Mack & Mabel
"This time we won't say, 'Those lucky bastards!' Haha! This time those lucky bastards are us!"
- Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman
- Book by Michael Stewart
- Directed and Choreographed by Gower Champion
- Opened 10/6/74 at the Majestic Theater in New York. Closed after 66 performances.
Mr. Fox (thanks to friendly reader Jamie for this info)
Ella, Mack Sennet's piano player
This musical was based on the life and experiences of silent film director Mack Sennett and his greatest discovery and lover, comedienne Mabel Normand.
In 1938, Mack Sennett reminisces about the era of silent movies, starting in 1911, when deli delivery girl Mabel Normand shows off considerable comedic potential when she tries to get money for the sandwich she's delivered to Lottie, the actress Mack is filming. Mack immediately puts her in the movies, and Mabel's two-reel comedies prove to be very popular. As Mack moves his film company to the West Coast, he and Mabel are attracted to one another. Unfortunately, their relationship is stormy, partially because Mack is obsessed with making movies and because Mabel wants to branch out beyond comedy. She leaves him for William Desmond Taylor, who features her in dramatic roles. Years later, Mabel returns to Mack when he promises to put her in a serious film, but her movie ends up "exploding" with Keystone Kops, and she returns to Taylor. However, it takes heroin to get her to leave Mack entirely, and Mabel ends up an addict and alcoholic, while Lottie becomes a success. Mabel's reputation is further tarnished when Taylor is murdered. By the time Mack is willing to try to convince her to come back to him, she's dead.
- Movies Were Movies
- Look What Happened to Mabel
- Big Time
- I Won't Send Roses (Preston)
- I Won't Send Roses (reprise--Peters)
- I Wanna Make the World Laugh
- Wherever He Ain't
- Hundreds of Girls
- When Mabel Comes In the Room
- My Heart Leaps up
- Time Heals Everything
- Tap Your Troubles Away
- I Promise You a Happy Ending
Mack & Mabel won no Tonys.
- Best Musical
- Best Actor (Preston)
- Best Actress (Peters)
- Best Director (Champion)
- Best Book
- Scenic Designer (Robin Wagner)
- Costume Designer (Patricia Zipprodt)
- Choreographer (Champion)
This is a legendary flop musical, combining an unworkable "bummer of a book" (according to John Clum in Something for the Boys) with what many consider to be Jerry Herman's best score. (No Tony nom, though; jeez!) Stanley Green, in The World of Musical Comedy (4th ed., 1980), said of it, "What a crackling good score this is & what a pity that it remains so unappreciated." Luckily, more and more people have been appreciating it since those words were written!
Not only does Mack & Mabel contain many of the most interesting songs Herman ever wrote, but it also has a more authentic period sound than his other scores. Check out the banjo and tinkly piano on "Wherever He Ain't" or the deliberately cheesy early-movie-musical "Tap Your Troubles Away." Several of the songs, "I Won't Send Roses" and "Time Heals Everything," have become mini-standards; the latter is frequently performed in concert by Peters. "When Mabel Comes in the Room" is the obligatory Herman "diva" song, much like "Hello, Dolly" or "Mame." The overture is one of the best around--Torville and Dean skated to it in 1984, which is probably why we can still get this OBC at all--and has a real old-time-movie-soundtrack feel, especially the beginning part, which suggests a silent movie chase scene. "Look What Happened to Mabel" is a jolly showstopper of a song, though lyrically it could be better (see Really Crappy Lyrics); still, it's one of the few Broadway songs to mention "bagels and knishes," even if the character is Catholic! And in "Hundreds of Girls," can't you just see the camera panning down lines of bathing beauties a la Busby Berkeley? On the other hand, the goofy "Tap Your Troubles Away" is performed by a smiling Lottie while, in "silent screen pantomime," Mabel sinks into alcoholism and drug abuse. It sounds like a powerful contrasting moment on stage, but the song itself is one of the few songs in this musical whose meaning to the score is unknowable without reading the plot summary.
The cast is mostly delicious:
- One of the most beloved male stars on Broadway for his work ethic, good manners, and professionalism, Robert Preston is always worth listening to, hit or flop. He seems too old to be Mabel's lover (in the pictures in the booklet), but by sheer force of personality he makes it work. [4/12/03 update: Mack was 14 years older than Mabel. Preston was 30 years older than Peters. Thus, while the Mack-Mabel relationship was a May-December romance, it wasn't the extreme one that the Preston-Peters pairing implies.) He gets a nice mix of songs, especially the lovely "I Won't Send Roses," though most of them concern the same thing--making movies. He's a tad uncertain on "Movies Were Movies" and "I Promise You a Happy Ending," but the latter is the weakest song in the musical, and he sounds like he knows it, so he can be forgiven.
- I like Bernadette Peters here much better than in her Tony-winning turn as the Witch in Into the Woods. It's too bad they put that silly black wig on her head, though! (No wonder Zipprodt didn't win for this musical; the wigs were terrible.) Her spittin' mad performance on "Wherever He Ain't" is arguably the highlight of the CD, but like Preston, she gets a good mix of fast and slow songs.
- Lisa Kirk plays the only other character identifiable via the booklet. Her two numbers, "Big Time" and "Tap Your Troubles Away," are fun and make one wish she'd had at least one more song; she projects a lot of personality, self-confidence, and enjoyment. Apparently, however, one of the problems with the musical was that the audience wasn't given much reason to care about the character of Lottie, so giving her two fairly important songs was a mistake. We as mere listeners don't have this problem, however. In the narrow context of the songs alone, she seems to mean something.
- The only other identified singer is Stanley Simmonds, who sings about half of the musical's love song to Mabel, "When Mabel Comes in the Room." The number is a showstopper; Simmonds is competent but unmemorable.
- Nancy Evers's husband, Kip Miller, kindly supplied the following information: "In the role of Sennett's piano player, she actually did play onstage. In fact, the CD starts with 'Movies were Movies,' and that rinky-tink piano you hear at the start is her playing. She sang throughout the CD and is the top soprano voice you hear. In 'When Mabel Comes in the Room' she sings the high descant (which unfortunately wasn't recorded well so it doesn't 'pop out' at you). In 'The Big Time,' she sang 'I'm gonna sleep on black satin sheets' (which she insists sounds to her like "black satin shits"). And, in general, any top soprano line.... it's Nancy."
The booklet is strongest when it describes the troubled history of Mack & Mabel and the plot summary. But it has only three small pictures and no lyrics.
So the book sucks. That doesn't matter when you're listening to the CD. This is one of those musicals where the music pretty much tells the story anyway. Sparkling, energetic, interesting, and eminently listenable; most highly recommended. A must purchase for Herman, Preston, and Peters fans. It's being revived with a supposedly improved book; I hope it succeeds this time!
Mack & Mabel was Nancy Evers's first Broadway show. Also, she recently covered five roles in Waiting in the Wings; three of them were major. She went on in more than 30 performances, which had her on stage for a fifth of the run. Here are some useful links about her: her vitae and a page about Waiting in the Wings, which ran from December 16, 1999, to May 28, 2000.
Friendly reader Jacqui Chapman would like to know if a video of this show exists. Can you help her?
All non-lyric material copyright 2001, D. Aviva Rothschild, except the quote from Kip Miller, which is copyrighted to him. All rights reserved.
I invite other examples, or comments about the examples above. All submitted material will be properly credited and copyrighted to the submitters. Please see the submissions page for more information.
Or, if you're not in a mood to publish, just let me know your opinion of this page.
Return to Bursting with Song Return to Rational Magic current issue Go back to the Rational Magic home page