A musical theater legend resurrects his 'favorite' flop

Composer Jerry Herman sits in the third row of UCLA's Freud Playhouse, his eyes bright as stage lights.

He has fallen in love all over again.

His "Mack and Mabel," about the star-crossed affair of two early film legends, Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand, is back in Los Angeles after more than a quarter century - and this musical-theater veteran is as thrilled as an ingenue.

"Of all my work," says the creator of such musical-theater staples as "Hello Dolly," "Mame," and "La Cage Aux Folles," "this is my favorite."

Audiences at the show's debut in 1974 did not agree. Acknowledged to be Herman's rare musical misstep, "Mack and Mabel" failed on Broadway that year, closing after 66 performances.

While the score gradually attracted a cult following, the show languished until a 1995 London revival brought it back into the spotlight. After substantial rewrites to the book, or story, including a more upbeat ending, the new version had its world premiere in L.A. Wednesday night.

The show will run for two weeks under the auspices of "Reprise! Broadway's Best," a group that presents semi-staged musicals after a lightning two-week rehearsal. Herman says the format is ideal. "This process," says the diminutive composer, barely visible above the theater seat, "focuses on music and lyrics."

"The original 'Mack and Mabel' was much darker," says Reprise! producing artistic director Marcia Seligson. The updated form makes the love story clearer, and the focus is back on the music, she adds.

Herman says that in the past few decades, musical theater has turned so dark that it rarely inspires him.

"The great traditions of American musical theater are supposed to leave you uplifted," says the composer, who in recent years has battled the twin challenges of a style that has fallen out of fashion and serious illness. "You should leave the theater singing." But, he says, he is back in good health and, "this musical is timeless. It was old-fashioned when it started, so it will never go out of style."

"There's nothing that a little Jerry Herman can't cure," says director Arthur Allan Seidelman, adding that "Mack and Mabel" may be the composer's best work, a show that just needed some minor work.

Ms. Seligson says the show's a gem that now has been polished. She hopes that it may attract backers to take it beyond Los Angeles. After all, she says, the traveling hit production of the musical "Chicago" began in New York with a similar bare-bones presentation.

If the show doesn't travel, it won't be for lack of Herman's involvement. Herman was mano a music with the director and the actors throughout the intense two-week preparation.

"It's a huge shortcut to have Herman here," says Douglas Sills (who plays Mack), a Tony nominee in 1998 for his role in "The Scarlet Pimpernel." "He's so musically advanced that it's like having God come down and tell you how it should be done. All I have to do is take what he says as gospel."

"The stakes are also much higher when he's here," says Jane Krakowski, who plays "Mabel" and is known for her role on TV's "Ally McBeal." "But it's inspiring."

At a time when he might be tempted to rest on past laurels, Herman appears to be enjoying a professional renaissance. He is in town just long enough to open "Mack and Mabel," then he's off to Connecticut where another of his lesser-known shows, "Dear World," will open soon.

As for the future, what else?

"I'm working on a new musical," says Herman. His eyes light up again.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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