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.