MACK & MABEL, PART III: “I Promise You a Happy Ending”

Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters in “Mack & Mabel” (1974).

Nowadays, new musicals rarely schedule out of town try outs due to how expensive it is. Yes, a regional theatre such as ART at Harvard will develop new works via their subscription seasons, most of which have their eyes on New York, but that’s not nearly the same thing as a musical going to a city or two with photos already installed outside a Broadway theatre ahead of its imminent arrival. Being on the road is grueling, involving a lot of hard work and faithful prayer while fine-tuning the best possible show.

By all reports, what happened with Mack & Mabel in four cities over four months resulted in diminishing returns. Rehearsals began in New York City on May 6, 1974, and the show opened in San Diego on June 17th. Reviews there were “good, not great,” according to an article on the show published in New York Magazine prior to the Broadway opening, which could only have been mildly encouraging. The next stop was Los Angeles, which prompted some sniping from its director Gower Champion: “I’ll never open again in California. When you open in Boston or Detroit, people realize it’s a show in progress. In California, your peers see it and expect it to be perfect.”

Second-guessing and self-doubt would plague Champion throughout the rest of the rehearsal period, which many people cite as leading to the show’s eventual downfall. The tinkering never stopped and it only made things worse.

After L.A., the next stop in St. Louis was an odd one: the Municipal Opera (or Muny), an outdoor theatre that seats 11,000 people — about six and a half times more seats than the Majestic Theatre, where the show was set to open on Broadway. Rather politely, Jerry Herman said that it was here “the show’s timing got off track.” You think?

The fourth and final stop was Washington D.C., where proof that things had gotten demonstrably worse came to a head when the chief theatre critic of the Washington Post, Richard Coe, wrote: “Mack & Mabel landed on the Kennedy Center Opera House stage Tuesday night with all the zip of a wet, very dead flounder.” Not quite the boost of confidence needed before traveling north to Broadway.

And what transpired when it opened on October 6, 1974 at the Majestic is probably best summed up by Ethan Mordden in his book on the Broadway Musicals of the 1970s, One More Kiss: “A flawed, but always interesting show with two of the most engaging stars of all time, Mack & Mabel got horrible reviews.” It would close after only five previews and sixty-six performances. As you might imagine, there was little to do but bemoan the loss of its entire $850,000 investment. And yet … it didn’t take long before other producers took it on, undaunted by the prospect of another likely failure.

The original window card for “Mack & Mabel” (1974).

Not long after its closing, a slightly altered version went out on the road with David Cryer as Mack and Lucie Arnaz as Mabel. And in a gender reversal, the role of Mabel’s best girlfriend went to Tommy Tune. Being a one-of-kind-dancer, this made sense, especially when it came time for Tune to lead the company in the rousing eleven-o’clock number “Tap Your Troubles Away.”

One other major change was instituted on this tour; a new “up” finale that went the opposite route of Broadway, which had concluded with Mack’s final song, the poignant and bittersweet “I Promise You a Happy Ending.” Though it works beautifully on the album, it left audiences who had been sitting for two-and-a-half-hours, despondent and cheated. But the fantasy happy ending did little to solve the basic tragedy of Act II, which featured Mabel’s drug addiction and untimely death.

Tune didn’t play Mack, so this makes for an interesting way to have advertised the show in its 1975 tour.

Then in 1982, in an odd turn of events for Mack & Mabel, Britain’s ice dancing team of Torvill and Dean won a gold medal at the World Figure Skating competition. They skated to what is billed as the “Overture” on the show’s original cast recording, though in reality, it’s the “Entr’acte,” which opened Act Two. Torvill and Dean were a sensation and suddenly made the record a best seller (this is in the days when you had to buy an entire album, even if there was only one song you wanted to own). I hadn’t seen their routine in years, and when I found it on YouTube, I wound up watching it six times. Look and see for yourself what all the fuss was about (with a special shout out to the great Philip J. Lang’s orchestration):

Due to Torvill and Dean’s putting the score on people’s radar, suddenly there was renewed interest in the show itself. A 1988 London charity benefit, Mack & Mabel in Concert, gathered an all-star cast to perform the entire score that was filmed for television and later released as a record. It is here that you can listen to Tommy Tune sing “Tap Your Troubles Away” as well as a thrilling rendition of Mack’s opening number “Movies Were Movies,” sung by the great George Hearn.

Later that same year, the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey produced the show. Mack was Lee Horsley (the star of Matt Houston, an ABC hit detective series of the early ’80s) and Broadway vet Janet Metz was Mabel. A transfer was planned, with the Neil Simon Theatre booked, along with two new stars announced — George Hearn and Ellen Foley. However, the funding fell through, and that was that.

In November of 1995, a West End production of Mack & Mabel produced not only good notices, but good business. It ran for 270 performances and had an American, Howard McGillin, playing opposite Caroline O’Connor, a Brit. A recording was made that feature McGillin’s glorious singing of Mack’s songs (in keys that Robert Preston could only have dreamed of). This was a version that was rewritten after the 1987 death of Michael Stewart by his sister Francine Pascal, who worked with her brother on the book for the 1968 Broadway musical, George M!,’ and is the author of the Sweet Valley High young adult novels. She made further changes that were put into a 1999 production that starred Jeff McCarthy and Kelli Rabke, at the well-regarded Barrington Stage in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

Howard McGillin and Caroline O’Connor as Mack & Mabel (London, 1995).

Prior to his death in 2019, Jerry Herman finally granted City Center’s Encores! permission to do one of his shows. He had allowed L.A.’s Reprise, something of a West Coast knockoff of Encores! with little scenery and even littler rehearsal time, to do Mack & Mabel in 2000. It starred Douglas Sills and Jane Krakowski and was well received, even if that pesky second act trouble still hadn’t been completely overcome. In fact, Pascal was quoted as saying that the show was now “forty percent different from the original.” There was talk about this one also going to Broadway (with Kristin Chenoweth taking over Mabel from Jane Krakowsi), but it was not meant to be, though not for lack of trying.

The Encores! production, sadly coming just two months after Jerry Herman’s death, was also one of the last shows anyone saw before the pandemic shutdown in March of 2020, which came just twenty days after this Mack & Mabel closed. I was one of the lucky ones and, like everyone else in the theatre, was thrilled if only to hear the score played by such a large orchestra as the one led by Rob Berman. Once again, Douglas Sills (twenty years later) was engaged to play Mack (superbly) and Alexandra Socha was Mabel, who brought new depths to her ballads and a light comedy touch everywhere else.

Alexandra Socha and Douglas Sills in “Mack & Mabel” (2020).

This list of productions is by no means complete. My intention is to give some idea how Mack & Mabel is always going to be out there somewhere, the little engine that could. Well, not really … since it involves a very large locomotive. But so long as these songs are with us, so too will there be someone trying to figure out a way to make their dream of turning the show into a cohesive and satisfying evening in the (now very expensive) theatre. Until then, save the roses for another opening night.

Which is a shame, for roses suit it so.

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.