Ed Lester, the director of the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera, suggested the project to Jerry Herman, who then involved Michael Stewart. David Merrick agreed to produce, and Gower Champion was engaged to direct and choreograph. Although Champion had initially declined the offer, he eventually accepted, especially when it was decided to hold the pre-Broadway tryouts in California. Robert Preston was hired as Mack. For the role of Mabel, several actresses were engaged and then let go, including Marcia Rodd and Kelly Garrett, before the young Bernadette Peters finally joined the cast.
Mack and Mabel opened in pre-Broadway tryouts in San Diego on June 17, 1974 and then Los Angeles, with brisk box office sales in both cities. According to The New York Times, " 'Mack and Mabel' has been doing rather better than its probable guarantee [in Los Angeles] – up to $150,000 in its final seven-day period." The musical received reviews that ranged "from fair to phenomenal in San Diego, Los Angeles, and St. Louis". The Los Angeles reviews were "encouraging but guarded", and warned "of the excessive comic sequences, uneven book, and, most especially, the dark ending." Buoyed by the critical response and initial public enthusiasm for the show, Herman and company ignored a number of warning signs. Neither Sennett nor Normand was a particularly lovable character, and their story was darker than that usually found in a musical. Preston (as Sennett) was too old for Peters (Mabel), and their characters lacked chemistry. Champion devised a number of eye-catching visual effects and spectacular dance sequences set to Philip J. Lang's orchestrations, but their brightness proved to be too great a contrast with the somber mood of the piece. His concept of setting the action in the corner of a huge studio soundstage created problems with the set and limited the staging to the extent that it was seen as static and boring. Audiences "were not ready for a down-beat saga about a cocaine-sniffing movie queen."
Efforts were made to resolve the problems at The Muny in St. Louis, where the musical ran for one week starting August 19, 1974, but this venue was a "terrible mistake". Because The Muny was so large, the performers overplayed and pulled the show out of shape. By the Washington, D.C. Kennedy Center engagement, "nothing was working", and Champion changed the staging of scenes that had previously worked. Richard Coe in his The Washington Post review stated that it had landed at the Kennedy Center "with all the zip of a wet, very dead flounder."
The musical opened at the Majestic Theatre on Broadway on October 6, 1974, and closed on November 30, 1974 after 66 performances and 6 previews. Scenic design was by Robin Wagner, costume design by Patricia Zipprodt, and lighting design by Tharon Musser. In addition to Preston and Peters, the cast featured Lisa Kirk as Lottie Ames and James Mitchell as William Desmond Taylor.
Despite only fair reviews and the short run, the show received eight Tony Award nominations: for Best Musical, the book, direction, choreography, lead actor, lead actress and designs but did not win any. Herman, whose melodic score had received the best notices, was not nominated. He was deeply disappointed, since the project had been one of his favorites (and remains so), and he felt producer David Merrick had done little to promote it, saying "He never invested in advertising. He never came to the theatre." Despite its failure, the show has developed a cult following.
Mack and Mabel was first produced in England in 1981 at the Nottingham Playhouse. The production starred Denis Quilley as Mack and Imelda Staunton as Mabel; it had a successful run but failed to transfer to the West End. Soon afterward, British ice-skating team Torvill and Dean, who were based in Nottingham, searched the music library at the local radio station for suitable material for their routines and discovered a recording of the original cast album. When they won the gold medal for ice dance in the World Figure Skating Championships in 1982, they performed to the Mack & Mabel overture. Later the routine was broadcast by BBC Television during the 1984 Olympics, with the British public demand so great that the album was re-released in the UK, where it reached #6 on the charts.
