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A New Fate for a Star-Crossed Tale

Reprise! gives Jerry Herman another shot at one of his rare musical flops, 'Mack & Mabel.'

November 05, 2000|F. KATHLEEN FOLEY | F. Kathleen Foley is a regular theater reviewer for Calendar

Legendary film producer Mack Sennett was a survivor, a strapping, cigar-chomping Irishman whose wildly popular silent shorts provided a training ground for some of Hollywood's most illustrious film comics--Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle and Ben Turpin.

And, of course, Mabel Normand. Sennett's longtime lover and one of his biggest stars, the petite Irish American bathing beauty had already made a handful of films before hooking up with Sennett. However, she achieved true celebrity only under Sennett's auspices, cranking out a rapid-fire string of comedies for Sennett's Keystone Studios, the movie mill spawned by Sennett's Keystone Kops series.

On-screen, Normand epitomized a new feminine ideal, a vivacious good-time girl untouched by domestic cares or adversity. Off-screen, however, the good times took their toll. Lapsing into alcoholism and drug addiction, Normand witnessed a painful ebbing of her popularity before succumbing to tuberculosis at age 37.

Sennett had his reversals too, including catastrophic financial losses in the stock market crash of 1929. However, unlike his fragile lover, Sennett proved as durable as a hickory shillelagh, outliving Normand by some 30 years.

"Mack & Mabel," the musical based on Sennett and Normand's star-crossed love affair, has turned out to be just as durable. When it opened on Broadway in 1974, starring Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters in the title roles, the show received mixed notices and closed after only 66 performances.

Now, "Mack & Mabel" will return to Los Angeles for the first time since its pre-Broadway run at the Music Center in 1974. Part of the Reprise! series, the new production, which opens Wednesday at UCLA's Freud Playhouse, will feature Douglas Sills and Jane Krakowski in the leads.

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The failure of "Mack & Mabel" was an uncharacteristic career setback for composer-lyricist Jerry Herman. While still a mere sprout in his late 20s, Herman already had his first show on Broadway, "Milk and Honey." His scores for "Hello, Dolly!" and "Mame" were soon to follow.

Alongside those blockbusters, "Mack & Mabel" was initially eclipsed. Yet Herman has always considered it among his finest work. Critics are finally beginning to agree with him. A London reviewer recently rhapsodized that the score is "one of the richest and most distinctive in the whole postwar history of Broadway."

For Herman, it's a long overdue vindication. "I love this score unashamedly," says Herman, who pulled up his New York stakes about a decade ago and now lives in Bel-Air. "It gave me more reach in my music than I'd ever had before. It's about a man [Sennett] who doesn't know how to say 'I love you,' but who loves this girl [Normand] very deeply. I was really able to dig in and write about these tough, difficult characters. I suddenly found myself writing a much deeper score, one with a lot of anger and humor in it. I've always been proud of the turn my work took with this material. It was a stretch for me. I think that's why I really love it and never tire of hearing it."

Although "Mack & Mabel" has always enjoyed cult status among musical devotees, it took a fortuitous twist to bring it to the attention of mainstream audiences. In 1982, Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean won the World Ice Dancing Championships skating to the show's overture. Their performance sparked renewed interest in the musical. After a 1988 charity concert received ecstatic notices, a hit revival was mounted in London in 1995.

But until that groundswell, success was elusive. Herman's longtime collaborator, Michael Stewart, who also wrote the book for "Dolly," had an uphill battle bringing the tale of Sennett and Normand to the boards. Stewart's book for "Mack & Mabel" was plagued by a downbeat ending that alienated audiences. Compounding the problem, original director Gower Champion focused his energies on elaborate production numbers while largely ignoring the piece's dramaturgical problems.

Stewart died in 1987 before he could address those drawbacks. Stewart's sister, Francine Pascal, took over where her brother left off. She and Herman have been tweaking the plot since its London run. The Reprise! production will be the world premiere of Pascal's latest rewrite.

"Francine is the real hero of this story," Herman says. "Michael Stewart had done some fine writing, but I have to be truthful and say there were some dull patches in the original book. After Michael's death, Francine, who is a fine writer in her own right, fixed all those dull patches, and eliminated and rewrote and repaired. She's a determined lady who loves this project as much as I do and is just as determined as I am to have this musical find its proper place in the world. I think the script right now is as solid and worthy of success as anything I've ever worked on."

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