A 6-foot painting of Charlie Chaplin hangs prominently in Rob McClure's house. Any relation between the portrait and McClure's starring role in "Chaplin" is, as they used to disclaim in pulpy sci-fi voices on old-time TV, purely coincidental.
Well, perhaps not purely. When he was growing up, his Aunt Marian always said he looked just like the silent-film icon. Not long ago, McClure was on his way to a final callback to play Chaplin in the Broadway musical when he heard that his aunt, now dead, had painted the giant portrait. Her daughter had found it in a storage unit and asked the actor if he wanted it. He got the part -- and the art.
When "Chaplin," the new Broadway musical, begins previews Tuesday, McClure will try to stand out from the growing stampede of actors attempting to make drama -- and not wax museums -- out of the lives of famous people.
In "End of the Rainbow," which closes Sunday, Tracie Bennett crawled so deep into the crumbling psyche of Judy Garland in her last dizzying weeks that, really, I found it hard to be around them both.
Argentine Elena Roger probably creates Eva Perón more accurately than any other "Evita," although her similarities to the real one haven't softened criticism of her vocal strain.
Then there are the pop-music clone shows -- the Elvis, etc., impersonators in "Million Dollar Quartet," the Whitesnake, etc., impersonators of '80s big-hair bands in "Rock of Ages," the legions of Johns, Pauls, Georges and Ringos who endlessly traipse the world in "Beatlemania."
There's a difference, clearly, between actors and impersonators -- I'm sorry, now more respectfully called "tribute artists." Let's take "Jersey Boys." This certainly could have been one of those simulations that hover just barely on the live side of animatronics. Instead, the long-running show is a real drama with complex characters who do so much more than just look or sound like the Four Seasons.
For McClure, the process of becoming Chaplin began, of course, with the movies and then with talking to experts. "It all starts with the imitation of that little waddle he does on the road," he told me in a phone interview before heading to rehearsals for the show, which has a book by Thomas Meehan ("Annie"), music and lyrics by Broadway newcomer Christopher Curtis, and direction and choreography by Warren Carlyle ("Finian's Rainbow").
The challenge comes with the detail, for example, when McClure noticed a shoulder popping and a knee turning out during the waddle. "Slowly I realized that, 99 percent of the time, the pops and the knee happens after he is turned down by a woman. It's as if he's saying, 'Shake it off, Charlie!'"
The story, which takes the British-born artist from his tough boyhood on the street through his death at 88 in 1977, gives McClure the chance to play both the man and his indelible character, the Little Tramp. "When I play the man himself, I feel free to bring in a lot of myself," he said when asked about the limitations of playing a known person. "But once I'm the Tramp, when the costume comes on, I know that people are buying tickets to a show about Charlie Chaplin. I can't take liberties with that. I have a sense of accountability, not just to the playwright, the director and the audience. I have accountability to a man and a legacy. I'm not doing an imitation, but honoring his spirit. This person existed."
Theater biographies, except for the multileveled wonder called "Gypsy," have proved harder to pull off than they appear. But this doesn't keep producers from trying -- even in that lame "Marilyn" musical as part of NBC's "Smash." As we speak, artists are putting together shows about Texas Gov. Ann Richards, "Coal Miner's Daughter" (with Zooey Deschanel playing Loretta Lynn), one about Dusty Springfield, one about the Spice Girls, another about Josephine Baker and -- check this out -- "Here Lies Love," a musical about Imelda Marcos by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim opening next spring at the Public Theater.
Then there are the flat-out imitators -- sorry, tribute artists. Last month, the Laurie Beechman Theatre on West 42nd Street presented "Streisand: The Greatest Star" -- three separate evenings: one for the kooky '60s, one for the iconic Barbra, one for her Broadway covers. A Bette Midler and a Barry Manilow are there now in "Bette & Barry: Back to the Bathhouse."
Many of the wittiest, often the most ruthless impersonations probably will be found when "Forbidden Broadway" -- in previews after a three-year hiatus -- opens Sept. 6. Gerard Alessandrini, who has been molding actors into Liza and Patti and Barbra for 30 years -- says he looks for versatile actors more than mimics. "A good ear is imperative," he told me recently. So is a good wig.
On Broadway, calls are out now for a boy, age 8 to 11, to play Michael Jackson in a musical based on the life of Motown Records' founder Berry Gordy. He says he's not looking for an imitator, but someone who can give him "the same chills" he got when he first saw Jackson at age 10.
But our culture's appetite for celebrity necrophilia is hardly limited to the theater. Cirque du Soleil, which has its own extremely elevated version of "Beatlemania," also made a gigantic
"Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour," which I read has replica zombie choreography on huge video screens, a giant dancing jeweled glove, Jackson's recorded voice and a poor guy in a Bubbles the Chimp suit.
How much more inspiring to imagine McClure at his dressing-room mirror. "I draw on the eyebrows," he said, clearly loving the details. "I mess up my hair. And it starts to become creepy." He calls the audience response "third-party affection. For that time, they choose to believe I am him. That knocks me over."
The one that knocks me over, not in a good way, is the touring hologram of rapper Tupac Shakur, dead since 1996. The virtual Tupac reportedly stole the show at a music festival last spring and is on his way right now to Australia. Imagine the possibilities (this means you, Actors' Equity). Better yet, don't.