleased to be here.

ST JOHN: And Chris Curtis, who co-authored the book and also composed the music and wrote the lyrics. Chris, great to have you in studio.

CHRISTOPHER CURTIS (Composer/Lyricist): Thank you.

ST JOHN: So, let’s start with you, Tom, and ask you what drew you to Charlie Chaplin as an inspiration for this?

MEEHAN: Chris Curtis, who originally had the idea to do the show and conceived and worked on it and at some point…

ST JOHN: He enrolled you.

MEEHAN: He enrolled me. He seduced me into working on the show, as it were.

ST JOHN: So, Chris, enroll us. What drew you to this topic?

CURTIS: Actually, my first idea was to do a musical about a number of the silent film actors and comedians. I just thought the 1920s was an interesting era. We have great – It was just – I loved the period as far as music. And then I met Charlie Chaplin’s son, Sydney, and that was really interesting. Then I took a course on his life, and then I just found his life very fascinating, tragic and funny, and I just started writing songs as I was inspired by his life story. I started writing songs and that’s kind of how it started. So basically meeting his son and then taking this college course on his life is kind of how it began.

ST JOHN: So tell us a little bit about the meeting with his son. How did that grab you?

CURTIS: It was interesting because he was – You know what was interesting? He was just as fascinated by his father as I was, and yet he was his son. And he was actually the second son from the second marriage. He was Lita Grey’s son, Sydney Chaplin. In fact, he was in “Funny Girl.”

ST JOHN: How many marriages did Charlie Chaplin have?

CURTIS: Four.

ST JOHN: Four, okay.

CURTIS: Four. His last – he had like eight children with Oona O’Neill but then he had two children with Lita Grey and Sydney was the second. But it was really interesting. It was – He would almost talk about his dad like it was somebody else, do you know what I mean?

ST JOHN: Like he was a legend even to his own son.

CURTIS: Yeah, he was. He would talk about the movies and just like he would get very emotional about them. It was very touching.

ST JOHN: So now you presumably then embarked on a lot of research about him. Although he’s very well known, there’s a lot that’s unknown about him.

CURTIS: Umm-hmm.

ST JOHN: But tell us a bit about the impact he had on audiences right from the start. What was it about him?

CURTIS: Well, right from the start, I think that he was, in a way, almost like the first cartoon character.

ST JOHN: Umm…

CURTIS: He was – Because there was no language barrier, it was like worldwide. It was just universal, the Chaplin appeal. But I think there’s one word that comes down to Little Tramp, the character, was ‘hope’ because in the end of every film, the Tramp rarely, with the exception of films like “The Gold Rush” gets the girl…

ST JOHN: Umm-hmm.

CURTIS: …but in the end he ends up waddling off, shuffling off into the sunset with hope in his heart.

ST JOHN: Uh-huh.

CURTIS: And he’s a tragic character but there’s always a sense of hope about the Little Tramp. And I think especially during those times back in the beginning of the century, and especially during the Depression, he just became this symbol of hope for people.

ST JOHN: And movies weren’t actually as big a deal back then as they are now.

CURTIS: No, there was – it was in infancy. It was just basically one camera and, like, action, you know, was – It was really…

MEEHAN: Yeah, I was going to say, I…

ST JOHN: Tom.

MEEHAN: …think what I didn’t know when I came into this is the Chaplin story and it’s a remarkable story because he grew up in the slums of London with a drunken father a mother who later had to be institutionalized, and danced for pennies in the street and was recognized and played a little bit in vaudeville in London. And in 1913, he got a telegram from Max Sennett…

CURTIS: Keystone…

MEEHAN: …to come to Hollywood and try to be in the movies. In 1913, he arrived in Hollywood, unknown, penniless, created the Tramp character. Within seven years, by 1920, he was the most famous man in the world and, soon, one of the most wealthy, too.

CURTIS: Rich.

MEEHAN: An amazing thing that happened.

ST JOHN: So what was it that attracted Hollywood’s attention in the first place?

MEEHAN: Well, they’d seen him on the vaudeville stage, musicals in London, and he had a lot of talent. He was making like five pounds a week which was the equivalent of, say, $30.00. He – The movies offered him $150.00 a week…

ST JOHN: Uh-huh.

MEEHAN: …which seemed like a fortune.

ST JOHN: And, of course, movies in those days were silent…

MEEHAN: They were silent.

ST JOHN: …so all about the…

MEEHAN/ST JOHN: …physical.

