Today marks the opening night of Mack & Mabel on October 6, 1974 at the Majestic Theatre. There have been many musicals that have come and gone over the years, but there is a special place in the hearts of theatre lovers for this one, which closed after only sixty-four performances. First, it contains a monumentally great score by Jerry Herman. Second, it starred Robert Preston, in what would prove his final Broadway musical, and Bernadette Peters in a role tailor-made for her talents (although ironically she was the third Mabel, the previous two getting fired in rehearsal). Third, it proved the penultimate collaboration (prior to 42nd Street) of its producer David Merrick and its director-choreographer Gower Champion, whose previous shows together gave the world Carnival, Hello, Dolly!, I Do! I Do! and The Happy Time, totaling sixteen Tony Awards.
Robert Preston as Mack and Bernadette Peters as Mabel (1974).
In a 2003 interview, Jerry Herman said, "You're not supposed to say you like your daughter better than your son, since they are both your children. But Mack & Mabel really is the piece of mine that I almost admire most. I think I'm at a time in my life when I can honestly say without offending anybody else that this is my favorite work. I've had three huge successes [Dolly!, Mame and La Cage] and I think Mack & Mabel deserves a place next to them. That might just be a proud father's wish, but I really believe it."
Herman's feelings are difficult to argue. "It contains one of the best-liked flop scores ever," wrote Ken Mandelbaum in his wonderful book Not Since Carrie: 40 Years of Broadway Musical Flops, "with such goodies as Mack's opening 'Movies Were Movies,' and 'Look What Happened to Mabel' and 'Time Heals Everything' for Mabel."
The "Mack" of the musical's title was Mack Sennett, the director who honed the art of slapstick comedy in the 1920s, when silent movies were the greatest audience innovation the world had ever seen. He helped forge the careers of Charles Chaplin, Roscoe Arbuckle and Harold Lloyd. Sennett's first female comedian was Mabel Normand, who not only became his favorite leading lady, but his lover as well. To say their relationship was complicated, doesn't begin to describe it. As time went by, Normand was implicated in not one but two murder scandals (though she was never a suspect in either crime); became a drug addict—honestly dealt with in the musical—and died of tuberculosis at thirty-seven. As a result of the Great Depression,
Sennett lost the millions he earned and faded into obscurity, dying at age seventy-six, abandoned and forgotten by the film community he was instrumental in building.
Not the stuff of a happy-go-lucky Broadway musical, right?
Preston surrounded by Mack Sennett's Bathing Beauties in the song "Hundreds of Girls."
By the time Mack & Mabel opened in New York, it was "with all the zip of a wet and very dead flounder," just as the Washington Post critic Richard Coe had written when he reviewed it in D.C. One of its chief problems was not where the show started (it had a brilliant overture and two great introductory songs for both Mack and Mabel), but where it finished. Herman cited Champion's dominant influence on the show when he told an interviewer after the fact that "Gower insisted that we go to Mabel's death. Absolutely insisted on it. He liked the idea. He wanted to be a bit like Hal Prince, who was doing darker musicals at that time. Everybody was. And I felt that that hurt the show."
And Herman was right. Broadway had been totally upended four years earlier, when in 1970, Prince, along with Stephen Sondheim, George Furth and Michael Bennett, forever changed its trajectory with their groundbreaking musical Company. By the end of the decade, the very notion of what constituted a late-sixties flirty hit like Promises, Promises, was transmuted to the baking of human beings into meat pies in Sweeney Todd. With Mack & Mabel arriving at about mid-point in this revolution, and seemingly wanting to have it both ways—a big splashy musical with over-the-top production numbers, but a serious-minded story with a tragic ending—is it any wonder that even with the two of the most appealing stars that ever graced the stage, it received downright awful reviews? As evidence, take a look at this sampling:
Clive Barnes: "Never have so many props propped up so much show."
Martin Gottfried: "Mack & Mabel shows a lot of hard work (that's one of the things that's wrong with it), but that is all it shows."
Douglas Watt: "I spent the evening feeling sorry for it."
Walter Kerr: "I have rarely seen so much talent so dispirited as the creative souls peering through the gloom at the Majestic Theatre."
However, the show received one unlikely (and rare rave) from the usually gloomy John Simon, then writing for New York Magazine. Nearly twenty-five years later, in a review of a 1998 Jerry Herman revue that briefly played Broadway in 1998, Simon harkened back to his earlier assessment of the musical: "For me, though, the jewels of the show are the selections from Mack & Mabel, Herman's undervalued masterpiece. Back in 1974, I was the only critic who recognized it as such: a work infused with existential insight and enrapturing melody and lyrics. It also had the ideal interpreters in Bernadette Peters and the incomparable Robert Preston, whose premature death was one of Broadway's greatest losses. I still smile remembering Preston's comment in 1974 about how unnerving it was to be in a show disparaged by the revered Walter Kerr and extolled by the usually hostile and resented John Simon."
My own personal connection to the musical is that it had starred Preston, my all-time favorite actor. So it should surprise no one that I have been kicking myself over the past forty-three years for not having seen him in Mack Mabel. I've also spent an inordinate amount of time with the cast album, picking it apart, and reading multiple scripts of the show each time a new producing-directing team would work on resurrecting it. And so it will remain until someone (possibly?) gets it right. The score makes it worth it, or so says everyone who embarks on seeking the success that seemingly eludes it.
An early publicity shot (in happier times) of Jerry Herman, Robert Preston, Bernadette Peters
and Michael Stewart in rehearsal for Mack & Mabel (1974).
And for anyone who wants more of every single detail that went into the making of Mack & Mabel, (such as that Jerry Orbach was originally signed to play Mack, gracefully stepping aside when Preston expressed interest), then I recommend the fourteen pages devoted to it in John Anthony Gilvey's 2005 Gower Champion biography, Before the Parade Passes By. Some real gems in there—much like the musical itself.
If you enjoy these columns, I encourage you to purchase Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now available at Amazon.com. Please email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.