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A New Fate for a Star-Crossed Tale

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.

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“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.

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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.”

Actor Sills says he was drawn to the role of the hard-boiled Sennett because it was such a radical departure from his star-making turn as the eponymous fop in “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” for which he won this year’s Ovation Award. The chief attraction, however, as Sills makes abundantly clear, was the opportunity to work with Herman, who is taking an active part in the rehearsal process as a behind-the-scenes collaborator with director Arthur Allan Seidelman and musical director Peter Matz.

“Jerry is one of our preeminent composers,” Sills says. “Working with him is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I’ve already spent some time working on the score with Jerry, and despite his almost mythical standing in the industry, there’s absolutely no pretense about him at all. He’s just a famously nice guy. He leads with his heart.”

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Krakowski, a Tony and Drama Desk nominee for “Grand Hotel” who plays the abrasive secretary Elaine Vassel on the television series “Ally McBeal,” has been itching to play Mabel for years. “I’ve known of the show for some time, and I had let the people at Reprise! know that I was interested in playing it,” says Krakowski. “The trouble is that the rehearsals conflict with my television schedule. So for the next month, I’m going to be doing double duty, really putting in some killer days.

“But for this character, and this score, it’s worth it,” she adds. “And Jerry has been so gracious and welcoming. He deeply believes in his music and the people who are performing it, and he’s generous in explaining his intentions and the history of the show.”

In relating that overview, Herman now has the luxury of hindsight. ‘The show was very problematic in its day,” Herman says. “Don’t forget that ‘Mack & Mabel’ opened before [most of] the great Sondheim works, which treated very dark material. It was one of the first times a subject as verboten as drug addiction was dealt with on the musical stage. At that time, the audience was sort of put off by actually seeing Bernadette Peters sniffing talcum powder, or whatever it was, on stage. That was shocking. So I think our timing was a little off. We came in just on the cusp before this kind of darker, more sophisticated material became acceptable in musicals.”

Donna McKechnie, the Tony-award winner who originated the role of Cassie in “A Chorus Line,” plays Lottie in the Reprise! production, and saw Peters and Preston on opening night in New York. “I remember it was so thrilling, with such a great score,” she says of the New York production. “The score, I think, is just magnificent. And any time I get an opportunity to dance again, I’m thrilled.

“I’ve never worked with Jerry before, but he’s always been so supportive of me and my work that it feels like I have. I understand that he’s going to be with us for every step of the rehearsal process, which is so exciting. That’s when really exciting, creative things can happen. It’s not like you’re just pulling some old show out of mothballs. The material can live and breathe and evolve.”

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Beginning in the 1980s, Herman mothballed his own career for a painful period. He was at his peak, having just won the Tony for the score of “La Cage aux Folles,” the groundbreaking musical that included the song “I Am What I Am,” a rousing anthem of gay pride and self-acceptance.

Ironically, it was about that time that Herman learned he was HIV-positive. “I was devastated,” Herman says. “I thought my life would soon be over, and that my career would go along with it. I was naturally depressed, and I didn’t really have the spirit to sit down and write a musical. I just didn’t have that kind of energy, and I was quite frankly frightened.”

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Instead of composing, Herman concentrated on his second career as a successful interior decorator, buying and refurbishing dozens of homes on both coasts.

Then came a remarkable turnaround. “I was there for the advent of the protease inhibitor, which is the leading-edge treatment today,” he says. “This medicine has made all the difference in my life. I feel absolutely great. I’ve got my old energy back, and my old sense of humor back, and my old everything back. And I’ve finally been able to start my career again.”

With a vengeance. Not only is Herman working on a new musical, he’ll also be jetting between “Mack & Mabel” rehearsals and the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut, where a revival of “Dear World,” his musical based on Giraudoux’s “The Madwoman of Chaillot,” is shortly due to open.

“I think it’s great that two of my shows that were considered failures are being done at the same time,” Herman says. “I love both those shows, and I think that in many ways they are more mature and interesting than the big hits I’ve had. It’s a great feeling, almost like a miracle.”

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“MACK & MABEL,” Freud Playhouse, UCLA. Dates: Opens Wednesday. Plays Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends Nov. 19. Prices: $50. Phone: (310) 825-2101.


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