Tony Nominee Rob McClure Returned to His High School Roots Following Chaplin's Final Bow
By Michael Gioia
When the lights came down at Broadway's Barrymore Theatre, Rob McClure — a 2013 Tony Award nominee for originating the role of silent-film legend Charlie Chaplin in the new Broadway musical #Chaplin — returned to his New Jersey high school to put the lights up for New Milford High's production of Spelling Bee.
"I've gone back to my high school every year, whenever I'm available, to help in staging the musical in whatever capacity they'll have me. I find it hugely rewarding," McClure told Playbill.com at the recent Tony Award nominees press junket. "I called Ken Billington — Tony Award-winning lighting designer Ken Billington — from Chaplin for advice, and he gladly helped me. He wanted me to send him pictures!"
McClure, previously of Broadway's Avenue Q and I'm Not Rappaport, rose to fame this season by embodying the spirit of Charlie Chaplin and portraying the iconic Little Tramp. However, the grounded Tony-nominated Best Actor hasn't allowed his newfound fame to seep through his oversized shoes and rise to the bowler hat atop his head.
"I had a lot of people — for a long time — telling me to expect this, and I never let it in," confessed McClure, who stood beside fellow Tony nominee and Oscar winner Tom Hanks ("I'm in the same room as Tom Hanks over there," he whispered. "Welcome to my life all of a sudden"). "I never let that notion really sink in because how can you? All you can really do is focus on the work and try to do the best job you can."
His hard work — which included a trip to "Chaplin Boot Camp" — paid off. The actor, who had been with the project since it played the La Jolla Playhouse under the title of Limelight — losing 42 lbs. from his first day of La Jolla rehearsal to his closing night on Broadway — received his first Tony nomination April 30, finding himself alongside leading men Bertie Carvel, Santino Fontana, Stark Sands and Billy Porter, a performer he had always admired.
"I'm overwhelmed," admitted McClure. "I've been a fan of theatre for so long that the idea of now suddenly being thrown in as a colleague, friend and fellow nominee of some of these people is astounding to me. I remember in high school building the sets for my musicals in high school, blasting Billy Porter's version of 'Beauty School Dropout' from the  Grease revival album, and now I'm nominated against Billy Porter. What is happening?!"
He carries the honor with pride, crediting all involved with Chaplin for his nomination. "Ever since the nominations came out, I've just been trying to track how many people are responsible for me being right here, right now, in this moment, in this time," McClure said. "The number of miracles that had to happen…to culminate in this celebration for me in this role…! For me to be here is the greatest honor."
But what really sent him "over the edge," he said, was when he received a text message from a student at New Milford High School, who was involved with the school's production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. The high schooler said the entire school "erupted in first period" when they heard his name announced on television. "It's that type of thing that makes me realize how long this journey has been," said McClure. "It didn't start at my audition for this show. It started when teachers at that school started nurturing my interest in [theatre]."
McClure, truly inspired from his high school experience, added, "What they're doing at their school is remarkable. Performing on Broadway at the Barrymore Theatre in Chaplin on Broadway was the exact same experience as performing How to Succeed… my junior year of high school — in terms of what we're doing. We're playing make believe for the sake of storytelling, and trying to convince an audience that what's happening on stage is real and affect them. If high schools do it successfully, they're doing the same thing, and they're training the generations of artists who are going to keep this medium alive."
The magic of New Milford High, along with the Little Tramp, lives on in Rob McClure.
(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)
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