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Durham Musical Theatre Company Presents Mack & Mabel
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Mack & Mabel Synopsis
29th January - 2nd February 2008


It’s 1928, and the director Mack Sennett, king of the silent comic film, has come back to his old studio. But it’s all changed; now they’re shooting a talkie. And talkies, according to Sennett, are nothing but “some joker with a Victrola back of the screen” – just tricks and not worth “one eighth of a quarter of an inch of my Mabel”. Mabel Normand, silent film actress, is the woman Sennett loved – indeed, still loves.

Now she’s gone, and he knows she’s in trouble. But it’s not the kind of trouble one of his big Sennett finishes can solve. Besides, times are different now and they don’t make happy endings any more. “But what do they know about making movies?” he asks. “Not a goddam thing!” (Movies Were Movies)
On those memories, we go back to the better days of 1911, when it all began. Sennett is shooting a two-reeler melodrama with Lotte Ames, when six henchmen from the creditors burst in and start closing down the set. Right into the middle of this mayhem walks Mabel, the kid from the deli, with lunch orders – and she’s not leaving without her 15 cents. Chaos turns into comic madness, all of it caught on film. Everyone breaks up laughing, debts are forgotten – a star is born. (Look What Happened to Mabel)

Sixty two-reelers later, and Sennett and company have outgrown their little Brooklyn studio. They need “more space, sunshine, room to spread out!” Which means only one thing – California! (Big Time)

On the way out west, the train stops briefly in the middle of the desert. Mack finds Mabel alone on the observation platform, and the sight of her stirs something inside him. But he’s not going to let anything happen. They talk, and he tells her about his tough beginnings and the way he’s survived: “stay on the move, keep running and if it isn’t about making movies, forget it!” But Mabel likes him – maybe too much. That’s OK by Mack as long as she knows the rules. (I Won’t Send Roses) She does, and reprises his song. (So Who Needs Roses)

At last they’re in Hollywood. Kleinman and Fox, Sennett’s backers, want him to make big epics; but Mack has his own style. (I Wanna Make the World Laugh) And he’s right. Things are going great: he and his star are a team and have never been happier. (Mack & Mabel) Until, that is, Mabel, prodded by the writer Frank, decides that her “integrity as an artist” is being compromised. Mack explodes: “You got where you are because I counted for you! One you walk, two three you turn, four five…” And on his instruction she does turn, picks up a custard pie, and shoves it right in his face. In a beat he throws one back at her. Everyone then joins in the custard pie mêlée that has since come to epitomise comic chaos. (I Wanna Make the World Laugh).

At a Hollywood party in her honour, Mabel meets the famous director William Desmond Taylor, who wants to make a film with her. Mack feels threatened, but instead of telling Mabel the truth – that he’s jealous – he attacks her until she has no choice but to walk out. (Wherever He Ain’t) “And like all the other things I didn’t do with Mabel” he doesn’t stop her. It hurts, but he lets her go. Then master moviemaker that he is, he throws himself into a new idea: Sennett’s Bathing Beauties. (Hundreds of Girls)

Act Two opens on the years Mabel is away. We watch her on screen in one bad movie after another. Finally Mack can stand it no longer. “Taylor is ruining her!” He badly wants her back, but it’s tough for him to ask. She makes it easy, however, and in the quiet of one early morning comes back to Mack’s studio. One by one the crew greets her and soon everyone, including Mack, is joyously joining in. (When Mabel Comes in the Room)

But Mack is Mack, and when he starts shooting Mabel’s new movie, he gets sidetracked by his newest discovery – the Keystone Kops. (Hit ‘em on the Head) Meanwhile, Mabel is waiting patiently in her dressing room. Finally, after weeks of waiting, she just gets up and leaves. By the time Mack realises he has lost her again, the despairing Mabel has gone back to Taylor and is about to sail for Europe. This time Mack is not going to let her get away. But he can’t stop her, as he’s still not ready to make that commitment and she knows it. She’s talking about life but he’s talking about movies. Heartbroken, she is left alone on the deck as the boat pulls out. (Time Heals Everything)


Years pass. Years without Mabel: years that see the silent movie days draw to a close. Mack’s people are all leaving him. Lottie, the last to go, dances her way into the Vitagraph Varieties. (Tap Your Troubles Away) Suddenly, as she taps, gunshots ring out behind her and the stage fills with flashing headlines, news bulletins, shouts from newsboys: “William Desmond Taylor murdered! Mabel Normand’s lover shot dead!”

Mabel’s career is over. “Hey kid.” Mack shouts to the darkness. “Don’t let them make you quit. That’s like dying!” But it looks like nothing and no one can save Mabel. Frank, who was there from the beginning, tells Mack how the booze and the drugs started: “Right here,” he says, “Trying to keep up with a Mack Sennett schedule.” In a fury Mack throws him out.

Now we are back in the present, 1928, and in the old studio. A lifetime has passed. Mack stands there alone, understanding at last that the time has come to stop running. He must turn around and fight for Mabel. He’s determined to make another movie and Mabel Normand is going to be his star. She breaks down in tears declaring that she can’t do it. “Can’t, your backside, you no-talent waitress! As long as you’re working for Mack Sennett, you’ll do as you’re told. One, you turn! Two, you wipe your eyes! Three, you smile!” And smile she does, as he takes her in his arms declaring, “I need you”. (I Promise You a Happy Ending)

Jerry Herman (Music and Lyrics) first burst on the Broadway scene as its youngest creator of music and lyrics with the successful “Milk and Honey”: he was nominated for a Tony Award and a Grammy Award and won Station WPAT’s Gaslight Award for Best Song of 1961. With the phenomenal “Hello, Dolly!” (1964), he won the Tony Award and Variety’s Best Composer and best Lyricist Awards, a Gold Record and a Grammy Award. With “Dear World” (1969), he had three musicals running simultaneously on Broadway. “Mack & Mabel” (1974), his personal favourite score, and “The Grand Tour” (1978) followed and he contributed songs to the film “A Day in Hollywood and a Night in the Ukraine” (1980). With “La Cage aux Folles” (1983) he won the Outer Critic’s Circle Award for Best Musical, the Tony for Outstanding Musical Score, and the Tony and Drama Desk Award for Best score of a Musical. “Jerry’s Girls”, a revue of his life’s work, has played on Broadway, as well as every major American city. He has been elected into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame, and was presented with the Johnny Mercer Award in 1987. He is the only composer-lyricist to have had three musicals, which ran over 1,500 consecutive performances on Broadway. Jerry Herman believes in writing melodic songs that can have lives of their own outside the show for which they were written.

Michael Stewart (Book) was one of the most successful musical authors of the modern Broadway period, and twice won Tony Awards for his books to the hit musicals “Hello, Dolly!” and “Bye, Bye, Birdie”. His other musicals include: “Carnival” (1961), “Those That Play the Clowns” (1966), “George M” (1968, starring Joel Grey), “Mack & Mabel” (1974) and “I Love My Wife” (1977). His collaborations with his long-time partner, Mark Bramble, include: “The Grand Tour” (1979), the hugely successful “Barnum” (1980) and “42nd Street”, which opened on Broadway in 1980 to great acclaim. It then ran for over four years from 1984 at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in London.


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