MEEHAN: It was all physical comedy. And the early films were just knockabout Sennett comedies with their basic chases and there were no stories.

ST JOHN: Right.

MEEHAN: He was the first to create…

CURTIS: The story.

MEEHAN: …a distinctive, sympathetic character, and it just swept the world. I mean, he – movies were in their infancy but what amazes me is that people were going to the movies, the little nickelodeons, they were called. It cost five cents, the original pictures. Things like that.

ST JOHN: Does that physical quality play a large role in “Limelight?”

CURTIS: It does now. Yeah, it does. I mean, we capture that. We never try to reenact his movie onstage because you’d never be as good as him but we capture the essence and the movement and dance, the essence of Chaplin, the wistfulness.

MEEHAN: We have a wonderful young actor named Rob McClure…

CURTIS: He’s great.

MEEHAN: …who looks just like Chaplin. In the makeup, you’d – He looks exactly like Chaplin. In the…

ST JOHN: He’s in the title role?

CURTIS: Yeah.

MEEHAN: In the title role. He’s amazing.

ST JOHN: Tell us how you picked him. Did you have to interview a lot of people, audition a lot of people?

MEEHAN: Hundreds.

CURTIS: Yeah.

ST JOHN: What was it about him that stood out?

CURTIS: The physical comedy. That he – he – one, he looked like him but he was really good at physical comedy. And very much…

ST JOHN: Did you make him do a silent routine in the audition?

CURTIS: No, he did it. He came in…

MEEHAN: Yeah.

CURTIS: …and he did this, what was it?, the flyswatter routine to the track of “Flight of the Bumblebee.” It was just – it was really funny. Yeah.

ST JOHN: I can just laugh just thinking of it.

CURTIS: It was, it was really funny. It was very natural. It wasn’t like he was trying to be…

ST JOHN: Umm-hmm.

CURTIS: …physically funny. He just had a natural capability for it.

ST JOHN: But the story here is – so you’re saying it’s not about the movies that he chose to be in or that he was cast in, it’s about his life.

MEEHAN: It’s about his life…

ST JOHN: Umm-hmm.

MEEHAN: …and I think an awful lot of people, including me when I came in, didn’t know the fully story because the fact is he became the most famous man and the wealthiest man.

ST JOHN: How did all that fame affect his life?

MEEHAN: Well, that’s the problem. One thing is he became a terrible womanizer. He married several times. He became involved with a lot of women and it – And in the 1930s it became – got into the tabloids. He was – there were a lot of sort of, quote, scandals, and then he got – When he did “The Great Dictator,” which was one – the first time he did a talking picture…

ST JOHN: “The Great Dictator?”

MEEHAN: It was made in 1939 and it’s his…

ST JOHN: After the war, umm-hmm.

MEEHAN: It’s a lampoon of…

CURTIS: Adolf Hitler.

MEEHAN: …of Hitler.

ST JOHN: Umm-hmm.

MEEHAN: It’s fantastically funny but a serious picture.

ST JOHN: Well, he didn’t shy away from pretty difficult topics, did he?

CURTIS: No, that’s what got him into trouble. It’s like once he started speaking on film, he started speaking out in real life politically, speaking out in support of the second front. He supported Russia, and that got him into trouble.

ST JOHN: And so is that one of the things that plays out in this story?

CURTIS: Yeah.

MEEHAN: Yes, it does…

ST JOHN: His – How his speaking out, you know, affected his career.

CURTIS: Yes, but he would always speak out for the disenfranchised of the world, the underdog, the people that were forgotten.

ST JOHN: Umm-hmm.

CURTIS: So he was speaking up for the right people and it was the right cause, it was just the wrong time.

ST JOHN: And are you focusing in this production on, you know, his career and how that grew? Or more his personal life?

MEEHAN: It’s his personal life an awful lot. It’s sort of – Act One is his rise from the slums of London to be this great successful man. Act Two is the consequences of being wealthy and famous in America and gradually a decline. It’s an interesting – the Act One has an upward arc and Act Two has a darker, downward arc.

ST JOHN: Okay, so it’s a pretty subtle complex…

MEEHAN: It’s a serious piece of work, actually.

ST JOHN: Yes.

MEEHAN: It’s not just a frothy…

ST JOHN: Musical.

MEEHAN: …musical comedy. There’s a – We feel there’s a lot of heart and soul in this and…

CURTIS: Both.