In February 1988, a one-time concert, featuring George Hearn, Georgia Brown, Denis Quilley and Tommy Tune was staged for charity at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London. A cast recording was released.1995 West End
On November 7, 1995, a full-scale production opened at the Piccadilly Theatre in London, and ran for 270 performances. The book had been dramatically revised, including a happy ending, with Mabel back in Mack's arms at the final curtain. The show was directed by Paul Kerryson and choreographed by Michael Smuin, and the cast included Howard McGillin as Mack and Caroline O'Connor as Mabel, Kathryn Evans, and Alan Mosley.2005-2006 Watermill and West End
The show was revived at the Watermill Theatre, in Newbury, England. David Soul starred alongside Anna-Jane Casey (replaced by Janie Dee in the West End production) in the small-scale production (only eleven performers), which ran for a limited season between March and June 2005. The show then toured the UK from January 2006 prior to a West End transfer, where it played at the Criterion Theatre from April 10, 2006 until July 1, 2006. It featured the trademark style of director John Doyle, with the cast members, except for Soul, playing musical instruments as well as acting and singing.2007 and 2008 productions
The show was produced at the Shaw Festival Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario in 2007. Directed by Molly Smith, this production eliminated the use of projected film as called for in the script. Instead, monochromatic costumes and special lighting were used to produce the effect of silent film while using live actors on stage. The result was a seamless blend between silent film scenes, and full color. Shaw's presentation was the first full production in Canada and was in repertory at the Festival Theatre until October 28, 2007.
The Broadway Theatre, Catford, London, UK, produced the musical from November 2008 through December 2008, starring Karl Clarkson (Mack), Gemma Boaden (Mabel) and Sean Pol McGreevy (Frank), directed by Artistic Director Thom Southerland. Southerland had assisted John Doyle with the 2005-2006 production.2011
The Company Music Theatre produced a short run of the show in August 2011 at Greenwich Theatre, London, directed by Ben Occhpinti, choreographed by Lee Crowley, with Musical Director Dan Swana.2012
It was revived in July at Southwark Playhouse, under the direction of Thom Southerland with choreography by Lee Proud. The title roles were played by Norman Bowman and Laura Pitt-Pulford.2013
Musical Theatre West in Long Beach, California will bring a concert version to the Carpenter Performing Arts Center on May 20 at 8pm, starring Davis Gaines, as Mack Sennett, with direction by Larry Carpenter, choreography by Karl Warden and musical direction by John McDaniel. Eldorado Productions are performing Mack & Mabel at the Bob Hope Theatre in Eltham 9–12 October 2013 with Neil Whitaker as Mack and Jo-jo Butler starring as Mabel, directed by Jeanette Wallis - this production includes the now rarely performed original ending!2015
Chichester Festival Theatre in West Sussex, UK presented a new production from July 13, 2015 - September 5, 2014 with a following UK tour (October 1, 2015 - December 6, 2015). The musical stars Michael Ball as Mack Sennett and Rebecca LaChance, with direction by Jonathan Church, choreography by Stephen Mear and design by Robert Jones.Act I
Silent movie director Mack Sennett returns to his old film studio in Brooklyn in 1938. Things have changed considerably since he was last there—he sees a group of actors shooting a scene for a talkie. Mack reminisces about "when he ran the show", the glorious era of silent movies, thinking of his Bathing Beauties and Keystone Cops ("Movies Were Movies").
In a flashback, it is 1911. When Mabel, a delicatessen worker, delivers a sandwich to Lottie, the actress that Mack is filming, Lottie is unable to pay, and Mabel reacts violently. Mabel's dramatic behaviour catches Mack's eye, and he thinks she has potential as an actress. He offers her a part in his next film. She initially refuses, but when she looks back on the offer, she is dazzled by the career prospects ("Look What Happened To Mabel").
Mabel is very successful and becomes a major star. Later, along with Mack's two accountants, Kleiman and Fox, who are helping to finance his projects, the film company moves to a new, larger studio, in California. Lottie and the rest of Mack's film crew, who include the comedian Fatty Arbuckle, eagerly fantasize about moving up in the world, ("Big Time"). Meanwhile, Mabel has become attracted to Mack. While she is reciting an improvised poem, Mabel invites him into her train compartment for a meal. Things escalate, and Mabel persuades a very reluctant Mack to take part in a mock wedding ceremony. But Mack has no time for romance ("I Won't Send Roses"). He and Mabel sleep together, but Mack wakes up horrified and leaves in a hurry. Mabel, now in love with Mack, resolves to do things her way ("I Won't Send Roses" (Reprise)).
