MACK & MABEL — PART II: “Look What Happened to Mabel”

The beauteous Mabel Normand.

For Part II of the saga, let’s begin at the beginning: what was the derivation of Mack & Mabel as a musical and whose idea was it?

Leonard Spigelgass, was a successful Hollywood screenwriter in the 1940s and ’50s, mostly responsible for adaptations of books and plays, who would finish his career with the credited screenplay for Gypsy in 1962. Three years prior, he had a rookie’s luck on Broadway when his first play, A Majority of One, was a big success. 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 which she played consecutively for twenty-five years on radio and TV. Spigelgass’s next play, Dear Me the Sky Is Falling, was written strictly as a Berg vehicle, and he found himself with another hit. After that, a few more shows opened and closed quickly and, with his film career on the wane, he semi-retired.

Then 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, and 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.”

Early going proved difficult and Hundreds of Girls, as it was then known, never got off the ground. But Herman didn’t feel done with it. With his urging, he enlisted his friend and Hello, Dolly! collaborator, Michael Stewart, one of Broadway’s major librettists, to try his hand at it. Throwing out the previous book, “Based on an idea by Leonard Spigelgass” is now all that marks his contribution to Mack & Mabel in perpetuity. The search for a new producer brought the team to Joe Kipness, a colorful New York theatre “mug.” A Russian immigrant who never finished grammar school, he first made money in the garment district and later with restaurants. He also produced twenty-five Broadway shows, winning a Tony for Best Musical with Applause in 1970.

Eventually, Kipness exited the project and David Merrick entered. Though no longer in his heyday as the most prolific producer on Broadway, Merrick was still a force to be reckoned with. His major contribution would be to engage Gower Champion to direct and choreograph, bringing together the five men who had made Hello, Dolly!the biggest hit of the 1960s. But was Champion really the right director for Mack & Mabel? Well, in some ways yes, and in some ways no.

Gower Champion (1919–1980).

Champion had a reputation for being somewhat difficult and hadn’t developed a sizable hit on his own since I Do! I Do! in 1966. True, just prior to Mack & Mabel, he was called in to rescue a revival of the old 1919 chestnut Irene, in trouble out of town, taking over the direction from an ill-suited and faltering John Gielgud. Single-handedly, Champion raised his status by turning Irene into a triumphant (and belated Broadway debut) for Debbie Reynolds and a solid hit. His decisiveness in steering a sinking ship was exactly what Irene needed. However, with plenty of pre-production time on his hands, once signed for Mack & Mabel, Champion’s well-known 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), the wonderful Penny Fuller had risen to the top of the list. A recent 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 lead in a Broadway musical that featured her name over the title, a short-lived Nancy Ford-Gretchen Cryer collaboration called Shelter, Rodd won out. She would be a Mabel.

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

Then just prior to starting rehearsals, 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. “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 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.”

Bernadette Peters, in her late twenties, around the time of “Mack & Mabel.”

Fate or not, I’m already at around 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, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also, follow me here on Medium and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.

Author, playwright, director, actor, theatre critic and historian, his book, “Up in the Cheap Seats,” is available at Amazon.com.