ST JOHN: Good. Well, we want to hear a little bit of the music so, Chris, just talk a bit, though, about the creative process that you went through to write the songs. How did it come to you? Was it easy? Or…

CURTIS: Yeah. Well, yeah. Actually, when I started learning about his life, I would just get inspira – In fact, the first three songs I wrote in one two-hour period.

ST JOHN: Wow.

CURTIS: And two of those songs are actually still in the show.

ST JOHN: Aha.

CURTIS: You know, I just kind of wrote the songs from the inspiration of a story point. And people, when they think of Charlie Chaplin, think, oh, the music will just be like all like rinky-dink piano and stuff – and sounds like that. It’s not. Chaplin actually – his film scores were very string orientated. They were very romantic. So there is the up-tempo period music but then there’s a lot of romantic music that kind of encompasses the other side of his life.

ST JOHN: Okay. So let’s listen to some of this. We’ve got a little medley here of music from the show, from “Limelight” by Christopher Curtis, Chris Curtis. Let’s listen.

(audio of Curtis performing a medley from the play “Limelight”)

ST JOHN: And that’s just a little sampling from “Limelight,” the story of Charlie Chaplin. It’s opening tonight at the La Jolla Playhouse. We have in studio Chris Curtis and also Tom Meehan, the co-authors. And, Chris, that was you singing, right?

CURTIS: It was. Thank you.

ST JOHN: It sounded fine. You’ve got a great voice as well as…

CURTIS: Thank you.

ST JOHN: So did you have fun writing these songs? I mean, did his life easily fall into song form for you?

CURTIS: It did. It did. There’s a song that kind of really influences the whole show is that, you know, he found his gift for pantomime from his mom. And she would – she taught him how to pantomime by watching people on the street and finding the story in their faces.

ST JOHN: That’s so interesting. Charlie Chaplin learned it from his mom?

CURTIS: Yes.

ST JOHN: Huh.

CURTIS: And there’s a song called “Look at All the People”…

ST JOHN: Umm-hmm.

CURTIS: …that she sings when she teaches him how to watch people on the street and observe them and find the story behind their almost worldly façade. And so songs like that came very easily because the story point inspired the arc of the song and I’d write it pretty quickly.

ST JOHN: Aha.

MEEHAN: His mother was a…

ST JOHN: Tom.

MEEHAN: …musical performer, a singer and dancer, before she became ill.

ST JOHN: So he came from a sort of a stage background.

MEEHAN: He came from a stage family. His father was also in – on musical in London and quite successful until he just drank himself out of the business and died when Charlie was only ten.

ST JOHN: So, you know, we were talking about the fact that he made his name really as a physical actor. You know, talk about how that plays a role in this performance. I mean, you obviously, you’re – this is singing and dancing and talking but is there much of the physical in this performance?

CURTIS: Well, now, yeah. I mean, Rob is fantastic at the physical…

ST JOHN: Yeah.

CURTIS: …and we have physical moments in this. We have…

ST JOHN: Because that’s what people think about…

CURTIS: …actual pictures…

ST JOHN: …you know, when they think of Charlie Chaplin often. I mean, yeah.

CURTIS: Yeah, I mean, we have this moment where he brings the Tramp to life onstage.

ST JOHN: Oh, there are? Okay.

CURTIS: And it’s really quite a magical moment, and Rob is really fantastic. So there are physical moments. The not – We never reenact his movies because you never would…

ST JOHN: No scenes from his movies a’tall in the play, okay.

CURTIS: No, no, because you never – you’d never be able to – but we do have these kind of sequences where we capture the essence of Chaplin but, yeah, the movement is in there in the pantomime.

ST JOHN: And then this is his fourth wife, I believe, that you focus – What – did you…

CURTIS: Oona, yeah.

ST JOHN: …focus on a certain asp – part of his life more than others and if so, why?

CURTIS: We focused kind of on the first part of his life and then the inspiration and then the last part, the redemption.

ST JOHN: I see, okay.

CURTIS: So, in fact, the same actress plays Mrs. Chaplin, his mom, also plays Oona O’Neill in the end.

ST JOHN: Who is his last wife, is that right?

CURTIS: His last wife.

ST JOHN: Okay.

CURTIS: Yes, unconditional love at both ends of his – both ends of the spectrum so…

ST JOHN: And Ashley Brown is playing Oona? Where did she make her name?

CURTIS: “Mary Poppins.”

ST JOHN: Okay.

CURTIS: She was Mary Poppins on Broadway. She’s great.

MEEHAN: She’s a wonderful young actress. She’s beautiful and she sings surpassingly well, and so she plays both roles. She plays the mother in the early scenes and then she plays Oona.

