CHAPLIN: Can You Hear Me Now?
By Erin Leigh Peck
A few months ago I was reacquainted with an old friend named Spring who has become a successful recording artist and international touring act. I was talking about my BroadwayWorld Jr. column and the experience of bringing my kids to see lots of theatre. Spring told me about her own childhood growing up on Long Island with her brother and how her parents used to take them into the city to see pretty much everything. They didn’t limit their entertainment choices to family offerings. They exposed their kids to almost anything they could get tickets to see, and as a result Spring grew up to be an eclectic and nimble performer who manages to blend all of her theatrical and life influences into a very specific and unique performance style. This stuck with me and though the thought has been percolating for some time, I’m getting more and more comfortable with the idea of sometimes bringing my kids to see theatre that has not necessarily been designed for families.
Of course there will always be some level of parental censorship on my part…I would never want to subject my child to the white-knuckled horror I experienced during The Pillowman or confuse them with the kind of sexual and psychological manipulation on display in Venus in Fur, but taking my eight year old to see Fiddler on the Roof last summer was probably one of the most rewarding theatrical experiences either one of us has enjoyed and I’d like to continue her theatrical education by including fare that’s appropriate without being targeted for kids.
When I heard about Chaplin, the Broadway musical based on the life of the most famous silent film star of the pre-WWI era, I immediately thought it would be a great show to share with my daughter. True, Charlie Chaplin was known for his affinity for underage women. And yes, the end of his career was marked with political controversy as he became the target of McCarthy-era delusions. But he was also a major cultural influence who we can still learn from by examining both his artistic achievements and the era during which he lived and worked. Plus, the show just looked really cool.
So I had no second thoughts about bringing my eight year old to see Chaplin and no impulse to hide my plans from other parents. But I ended up surprised and a bit confused when I picked up on that familiar motherhood scent: judgment. During the days leading up to the show, I realized that many of the other parents in my community didn’t approve of my choice to take my eight year old to see Chaplin on Broadway. In fact, as discussions began to organically develop between my daughter and I, I learned that many of the kids in her peer group had not seen any theatre that was not specifically designed for children, even the most classic or inoffensive fare. And to be clear, I am talking about kids who live in New York City with parents who see theatre. In this case, it’s not about access or even affordability. I had discovered a difference in parenting style and it was making me question my own choices.
To be fair, I am no model of motherhood when it comes to censoring cultural influences for my child. Every morning, the alarm on my daughter’s iTouch wakes her up with the edited version of Cee Lo Green’s “Forget You” (which we all know is not the real title of the song). Some of the greatest bonding moments between my daughter and I have evolved while sharing a mutual addiction to American Idol, and we spend a bit too much time discussing the ins and outs of that intellectually challenging phenomenon known as Dance Moms. I get that my choices may not always be the best and that some parents would not approve of my choice to let my daughter watch Modern Family. And when it comes to bringing her to see Chaplin on Broadway, I see that perhaps I am again swimming against the mainstream current.
For my part, my only concerns about taking my daughter to see Chaplin had more to do with taking her out on a school night (press seats are never assigned on the weekends). I didn’t consider that she might learn things that were dangerous or upsetting. But of course, I did end up having to explain some less than entirely palatable concepts things to her. During a brilliant scene in Act II, Rob McCLure (Charlie Chaplin) mimics Hitler in preparation for Chaplin’s parody, The Great Dictator. This lead to a post-show discussion about the Holocaust, a subject not generally taught until the later grades (at least in my daughter’s school). Thankfully, my daughter did not seem to pick up on Chaplin’s tendency to marry underage women (his first wife was 17), but she did want to understand the tabloid witch-hunt that eventually chased Chaplin out of the country after he urged the United States to back Soviet Russia in its fight against Nazi Germany.
But in my view, these are things I am obligated to teach my kids about. We have learned from what was clearly not America’s proudest moment and we must never forget the world’s most shameful event. On the way home, we discussed the power of gossip and the importance of protecting our right to free speech. And when the discussion turned from McCarthyism to Hitler and World War II, my daughter asked me if the Holocaust could ever happen today. These are tough questions for a parent, but necessary thoughts for a developing American citizen. Maybe this was my daughter’s time to gain some awareness. I’m glad that I was there to help introduce the concepts.
Meanwhile, my daughter’s Broadway education continued to flourish by enjoying what has become one of my favorite new shows. There are certain things that have to be seen to be experienced. For example, I could not possibly have described to her how incredible it looks to make live theatre in black and white, nor could I have explained the effect this design choice had on the show. At the end of the play (I promise, no spoilers), when we see the color red on the set, my daughter noticed how powerful color had become after almost an entire evening of gray. This kind of artistic observation comes from experience and exposure, and I’m thrilled that she was able to pick up on it.
Until we saw Chaplin, my daughter never knew that movies used to be silent, and we had a humbling discussion before the show about what Mommy used to do before on-demand and streaming video. (I told her about my first BETA tape…Fiddler on the Roof). She was impressed by performances when actors had to play several different roles and managed to come off as entirely different people, and of course any kid gets excited to see other kids on stage. (Chaplin has two in its cast).
The narrative is layered. Memories from Chaplin’s past slice through moments in his present, and the effects of a damaged childhood inform how he perceives his world and the movies he makes. My daughter had no problem following the story, even though I was sure she would need me to explain the order of events. But that’s what great performances can do. When everyone on stage is in sync, or when one character is pointedly out of sync with the rest of the world of the play, a story without words can be told.
The one comment that most sticks with me seemed to sum up Charlie Chaplin’s journey, at least as it was told to me in Chaplin the musical. My daughter said, “It’s sad that someone who was so famous was so lonely.” It was a simple statement, but she served up the heart of the story. And with this bit of innocent understanding, I realized that she is indeed old enough for grown-up Broadway.