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Braintree native takes his ‘Chaplin’ to Broadway

Christopher Curtis, who grew up in Braintree and attended Archbishop Williams High School, takes his musical to Broadway, where it opens tomorrow. Christopher Curtis, who grew up in Braintree and attended Archbishop Williams High School, takes his musical to Broadway, where it opens tomorrow.
By Bella English
Globe Staff / September 9, 2012
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Several years ago, I was invited by a friend to his parents’ home in Weymouth, where his cousin was playing the piano and singing songs he had created about the life of Charlie Chaplin. The cousin also did the show to raise money for our church, First Parish in Milton.

The music was great, but I thought no more about it after I left. Just some talented young guy who grew up in Braintree and had a thing for Chaplin, the most famous star in Hollywood’s silent film era.

Christopher Curtis is the talented young guy’s name, and he has taken the legendary Charlie Chaplin all the way from from Braintree to Broadway. “Chaplin the Musical” opens Monday at the Barrymore Theater, following previews that began Aug. 21. Curtis wrote the music and lyrics and co-wrote the book with Thomas Meehan (“Annie,” “The Producers,” “Hairspray”).

Being on Broadway is a dream Curtis has had since his theater days at Archbishop Williams High School in Braintree. He had taken up the piano the summer before he arrived there, and realized that he could play by ear. At “Archie,” he played piano for school shows.

“Sister Corona was the music teacher, and we did ‘Godspell,’ ‘My Fair Lady,’ and others,” says Curtis, who lives in New York but comes home to visit his family in Braintree: mother Noreen; sister Mary Beth; and brother Alan, who is a physician for the Celtics.

After high school, Curtis played for a year at the Common Market in Quincy, which is owned by his uncle, Jack McDonald. “We used to have singing waiters and I put on Broadway show revues.” He went to the University of California, San Diego, for a year, then transferred to UCLA to study film composing. He began playing in clubs and restaurants in California and left UCLA before graduating.

It was at a Beverly Hills restaurant that he met Chaplin’s son, Sydney. “He told me about his dad’s struggles,” says Curtis. “He thought if his dad wasn’t an orphan, he would never have created ‘The Little Tramp.’ I thought that was really interesting.”

So he began researching Chaplin, and writing songs about him. The Little Tramp, of course, is the iconic character Chaplin created, with his mustache, big shoes, bowler hat, and baggy pants. Because there were no words in his films, Chaplin relied heavily on his remarkable physicality. In the years before, during, and after World War I, he brought comic relief to a weary world.

“It’s safe to say he was the first worldwide movie star,” says Curtis. “There was no language barrier to cross. He was universal, all acting and facial expression.” Curtis even enrolled in an extension course at UCLA about Chaplin.

Chaplin’s star power continued through the Great Depression and the rise of Adolf Hitler. “When Charlie made ‘The Great Dictator,’ which is ridiculing Hitler, Hitler had it banned in Germany, but he watched it five times, privately,” says Curtis.

The two men were born one week apart, and Curtis likes to say that “one man made the world sing, the other man made the world cry.”

In Hollywood, Curtis met Burgess Meredith, who had married Paulette Goddard after Chaplin divorced her. “He had this great story, that Charlie called him and said, ‘You stole my wife.’ ’’ According to Meredith, he replied: “I know, Charlie, I did.” “Well, you can have her!” Chaplin supposedly said.

Curtis laughs at the scene. He describes his musical this way: “It’s about a man who had the love of the world but was always searching for a love of his own.” Chaplin was married four times.

Through a friend, Curtis’s songs came to the attention of the Shubert Organization, America’s oldest professional theater company. In 2000, the organization did a reading of the Chaplin show that Curtis had been working on. At the time, Curtis was calling it “Limelight: The Story of Charlie Chaplin,” in honor of Chaplin’s 1952 film.

It began showing at small venues, then the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2006, and, in 2010, the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego. Last winter, the show was workshopped in New York in preparation for Broadway.

But isn’t there a generation gap — or two, or three — between a young audience and Charlie Chaplin, who was born in 1889 and died in 1977?

Curtis says no, to the contrary. High school and college kids have loved the show, and families bring younger kids, too. “The Tramp character appeals to kids,” he says. “And I think they relate to the fact that he overcame such personal struggles and heartache.”

Chaplin has been discovered by a new generation through the Internet, and college film departments often study his work. “The technology was just beginning back then,” says Curtis. “He made the most of it, and broke new ground.”

The musical deals with Chaplin’s impoverished childhood, his professional breakthrough, failed relationships, and political activism. Rob McClure plays Chaplin in Curtis’s production and watched all the old clips he could find. “He never imitates Chaplin, he channels him,” says Curtis. Indeed, for the role, McClure learned how to play the violin, roller skate, and walk a tightrope.

Curtis’s family from Braintree will be there on opening night, and Curtis has another Braintree shout-out. “Thanks to Archie, and God bless Sister Corona. She really planted the bug of theater in me.’’

Bella English lives in Milton. She can be reached at english@globe.com.

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