ST JOHN: And what kind of romance…

MEEHAN: She’s very magical.

ST JOHN: …did she – did they have, this fourth marriage?

MEEHAN: They had a great romance. That was the kind of – when he lost his mother as a child, when she literally went mad and didn’t know who he was anymore…

ST JOHN: Really?

MEEHAN: …and it was the great trauma of his life that he lost his mother and you can justify a lot of his womanizing supposedly in his wives because he kept looking for the unconditional love of a mother and he never found it. And late in life, when he was 52 and Oona O’Neill was…

CURTIS: Nineteen.

MEEHAN: …nineteen, he – they met and she was the one, and they stayed together for – until his death. They were married more than 30 years and they had 8 children. And they – he was exiled from the U.S., thrown out of the country by the Attorney General’s office because of supposed communist leanings, which weren’t even true.

ST JOHN: What an interesting life. So it has kind of a happy personal ending?

MEEHAN: It has – exactly.

CURTIS: It does.

MEEHAN: It has a tough professional ending because he – his – he was sort of – he had a big comeback picture that he hoped to do well with in 1952, “Limelight,” which is where…

ST JOHN: Oh, is that why…

MEEHAN: …where our title comes from.

ST JOHN: Thank you.

MEEHAN: And organizations like the American Legion picketed the theater and got the picture banned and it was a huge failure and he was told – He went to London for the opening – the London opening of “Limelight,” and he was told by the U.S. Attorney General if he leaves the country he could never come back. And he couldn’t. He did never come back. He did, in 1972, he was invited back to get a special Academy Award and he came to Hollywood and appeared on national television.

ST JOHN: Presumably, he wanted to come back to the United States.

MEEHAN: He did want to come back. He loves the United States. And he was – he did – never become an American citizen, however, because he was British and he kept his British passport. So…

CURTIS: Yeah.

ST JOHN: Is that right?

MEEHAN: …his last years he lived in Switzerland and…

ST JOHN: So this is a production that’s been in the works for quite a while.

MEEHAN: Yes.

ST JOHN: You’ve had some hurdles to overcome, I understand. Tell us a bit about those, Chris.

CURTIS: It was really trying to find what the story was about. You know, I had a couple of writers that worked on it before, before Tom came onboard, and we had done the New York Theatre Workshop, Vassar…

ST JOHN: Umm-hmm.

CURTIS: …which was a very great – It was a very great place. It’s where the play “Doubt” started. And we did that. And then we did NYMF, the New York Musical Festival, and that’s where Tom saw it and then Tom got involved, and we got producers involved. So it took a long time to find a take on it where it wasn’t just what he did, you know, where it wasn’t just like a biography where we had like our story that we wanted to tell.

ST JOHN: The arc that you get a feeling for now.

CURTIS: Yeah, the arc, the point of view. The point of view, yeah. So then…

ST JOHN: The point of view, do you want to elaborate on that?

CURTIS: Our point of view, honestly, is really, for me, simple. It’s about a boy finding his mom again.

ST JOHN: Huh.

CURTIS: I mean, here’s a boy who lost his mom when he was a little kid and she gave him this – these amazing gifts and this incredible unconditional love, and he spent his whole life searching for that unconditional love until he found it again in his last wife.

ST JOHN: Umm.

MEEHAN: Also, when we examined his movies like “City Lights,” the “City Lights” is all about the Tramp. A young beautiful girl who’s blind and the Tramp finds ways to get enough money together to get her an operation and at the end of the movie, she can see again.

ST JOHN: So there’s quite a few…

MEEHAN: And that, we realized as we saw it…

CURTIS: Rescue.

MEEHAN: …that it was really his mother, that was – that woman stood in for his mother, that his yearning that she could get her sanity back.

ST JOHN: It’s part of that same point of view that Chris is talking about.

MEEHAN: And it all connects together, see, and we see that in all his pictures. When you study it, the mother in his picture “The Kid” is really his mother, etcetera.

ST JOHN: Well, a lot of people have written books about Charlie Chaplin. It sounds like this is a really interesting point of view to take in looking at his life.

CURTIS: Well, it’s kind of interesting. It’s like, you know, he could never rescue his mom. Now, say, what if he could’ve. If he could’ve rescued his mom in a way he would’ve been rescuing himself as a little kid. So his whole life, he was always – in his pictures in his own life, he’s always trying to rescue until finally he surrendered and let Oona rescue him.

