October 13, 2017: THEATRE YESTERDAY AND TODAY, BY RON FASSLER
Part III of the saga of Mack & Mabel continues with its out of town run, which covered four cities in four months. 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. 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.”
The next stop was an odd one. It played the Municipal Opera (or Muny) in St. Louis, which is an outdoor theatre that seats 11,000 people. 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.
After its opening at the Majestic Theatre on October 6, 1974, poor reviews and poor attendance resulted in its demise after only sixty-four 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.
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. This made sense, especially when it came time for him to lead the company in the rousing eleven-o’clock number “Tap Your Troubles Away.” One 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 in theatres, who had been sitting for two-and-a-half-hours, despondent and cheated. But the changes did little to solve the basic problem of Act II’s tragic turn, which featured Mabel’s drug addiction and untimely death.
Then, in an odd turn of events, Britain’s ice dancing team of Torvill and Dean won the 1982 gold medal at the World Figure Skating competition, in which they utilized the “Overture” to Mack & Mabel. It was a sensation and suddenly made the cast recording 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 this routine in years, and when I found it on YouTub, I wound up watching it six times. Take a 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 together 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, the West End got its first Mack & Mabel, where it was finally met with good notices and good business. It ran for 270 performances and had an American, Howard McGillin, playing opposite Caroline O’Connor, a Brit. A recording was made and there are numerous clips on YouTube that feature McGilliin’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.
Though never done at City Center’s Encores! (they have yet to produce a Jerry Herman musical), it was done in 2000 at L.A.’s Reprise, something of a West Coast knockoff. This production starred Broadway’s Douglas Sills and Jane Krakowski. It 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 loss of trying.
Speaking of Encores!, at the City Center website, a series of famous Broadway types list their “Dream” Encores! shows. No less a Jerry Herman devotee than Angela Lansbury cites Mack & Mabel as her choice: “Broadway can be very upsetting at times — as I certainly discovered with Anyone Can Whistle and Dear World. But Mack & Mabel mixed comedy with a very deep love story, and I think audiences didn’t quite know where to put their allegiance and attention. Is it the comedy? Is it the love story? They may have just given up.”
Then, when asked by an interviewer if one of the problems with reviving the show would be in its original stars being so perfectly suited to the roles, “that I wonder if they would disintegrate with other performers,” got this reply from Lansbury: “You’d have trouble bettering Bernadette, quite frankly. You really would. I think there are young women around today who live on that level — who have the capability of madness but who also have, deep down underneath, a strain of sincerity and reality. (pause) I can’t think of who they are. (laughs) They’re few and far between. And he was such an interesting actor. I worked with him in a movie [1960’s The Dark at the Top of the Stairs], and they don’t make them like that anymore. I don’t know who you’d cast in the male role. Can you think of anyone?”
On that note, we’ll leave this to be sorted out by others. And as a reminder: this list of productions is by no means complete. My intention is to give some idea how Mack & Mabel is always going to be 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 turn 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 suits it so.
Here are the two previous Mack & Mabel columns, in case you missed them:
MACK & MABEL, PART I: “Tap Your Troubles Away.”
October 6, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
MACK & MABEL: PART II, “Look What Happened to Mabel.”
October 12, 2017: THEATRE YESTERDAY AND TODAY, BY RON FASSLER
If you enjoy these columns, I encourage you to purchase Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now available at Amazon.com. Please email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.