Chaplin: A Musical in Monochrome

in Inside Theatre

A monochromatic moment from Chaplin: The Musical that conjures The Circus, photo by Joan MarcusThere are many expectations that come with the term “Broadway musical:” flashy numbers, dazzling lights and sounds, extravagant sets and eye-popping colors. Chaplin: The Musical, a funny and poignant look into the life and career of legendary film comedian Charlie Chaplin, offers a majority of those things, but when it comes to sets and color palette, the creators offer a different approach. Given that their subject became iconic through silent black and white films, director Warren Carlyle and his creative team create a monochromatic look with desaturated colors to make us feel like we are entering that bygone era, and the numerous set pieces are staged more minimally than one might expect.

“The basic conceit of the set was that we were building Chaplin’s soundstage, and it was all being performed within there,” explains scenic designer Beowulf Boritt. “It’s sort of Chaplin’s dream of what he did, his memory of his life as if it were a movie.”

Combining dramatic book scenes, lively musical numbers and video projections, Chaplin: The Musical explores the performer’s comedic talents, his growing ego, tumultuous love life and later penchant for political controversy. Previously a performer in Avenue Q, star Robert McClure is gaining fame by excelling in the title role.

“One thing that I think the script does smartly — and this has nothing to do with the design — is we actually do very little of the films other than a few references to them,” says Boritt. “There is very little of the Chaplin stuff being re-created — Rob is wonderful, but no one’s Charlie Chaplin. He’s showing us Charlie Chaplin’s life, and we’re not doing the movies very much other than some quotations from them.”

Rob McClure in the title role of Chaplin: The Musical. Photo by Joan MarcusTime Travel

Despite not delving deeply into Chaplin’s on-screen output, the relatively colorless approach to the set, lighting, costumes and make-up transport us to Hollywood circa the early 20th century. “In a funny way, we’re so used to seeing those [Chaplin film] characters in black-and-white that when you see them in color it’s a little bit jarring, and doing this in black-and-white gives it a very distinct look,” says Boritt. “It was interesting for me because I’ve never done a truly black-and-white show before. I’ve done shows that were very tight palettes, but I never tried to banish color from the set altogether. Technically, it was actually quite difficult because when you start controlling it, any little bit of color pops out in a crazy way.”

He recalls when they were painting the drops in the shop and began by painting them on regular muslin, “which is basically white but a little bit yellowish, and they looked almost Day-Glo yellow showing through the black-and-white paint. We had to go back and repaint some of them, because once you get that controlled, any little bit of color pops so much, and what we found is we could skew into blue tones a little bit and get away with it. They still read as black-and-white.”

Boritt says lighting designer Ken Billington encountered similar issues with his work. Any time he used warm tones, they looked like yellow. Boritt noted that very pale blue reads as a gray and tends to drain the color from other things. He adds that Billington tended to use a lot of haze and shafts of light to work within the limited color scheme.

“It was a really interesting challenge through the whole build process and through tech,” says Boritt. “We kept doing very subtle modulations to things to get them to read as black-and-white. In the closing scene there is a little bit more color. Obviously the actors flesh tones show through to a certain extent, although they were all powdered in white. We weren’t try to go all the way with the black-and-white because they would look like weird corpses then.”

While visually the show swims through a monochromatic sea, the final scene at an Academy Awards ceremony is splashed with healthy waves of red. “After spending an entire evening in a black-and-white world, the door cracks open and suddenly you get that blast of red with the curtain through there and the whole space turns into a big red box. Fairly early on, I pitched that idea to Warren, and we just stuck with it after that.” The finale is one of Boritt’s favorite moments in the show.

The colors were monochromatic, but the costumers had patterns. Here, Jenn Colella plays Hedda Hopper. Photo by Joan Marcus.The Big Picture

Throughout Chaplin, Boritt tends to keep the set tones darker and more muted so that the patterned costumes worn by the performers would stand out more effectively. “More than any show I’ve ever done, this show required the complete design picture to make it look good,” says Boritt. “When we started tech, the first afternoon we didn’t have costumes on stage and were going to add them in that evening, so the actors were in rehearsal clothes. They may have been told not to wear anything too colorful, but they were just in regular clothes. I think we all got really nervous because it didn’t look very good, and as soon as the stage clothes came on and people were into the black-and-white palette, it all clicked and made a picture. “

The Chaplin scenic designer admits that, while still bigger than a typical off-Broadway production, his set budget was about $500,000, “which is small for a musical. One of the challenges was in order to make the numbers work, to really make a musical run in a smaller theater, they kept the budgets very tight. The show has a lot of locations — there is something like 30 to 35 places that the set has to take you to in some form. Fitting all of that into a small theater and paying for it with a smaller budget were definite challenges.”

