In the new musical Chaplin, the scenes of Charlie Chaplin’s early film work with director Mack Sennett and actress Mabel Normand no doubt remind some musical theater aficionados of another show—Jerry Herman’s legendary 1974 flop about those two Hollywood pioneers, Mack and Mabel. And thanks to the divine intervention of the musical theater gods, Sara Edwards just happened to be working with Mack’s Mabel, Bernadette Peters, when Edwards learned she would be playing Mabel in Chaplin on Broadway.
Edwards was in the Follies revival headlined by Peters that originated at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in the spring of 2011, opened on Broadway that fall and later had a limited run in Los Angeles. So she had Peters close at hand for consultation as she prepared to play Mabel in a workshop and eventually the Broadway production of Chaplin.
“I couldn’t believe I had Bernadette Peters to ask, ‘What kind of dirt can you tell me about Mabel Normand?’” says Edwards, who was also in the earlier version of Chaplin titled Limelight at southern California’s La Jolla Playhouse in 2010.
“Most people don’t know who Mabel Normand is,” Edwards says of the silent-film star, “so I usually just [call my role] ‘the girl on the bench’”—a reference to the movie scene that she and Rob McClure (as Chaplin) recreate in Chaplin. Edwards’ other parts in Chaplin include a woman on the streets of London who blows young Charlie a kiss in the opening number and a starlet in the Act 2 opener. She is also dance captain for the show.
Edwards was dance captain of Follies as well, but she was a swing in that show, which meant she could watch the performance some of the time. Now she has to keep an eye on what everyone’s doing on stage while she’s on stage performing every night. Edwards worked closely with Warren Carlyle as he created the choreography for both Chaplin and Follies. During the La Jolla run of Chaplin, she helped out Carlyle (also the show’s director) as he staged such sequences as the Chaplin look-alike contest and the goings-on at Sennett Studios. For Follies she was the assistant choreographer. “One of my favorite memories—I wish I’d had a camera—was teaching tap steps to Bernadette Peters, Elaine Paige, Jan Maxwell, Terri White, Flo Lacey, Susan Watson, these fabulous women that I have seen for years and years on stage. I also thought it was amazing that Warren was able to hand over the reins to me, allowing me to teach his show and assuming I was going to do it correctly, and with all the emotional backing to all the storytelling.
“Helping to create Follies and Chaplin was an incredibly inspiring experience,” Edwards adds. “Warren was so engrossed in the script, reading it over and over again to get the story right, and listening to the music over and over again. I had never been in the room with someone who during creation was so free and open to saying yes…to saying yes to my ideas. He’s really good at taking different ideas and honing them into a through line of storytelling with his choreography—it’s a beautiful thing.”
A freak accident almost kept Edwards from working with Carlyle. At her first audition for Limelight—to which she wore purple shoes—she sprained her ankle (“more severely than I’ve ever injured any other body part”) while doing a triple turn into a fouetté turn. When she didn’t hear from the Limelight team for three months, she figured they’d eliminated her because of the injury. Then, three months later, she was called back. “I actually had time to heal my ankle before having to go back in,” she says. At the callback, Carlyle greeted her with “Hey, Purple Shoes, how’s your ankle?” She replied, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. My ankle’s fine.” He still occasionally calls her Purple Shoes.