'Mack and Mabel': This time it's show time

The musical has been jolting along on a bumpy road for more than 30 years. Now it's back again, darker, leaner and - its makers hope - poised for success
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The out-of-town try-out for the the Keystone Kops musical Mack and Mabel in 1974 was of the kind familiar from many Broadway fables: there were problems with the songs, the choreography, the set.

Jerry Herman, the composer and lyricist, who had written Hello, Dolly! and Mame, particularly hated the set - which represented a stage at the Keystone silent-comedy studio.

On opening night part of it collapsed, nearly braining some dancers. According to tradition, all this could only result in a hit.

However, the New York Times notice began, "I have rarely seen so much talent so dispirited," then described the atmosphere of the show as one of "gloom". Other critics agreed, attacking the book, the tunes, the direction, and the set.

Even the leads - the incomparable Robert Preston as director Mack Sennett and the adorable Bernadette Peters as his star and lover, Mabel Normand - could keep the show afloat for only 65 performances.

Yet the saga of Mack and Mabel, kept running. At the 1984 winter Olympics, Torvill and Dean skated to the show's overture, driving a huge demand for the original-cast recording of a 10-year-old flop.

Four years later, a concert version in London was so favourably received that plans were made to revive the show in New York. Those failed, but in 1995 the musical, whose ending had been changed for its American tour, was revised and had its London premiere; lacking stars and receiving lukewarm reviews.

Productions were mounted in Connecticut and California, at which Herman and his librettist would attend with their backs to the stage, "seeing what the audience was moved by", he says, "and when they would look at their programmes". More tinkering followed.

Last year, director John Doyle of the Watermill Theatre in Newbury gave it the most radical revamp. Using the technique that won his Sweeney Todd acclaim, all but the leads sang, danced and played instruments. Herman, who thought the idea was crazy for a show that needed a cast of "at least 46", was impressed by what Doyle achieved with 11, and declared David Soul the best Mack Sennett he had ever seen.

One critic who had described the show in 1995 as "nice", "pleasant" and "competent" switched his adjectives 10 years later to "funny", "frisky" and "brilliant". After its current tour, Mack and Mabel, with Janie Dee in the other title role, will fetch up in the West End on 5 April for what its creators hope will be the last act in a long and bumpy ride.

Broadway coroners have long pondered the question, Who killed Mack and Mabel? Some blame the producer, David Merrick (known as "the abominable showman"), who soured on the show before it opened, and refused to nurse it with advertising, even though it was getting good word of mouth.

The choreographer and director, Gower Champion, was going through a terrible time in his personal life - the dark, empty set was probably a reflection of it - and he spent much money and time on a big Keystone number before realising it was impossible to reproduce the excitement of silent slapstick on stage.

Some cite the bleakness of the story - the Mack Sennett we see is loud, cold, and self-centred. Unhappily in love with him, the sweet, bubbly Normand took to drugs, became involved in a scandal that ruined her career, and died young. When, in the original production, Mack announced that Mabel was dead, a gasp went through the audience that Herman recognised as the show's death rattle.

Yet the period was the time for dark musicals - Stephen Sondheim had already written Company and Follies, and, before them, John Kander and Fred Ebb, who would shortly stage their pitch-black hit, Chicago, had created Cabaret.

Could the problem have been the score? Herman had won respect with his early shows, but, for the sombre mood of Mack and Mabel, Herman wrote in an unfamiliar vein, discarding cheery schmaltz.

The score, which Herman considers his best, has never been altered - he thinks that, although theatregoers were getting used to harsh reality in musicals, "they didn't want it from me".

Francine Pascal has no doubt that the villain of the piece is the usual suspect. "I'm writing a musical now," she says, "and I think I'll get ahead of the critics by having the poster read, 'Weak book by....'" She agrees the original book needed work, and has been fleshing out the characters, humanising Mack and strengthening Mabel's motives.

Could it be that the problem with Mack and Mabel was the subject? Does it try to draw on an affection for the silents that few people have? Keystone comedy - banana peels tripping up policemen - was fine for a period when most moviegoers were uneducated. Today, it just looks primitive.

But the show, says Pascal, is not so much about the films as the energy and novelty of the time. "There was a method, a medium that didn't exist before. These people were making it all up as they went along."

That sense of improvising is something John Doyle has hoped to convey by having an actor, when music is needed, pick up a violin or a saxophone. Mack and Mabel was the right show for this, he felt, because "the silent-film studio was a playful, anarchic world."

Doyle also thinks the pared-down style makes the mood clearer. While past productions were criticised for not having enough bodies to do justice to "Hundreds of Girls", Doyle had Mack sing to a projection of silent stunners, making it obvious that the girls he loves best are in his dreams.

Herman, who says the show is now "60 per cent" different from the original, is full of praise for what Doyle has achieved. "We felt compelled to show the audience everything - the Keystone Kops, the girls - and this show doesn't."

Herman appreciates the irony that, although Mack and Mabel was attacked for being depressing, the current, far darker version, in which the heroine punctuates her torch song with sniffs of cocaine, has been applauded. Not only has the musical changed, times have too.

Herman hopes they have changed enough. "You know how it is when you have a child you have more faith in than the others, but it's weak, it never gets the success you feel it should have? Mack and Mabel may be ready to take its place among my healthy children."

'Mack and Mabel', Criterion Theatre, London W1 (0870 060 2313); previews from 5 April; opens 10 April