Only a Few Props

Monetary restrictions were also part of the reason the design team opted to portray scenes from Chaplin’s life on a soundstage with a modest number of props to convey where each scene took place. “I wasn’t trying to re-create the entire stage every time we went to a new location,” says Boritt, “so there’s a single object or single thing that enters and tells us where we are. A desk and a light is enough to say they we are in Charlie Chaplin’s office.”

A clever way to make maximum use of the props was to integrate the early film technology being represented into their respective scenes. “When the show starts, there are the drapes on the back that lift up and make a canopy over the stage,” says Boritt. “In the earliest movie studios before sound, there were big frames of open sky. They hung these linen diffusers up to diffuse the sunlight so that you didn’t get harsh shadows. That’s what those are meant to replicate. I don’t think the audience gets that. They probably think it’s an interesting effect when they flip up there. In the early scenes we’re mimicking some of the early technology, and if you watch some of the early Keystone films you can see those diffusers sometimes. We’re using that in conjunction with a musical theater vocabulary, so those diffusers that make a ceiling over the early scenes of his childhood then drop down and make kind of a vaudeville curtain for the vaudevilles scenes.”

The Brick Wall

An integral, omnipresent scenic piece is the brick wall in the background, which bears the Chaplin Studios logo and provides a crossover walkway for performers and a place to store scenery upstage. Constructed from Vacuform brick brought over from London, it was molded in clear plastic then painted over so the light box logo within could still glow through from behind and make the letters more readable.

Boritt states that, because the Barrymore Theatre is not a musical house, fitting all of their set pieces into the limited wing space was difficult. With regards to the Chaplin Studios sign, “it is an enormous light box, because sometimes we wanted it to be visible and sometimes we wanted it to go away. When the lights are turned off entirely, it is just faintly there, like a ghost image that you almost don’t see. Ken would crank up the lights in it at different times. I think I drove him crazy throughout tech because I would say, ‘Ken, could you make it a little less yellow, a little less yellow.’ Once we got it at the right color temperature, even when it was turned on, it read as a painted thing, but when the color temperature was wrong it looked like a weird sort of neon sign up there. But that allowed us to make that image come and go.”

With regards to props coming and going, director Warren Carlyle made it clear to Boritt early on that he did not want big set pieces trundling on and off the stage but preferred the transitions to be light and breezy. “As we kept going throughout the design process, we kept nailing that,” says Boritt. “Either little pieces that actors could dance in and out with, or soft pieces that could fly in and out very quickly. That works well with my own aesthetic. I tend to not like big, realistic sets trundling on and off. I think musical comedy has to be light, even if it’s a heavy musical comedy. You don’t really want to watch big, heavy pieces of scenery bumping around, especially in something like this that’s frothy and light.”

The cast members mostly handled moving the set pieces on and offstage, but an automated turntable did help during certain sequences. Boritt notes that there some places in the show that transition from a two-person scene to another two-person scene, and they did not want that intimacy disrupted with a gaggle of actors racing across the stage to set more furniture.

One Good Fly Man

“The way we structured it is, at the beginning of a series of small scenes, all the furniture could be set on different parts of the turntable as part of some big musical flourish, and the turntable would spin and bring the stuff around as you needed it,” says Boritt. “We could get from small scene to small scene without having to do a big movement of actors across the stage. A couple of the flies are automated, and that again was pure economics, that we had one fly man. So when any cue had more than one piece to move at any one time, we would add in a couple of automated lines to make that happen. I think there are three or four motorized line sets and one very good fly man dashing from one end of the rail to the other to move two pieces manually.”

The overall reactions to Chaplin’s monochromatic set design have been quite varied. Boritt says some people have felt that musicals should be colorful, and black-and-white was a bad choice here, yet others have praised the show’s look and feel. He added that, stylistically, the musical was a lot of fun to do and felt that the look makes it visually distinct.

“What was interesting to me was using the really tight palette, which allowed us to give the show a visual coherence without a lot of stuff,” says Boritt. “It allowed it to feel like a more expensive production than it is. I don’t mean to keep harping on that. It doesn’t matter what budget you have, you always wish you had a little bit more. You always end up cutting something because you design a little more than what you can pay for. So any kind of tools that make a budget feel like more than it is are helpful, and a really controlled palette is an interesting choice to go into. I tend to control the palette, but I’ve never done something quite this tight before, so that was a fun thing to learn.”