Theatre yesterday and today



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MACK & MABEL, PART II: "Look What Happened to Mabel"

Since there was a lot of response on various fronts for the Mack & Mabel column I posted last week, it felt like a few more thoughts on the production history of this diamond in the rough would be welcome. If you didn't read Part I, here's the link:

Now let's begin at the beginning: what was derivation of the show as a musical and whose idea was it?

Leonard Spigelgass was a successful Hollywood screenwriter in the 1940s and ’50s, with such films as I Was a Male War Bride to his credit. With beginner’s luck, his first play, A Majority of One, was a big Broadway hit in 1959. He was fortunate to have found the right actress for the part, Gertrude Berg, known primarily to audiences at that time as the beloved Molly Goldberg, a role audiences adored her in and that she played consecutively for twenty-five years on radio, and then TV. Spigelgass then wrote his next play, Dear Me the Sky Is Falling, strictly as a Berg vehicle, and found himself with another hit. After that, his next few shows opened and closed quickly and, with his film career on the wane, semi-retired.

But in 1971, Spigelgass had an idea for a musical based on the silent screen teaming of the director Mack Sennett, and his favorite leading lady, Mabel Normand. He got a friend interested; Edwin Lester, the longtime impresario of the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera. Lester had produced many grand musicals over the years (he founded the LACLO in 1938) and had already moved a few successfully to Broadway, including Song of Norway and Kismet. When no less a theatre superstar than Jerry Herman warmed to writing the score for Mack & Mabel, everyone was excited at its prospects. "It was a composer's dream," Herman said in a 1974 New York Magazine. "A poignant love story set against pies, cops and craziness."

But this initial collaboration proved difficult and with Herman's urging, his friend Michael Stewart, one of Broadway's major librettists, came in to work on the book. Stewart liked it, but didn't like working with Spigelgass (who would be relegated to the credit of "Based on an idea by Leonard Spigelgass" on all future productions). With his departure, so went Edwin Lester, and Stewart turned to Joe Kipness, a "colorful" New York theatre producer to come in and take over. With a couple of genuine hits to his credit (as well as a couple of one-night flops), Kipness wasn't all that different than the average producer, save for his alleged ties to the mob. More than alleged, actually (and something probably best saved for another column entirely).

Eventually, Kipness exited the project and David Merrick entered. Though no longer in his hey day as the most prolific producer on Broadway, Merrick was still a force to be reckoned with. It wasn't long before he hired Gower Champion to direct and choreograph, and now the five men who had made Hello, Dolly! the biggest hit of the 1960s, were a team once again, hoping for another miracle. But was Champion really the right director for the project? Well, in some ways yes, and in some ways no.

Jerry Herman, Gower Champion, Lisa Kirk (who played Lottie Ames) and Robert Preston

in a press photo for Mack & Mabel (1974).

Champion had a reputation for being notoriously difficult and hadn’t developed a sizable hit on his own since I Do! I Do! in 1966. Just prior to Mack & Mabel, he had been called in to save an out of town musical in trouble, taking over the direction from a faltering John Gielgud. Single-handedly, Champion raised his status by managing to turn the old 1919 musical Irene into a triumphant (and belated Broadway debut) for Debbie Reynolds. But then, once signed for Mack & Mabel, Champion's penchant for changing his mind had him second-guessing himself with abandon. No more so than in casting the role of Mabel.

After seeing a number of name actresses (as well as unknowns), Penny Fuller had floated to the top of the list. A Tony nominee for her Eve Harrington in Applause, she boasted substantial credits as a dramatic actress as well. But Champion also had his eye on Marcia Rodd, who had slowly come up through the ranks in Off-Broadway musicals (The Mad Show, Your Own Thing), and had scored with her hilarious turn in Neil Simon's Last of the Red Hot Lovers. Having just come off her first Broadway musical that featured her name over the title, a short-lived Nancy Ford-Gretchen Cryer collaboration called Shelter, Rodd won out. The role was hers.

Marcia Rodd at the recording session of Your Own Thing (1968).

Then just prior to starting Mack & Mabel, Champion attended a show called Mother Earth, another short-lived musical from the same 1972-73 Broadway season as Shelter. It featured a young singer in its lead, Kelly Garrett, and now Champion had it in his head he had made a mistake: that Rodd wasn't the one. And this was even before day one of Mack & Mabel rehearsals began. "I got a call from Gower saying 'We're going to rehearse a week early,'" Rodd recalled. "That was weird. And from that second on, I knew something was wrong. You don't like to be paranoid, but he had been so warm to me—during negotiations, watching two-reelers, working with Jerry Herman—and now he was cold and terse. I knew I hadn't done anything wrong, because I hadn't even started to work yet."

"The two days of rehearsals weren't really rehearsals, but setups so he could justify firing me. He thought he was being kind, and he was being just as cool as could be. He put the blame on me. He said he had no doubt that if I really worked at it, and so on, but that I wasn't enough to build a show around."

"I was stunned. I've never been fired in my life."

Kelly Garrett was contracted as the new Mabel ... and lasted less time in the rehearsal room than Marcia Rodd. Champion mainly saw in Garrett a certain "bird with a broken wing" quality that he didn't see in Rodd. And even if Garrett was a superior singer, she was nowhere near as trained an actress.

Kelly Garrett in a press shot from The Night That Made America Famous (1976),

for which she received a Tony nomination for Featured Actress in a Musical.

So now what to do? With rehearsals heading into week two, Champion needed a third Mabel. Detractors began calling the show Mack & Maybe. A call went out to Bernadette Peters (and really — how could she have not been the first choice all along?). "I didn't want to audition because I had moved to California," Peters said. "But I had to go to New York to do a game show, so I auditioned. I was ready to leave, I was on the runway, and suddenly the engine goes pffft and we have to get off. I called my lawyer in California to say I had to be on a later flight, and while he was talking to me, his other phone rang. It was Merrick's office calling to say I'd gotten the part. It was fate, I really believe that."

Fate or not, I'm already over twelve-hundred words here, and this column isn't even up to the first performance of Mack & Mabel in front of an audience.

Stay tuned for Part III tomorrow.

If you enjoy these columns, I encourage you to purchase Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now available at Please email me with comments or questions at