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Choreographing a Life

Date: Sep 12, 2012


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By Raven Snook

Much of the focus on the new Broadway musical Chaplin has centered on its relatively unknown lead, Rob McClure, who's giving a career-making turn as the brilliant but embattled film pioneer. But when watching the bio-tuner about silent film star Charlie Chaplin and his professional successes and personal problems at the Barrymore Theatre, you can't help but be struck by how precisely choreographed the entire production is-not just the songs but the dramatic scenes, too. That's because the man at the helm, Warren Carlyle, is both a director and choreographer, and his work is a big part of the reason McClure successfully channels the silent cinema star.

Since Chaplin became famous for his inimitable brand of physical comedy, it makes sense that the producers would tap a director with a keen eye for movement. However, Carlyle was initially hired as just the choreographer when the show, then known as Limelight: The Story of Charlie Chaplin, played San Diego's La Jolla Playhouse in 2010. With songs by Christopher Curtis and a book by Curtis and three-time Tony Award winner Thomas Meehan, the show had a long journey to Broadway. It debuted at the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2006 with direction by Michael Unger, who remained associated with the production for a number of years. But only three-and-a-half weeks into rehearsals in California, Carlyle was asked to take over Unger's duties.

While Carlyle gushes about the process of bringing Chaplin to Broadway, bragging about his cast as if they were his own children, he becomes somber when asked about replacing his predecessor. "It was very difficult," he says. "In fact, it was the most difficult time I experienced on this show, both artistically and personally." And though he won't get into the details, he does say the change in leadership had an upside. "It made us closer. Tom, Chris and I became a real team, it united us."

Their cohesive vision is apparent throughout Chaplin. Although the plot progresses more or less chronologically, Chaplin is constantly haunted by people from his past who sometimes literally dance back into his life. In one of the musical's most memorable sequences, we see Chaplin, inspired by some of these ghosts, invent his signature alter ego the Little Tramp.

This scene embodies Carlyle's directorial philosophy for the show. "I told the creative team, 'We always need to balance the biographical, the cinematic and the theatrical with this show,'" he says. And while this sequence was one of the first things that Curtis wrote when he began working on the show more than a decade ago, Carlyle was the first one to physicalize it in this particular way. "I tried to do it the way I thought Charlie would have," he says. "He meticulously staged things. He was famous for doing hundreds of takes, and part of our process was to restage things hundreds of times. I worked hard at the language of the movement."

A lot more than just the title has changed since the show finished its run in La Jolla. Songs have been moved or cut, Act I was completely reordered, and only three major cast members made the move to Broadway. In fact, Carlyle refers to this version as "a completely different show," one that he's excited for audiences to see. "I really connected with this story, and I wanted to tell it with these people," he says. "And with a show like this that is so movement based, it seemed right for me as a director-choreographer. Like Charlie, I'm on a life journey in this business."

Raven Snook regularly writes about theatre for Time Out New York and has contributed arts and entertainment articles