Mack and Mabel History
In 1972 Leonard Spigelglass, an American playwright, approached Jerry Herman about writing a musical together based on the silent movies, and in particular the relationship between Mack Sennett, the silent-film director, and his star comedienne Mabel Normand. Herman was at this time revelling in the success of his two great shows “Hello, Dolly!” and “Mame” and was very eager to be involved in a new project.
Spigelglass eventually withdrew to spend time on a biography of Edward G. Robinson, so Herman turned to his friend Michael Stewart, the librettist of “Hello, Dolly!”, to write the book. Two other members of the “Dolly team” soon became involved Gower Champion as director and David Merrick as producer. Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters were engaged as Mack and Mabel. A huge success was anticipated.
The show opened in San Diego and went on to Los Angeles and Washington, but somehow these very talented people just could not get the show to work. When it finally opened in New York at the Majestic Theatre on 6th October 1974 it was a disaster. The first night ground to a halt when some scenery fell down on the cast! The reviews were poor and after only 66 performances David Merrick decided to close the show.
Then something amazing happened! The audiences who had seen “Mack and Mabel”
loved it and the show rode out of history and into theatrical legend. It became the show that would not die. In the early 1980s a production at Nottingham Playhouse starring Dennis Quilley and Imelda Staunton was a huge success, but no backer could be found to take the show into the West End.
In 1984 the overture was danced to by the ice-skaters Torville and Dean
in fact they won the Olympic Gold Medal dancing to this music.
Immediately everyone wanted to buy the show album and it rose to 6th position in the charts. David Jacobs enthusiastically plugged the music on the radio. An all-star charity concert of the show was presented at Drury Lane for one night on 21st February 1988 and the voices of singers such as Georgia Brown, Stubby Kaye, Dennis Quilley, George Hearn and Tommy Tune brought the great score to life again.
The accepted feeling was that the music was wonderful, but the show was let down by a weak book. Michael Stewart was by now dead and so the producer Jon Wilner engaged Stewart’s sister, a well-known American children’s author, to revise the book. Francine Pascal amended the story, made it clearer and less traumatic for the audience, and it was this new version which ran in 1995 at the Haymarket Theatre, Leicester for a month. It starred Howard McGillen (Mack), Caroline O’Connor (Mabel) and Kathryn Evans (Lottie). The show was a sell-out and moved to the Piccadilly Theatre in London, running for 8 months and 270 performances. The critics loved it. The show received the Evening Standard Award for Best Musical. Howard McGillin was replaced during the run by Mark Adams and then by James Smillie.
In 2000 “Mack and Mabel” was released for amateur performance and there were many productions across the whole country. Jerry Herman and Francine Pascal were still not happy with the show, and feeling that more work needed to be done, it was withdrawn after 12 months.
A new professional production opened on tour in 2005 and then transferred into the West End to the Criterion Theatre for 4 months. This was a version adapted to the specialised production style of John Doyle. It had a total cast of only 11 performers and they were also the orchestra, as each actor had also to play a musical instrument. After this production closed, the show was again released for amateurs by Samuel French Ltd. And a new phase in the history of this wonderful musical has begun.
Mack & Mabel
Gala Theatre, Durham City:
29th January - 2nd February 2008
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