ST JOHN: Huh. So what are you liking most about the production that opens tonight. What is it that sort of excites you most about the way it’s come to fruition?

CURTIS: I think the Playhouse is amazing, and the people, Chris Ashley, Dana Harrell, everyone at the Playhouse has been so supportive and just so wonderful. It’s an amazing place to do a new musical at. And Warren Carlyle, the director/choreographer, is incredible. And talk about movement, I mean, the movement that he’s done onstage, the way he’s brought some of these scenes and these songs to life, is brilliant. So that’s been excite – it’s been exciting to see it come to life, to see, you know, scenes that have been in your mind for a long time come to life onstage.

MEEHAN: La Jolla and San Diego have great audiences. They’re wonderful. They’re very supportive and it’s important that you get a little love from the audience when you’re just starting out because this is – these are early days. Tonight, first time there’s ever – for a paying audience is a big important night in the history of the show.

ST JOHN: Well, Tom, you’ve had a lot of good experiences with your works…

MEEHAN: I just…

ST JOHN: …but are you still feeling a little nervous about this opening night of this one tonight?

MEEHAN: Yes, always, always.

ST JOHN: Yeah. I wanted to ask you, Chris, you’ve been involved in the Disney Animation Songwriter program and does that relate to this in some way? How’s that been for you?

CURTIS: What’s great about that, that was a really prestigious program to be involved in and what that really helps you do is really write for characters very specifically. And so I learned a lot from that program in songwriting, to be very specific…

ST JOHN: Umm-hmm.

CURTIS: …when you’re writing for characters. And, yeah, I’ve absolutely taken what I’ve learned from that and applied it to the songs in “Limelight.”

ST JOHN: So it’s like almost anything in life, it does seem to work more if you’re very clear about what each song is about.

CURTIS: Sure. Exactly. Exactly.

ST JOHN: Yeah. Do you think any of these songs are going to get – sort of catch on and become something you’d be humming on your way to the…

CURTIS: “Someday” will. “Someday” will.

MEEHAN: There’s a beautiful song that ends Act One called “Someday,” which is…

CURTIS: Yeah.

ST JOHN: “Someday.”

CURTIS: And “Someone’s Going to Love Me More.”

MEEHAN: It’s a beautiful, beautiful ballad.

ST JOHN: Okay, well, we’ll listen for that one.

MEEHAN: Yes.

ST JOHN: And what about when you think about Charlie Chaplin’s movies? I know they don’t appear in this production but, you know, you’ve been looking at him through this lens of trying to find his mother again. Are there any of his movies that kind of fit into that theme?

CURTIS: “The Kid.”

ST JOHN: Umm-hmm.

CURTIS: “The Kid.”

MEEHAN: Even “The Great Dictator.”

CURTIS: Yeah.

ST JOHN: Oh.

MEEHAN: When the man who – The dictator in the story is – becomes ill and somebody who looks just like him speaks to the nation and it’s the Tramp who speaks to the nation and tells them of a time of hope and – and he speaks out to all the people in this fictional country but he especially speaks to a woman called Hannah.

CURTIS: Hannah.

MEEHAN: Hannah, look to the stars, it’s all going to be – turn out all right. And Hannah was his mother’s name. And so that – that – once again there was the mother figure.

ST JOHN: Right. So I can see this must be really the culmination of just a lot of creative ferment, you know, for both of you. This is opening tonight. It’s something that I think you’ve given us a good idea of the fact that it’s not just a fun and games musical, although it has some really good songs, we heard.

CURTIS: Well, it’s very fun, too.

ST JOHN: Umm.

CURTIS: There’s a lot of fun parts in it but it’s more poignant.

ST JOHN: But it has this story that we may never really – However much we may have heard about Charlie Chaplin never sort of seen this side.

MEEHAN: No, I think the little preview, people that have seen are surprised to learn so many things about Chaplin that they didn’t know. They just thought – they didn’t know there was a lot of depth in this character…

ST JOHN: Right.

MEEHAN: …and…

ST JOHN: And so it would actually give us a different perspective…

MEEHAN: Uh-huh.

ST JOHN: …for watching his movies again. Well, listen, I want to thank you both very much for coming in. That’s Tom Meehan and Chris Curtis who are joint composers and authors of “Limelight,” the story of Charlie Chaplin. Thank you both for coming in.

MEEHAN: Thank you.

CURTIS: Thank you.

ST JOHN: And you can see “Limelight” starting tonight through October 17th at the La Jolla Playhouse.

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