And so we continue our study of the great Broadway cult flops. Of all the shows in that category, this may be the one that most instantly springs to mind when you bring up beloved cult flops to most Broadway fans, and there’s a reason for that. This score may not be as ambitious as Candide or Juno or some of the Sondheim flops, but it’s probably the most sheer fun of all Broadway flop scores.
There is endless debate on whether this or Dear World (which was also a flop) is Jerry Herman’s best score, although most would agree that both are better than any of his big hits. Dear World was Herman’s arthouse piece, the show where he stretched himself beyond his usual limitations, but Mack and Mabel definitely represents the best example of Herman doing the kind of brassy musical-comedy writing that made him famous.
The music is phenomenal, featuring the catchiest and punchiest tunes of Herman’s career, and the lyrics are loaded with some of the most irresistible turns of phrase ever heard in a Broadway musical (like “We had some guts and some luck/But we were just making a buck”, or “Sinner or saint, schoolgirl or queen/one girl is boring and two are obscene”, or my personal favorite, “Let Mr. Griffith deal with humanity’s woes/I’d rather film the guy with the fly on his nose”).
“Movies Were Movies” is one of Broadway’s all-time great opening numbers, perfectly setting up the show’s concept and content while being a superb song in its own right, and the syncopated “Look What Happened to Mabel” is often nominated as the single catchiest song in Broadway history. Two of the ballads, the exquisitely touching “I Won’t Send Roses” and the heartwrenching “Time Heals Everything” even managed to become standards, which was almost unheard-of for a show tune by the Seventies, let alone a song from a flop. Even the two numbers written for the same slot in the show (“My Heart Leaps Up” and “Hit ‘Em On the Head”) are both so wonderful in their own right that nobody has ever been able to agree on which one should be included in any given staging.
Given this fantastic score, how could the the show possibly fail? Well, for years the authors chalked it up to the ending. The original ending to the show was bitterly tragic, with Mabel dying and Mack only able to admit his love after she’s gone. Audiences hated it, but they hated the second attempt at an ending even more. Here, Mack simply dismissed the whole story and showed the audience ‘what would have happened if only life had been a movie’, with a big, dishonest fantasy happy ending for him and Mabel.
After twenty years of wrangling, they finally came up with an ending that worked…a tentative, touchingly bittersweet reunion for the characters that avoided both the first ending’s despair and the second ending’s upbeat dishonesty. Unfortunately, everyone then realized that the ending problems had been overshadowing other problems with the script, and that all they really had now was a badly-written book with one good scene at the end.
Really, the book is poorly-written almost from start to finish. The show’s historical content, which tells the story of the early silent-film comedies of director Mack Sennett and star Mabel Normand, is interesting enough, but most of the scenes focusing on the romance fall flat on their face. The show has the implausible plotting and contrived character motivations of a standard musical comedy, but the story is far too dark to allow for that sort of fluffiness. Also, while no-one noticed in the original production because Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters were playing them, neither Mack nor Mabel are really very likable characters, and in later productions with mere mortal leads this became painfully obvious.
The show is also almost impossible to stage effectively, because it requires the director to recreate Sennett’s brand of silent-screen slapstick on a live stage, which simply cannot be done. The show’s original director, Gower Champion, openly admitted that he had failed at this, and given that he was one of the greatest director-choreographers in Broadway history, if he couldn’t do it, no-one else is likely to succeed either.
The creators have made continual attempts to revise and revive this show, mostly because Herman is understandably unwilling to give up on what he sees as his best score, but it has never worked yet: no production of the show has ever been a success, and the general consensus among critics is that the show’s problems still outweigh its strengths. Critic and author Ken Mandelbaum, who is generally regarded as the world’s foremost expert on Broadway cult flops, is of the opinion that at this point the show is unfixable, and given that it failed with one of Broadway’s greatest directors at the helm and two living legends in the leads, he may have a point.
Still, they’ll probably keep trying for the foreseeable future, and given just how marvelous this score is, I’m not sure I blame them. As for the cast album, the show has three, and while the 1988 concert version has some excellent moments (and might be worth picking up just to hear “Hit ‘Em On the Head”), the version to get first is the original cast with Preston, Peters, and Broadway veteran Lisa Kirk providing strong support on the joyfully triumphant “Big Time” and the bitterly comic “Tap Your Troubles Away”.
Given that stagings, while unusually frequent for a cult flop that is not Candide or Merrily We Roll Along, are still few and far between, these days the show is largely experienced in the form of its cast album. In fact, if you call yourself a musical theater fan and don’t own that album, you’re likely to be laughed at in serious theater circles, so I recommend you pick it up right away if you haven’t already. You won’t regret it…there’s precious few cast albums out there that provide more enjoyment for your money.