Tuesday, October 06, 2009

MACK AND MABEL 35 YEARS OLD TODAY




On this date in 1919 was the premiere of a pretty much forgotten Broadway musical called "Hitchy Koo". In that musical, however would be the premiere of the very first Cole Porter song called "In A Lovely Garden". Cole Porter was twenty-eight years old. And today Al Jolson first sang "Toot Toot Tootsie" and "April Showers" in another forgotten Broadway show called "Bobo". Interesting bits of history both. But thirty-five years ago one of my all time favorite Broadway musicals "Mack and Mabel" opened at the Majestic Theatre. Despite rave reviews for the late great Robert Preston and the still sexy Bernadette Peters, the show only received "fair to middling reviews" and closed after only sixty-six performances. The show had pre-Broadway tryouts in San Diego and then Los Angeles, opening to rave reviews and brisk box office sales in both cities. Buoyed by the critical acclaim and initial public enthusiasm for the show, Herman and company ignored a number of critical warning signs. Neither Sennett nor Normand were particularly lovable characters, and their story was darker than that usually found in a musical. New York audiences of the 1970's were not supportive of darker characters. Robert Preston (as Sennett) was too old for Bernadette Peters (Mabel), and their characters lacked chemistry. What were they thinking? Director and choreographer Gower Champion devised a number of eye-catching visual effects and spectacular dance sequences set to Philip J. Lang's orchestrations, but their brightness proved to be too great a contrast with the somber mood of the piece. Gower's concept of setting the action in the corner of a huge movie studio sound stage created problems with the set and limited the staging to the extent that it was seen as static and boring. Most importantly, audiences didn't want to invest two-and-a-half hours in a musical where the heroine dies tragically at the end. Not in the 1970's where a disgraced Richard Nixon had just resigned the presidency two months before in August of the same year. Efforts were made to resolve the problems at The Muny in St. Louis, but this venue was a "terrible mistake." Because The Muny was so large, the performers overplayed and pulled the show out of shape. By the Washington, D.C. Kennedy Center engagement, "nothing was working", and Champion changed the staging of scenes that had previously worked By the time the show opened at the Majestic Theatre on Broadway on October 6, 1974, it was less successful than it had been four months earlier and the show closed after only sixty- six performances, Herman's first major flop. Despite the reviews and short run, the show received eight Tony Award nominations - for the book, direction, set and costume design, choreography, lead actor, lead actress, and the production itself as Best Musical. Herman - whose melodic score had received the best notices - was not nominated. Herman was deeply disappointed, since the project had been one of his favorites (and remains so, even now), and he felt producer David Merrick had done little to promote it, saying "He never invested in advertising. He never came to the theatre." Why does that not surprise me? What a piece of work Merrick was! Despite its failure, the show has developed a cult following. News of a job interview came through this morning at a Los Angeles Florist Shop. Imagine me -- selling flowers. Well I love Broadway, so maybe the Eliza Doolittle spirit has come down upon me. I am waiting for the shop to contact me and confirm my twelve noon interview appointment. It pays $10 an hour.

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