Eventually, Mabel wants to move on from comedy and star in serious dramas. But Mack is only interested in comedy ("I Wanna Make The World Laugh") and tries to discourage her. Mabel meets another movie director, the smooth-talking William Desmond Taylor, who is instantly attracted to her, and agrees to feature her in serious films - he invites her to dinner to discuss arrangements. Mack tries in vain to discourage her. After an argument, Mabel dresses in her best clothes and puts on make-up, then goes off not only for her appointment with Taylor, but for good, as she never wants to see Mack again ("Wherever He Ain't"). Mack is confident that he can manage without Mabel: he made a star out of one ordinary girl, and he can make a star out of another. With this in mind, he immediately comes up with the concept of the Bathing Beauties ("Hundreds of Girls").Act II
Mabel eventually returns to Mack of her own accord and is welcomed with open arms by the entire film company ("When Mabel Comes In The Room"). Mack is so glad to have her back that he agrees to film Mabel's new, serious drama, "Molly", at his studio. But he can't help himself - comedy is his nature. He attempts to jazz it up with a new comic creation, The Keystone Cops ("My Heart Leaps Up"), and Mabel returns to Taylor. Later, Mack sees Mabel again as she is preparing to embark on a ship with Taylor. Taylor shows up and Mack leaves. Taylor, sensing that Mabel might still have feelings for Mack, persuades Mabel, who is complaining of tiredness, to take heroin, saying it is a pick-me-up, which works with the magic words, "Bye, Mack!". Mabel is heartbroken by everything Mack has done to her, but is confident that she will eventually forget him ("Time Heals Everything").
Back at the studio, a happy Mack has realized the potential of sound in his movies, with singing and dancing. Lottie Ames, another actress in Mack's company, has become a star, but Mabel has become a full-time drug addict ("Tap Your Troubles Away"), and her reputation is ruined. To add further to the tragedy, her lover, William Desmond Taylor, is murdered, and she is the prime suspect. By the time Mack is willing to try to patch things up between him and Mabel, it is too late - she has died. But musicals must end happily, so Mack imagines a happier ending to their story ("I Promise You A Happy Ending").Mack Sennett — An obsessively hard-working movie director
Mabel Normand — A deli delivery girl who becomes a movie star. Sennett reluctantly becomes romantically involved with her.
William Desmond Taylor — A "serious" director, and rival for both Normand's acting talents and her affections
Kleiman — An accountant
Fox — Kleiman's partner
Frank Wyman — An actor/writer, and later a director
Lottie Ames — A silent movie star
Subsequent revisions of the show have changed some character names to their real life counterparts from the era.Frank Wyman - Frank Capra
Fatty - Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle
Kleiman - Adam Kessell
Fox - Charles O. Baumann
The Broadway reviews were only fair. Walter Kerr, in his review for The New York Times wrote, "I have rarely seen so much talent so dispirited as the creative souls peering through the gloom at the Majestic ... librettist Michael Stewart ... has chosen to lean on the myth of Mack and Mabel, let the mysteries stand, invented no emotional line." He wrote of Gower Champion, "A choreographer ought to be able to do something with bodies. ... Mr. Champion doesn't set about his task that way ... [he] has not only avoided dance as a means of intimating a difficult kind of comedy, he has been stingy and even sluggish with the footwork that does crop up to decorate the songs. ... Production values everywhere are minimal." He noted that "Robert Preston's personal dynamism isn't diminished, it's just restively lying in wait for the solid meat he could handle if only there were a good provider around" and that "Miss Peters ... is close to touching in her quiet reminder that what Mr. Preston started in 1911 may be over and done with in 1923."
According to Kenneth Bloom, Mack & Mabel was "The saddest failure of Jerry Herman's career". It was a "victim of its time, an era when rock musicals were preferred over traditional musical comedy scores. Deep at its core was a simple love story and an exceptionally appropriate score. The urge to turn what could have been a bittersweet drama into a huge musical comedy was fatal."