'The work became so real': Alchemy Theatre presents a reimagining of the musical 'Mack & Mabel'
Director Michael Cooper has been thinking about the Michael Stewart/Jerry Herman musical Mack & Mabel for a while now. “Actually, it started in 1974, when the original Broadway production was happening,” he says. “And I first caught wind of that mainly because of Jerry Herman and his music. And Jerry Herman does consider Mack & Mabel to be some of his best work. And there was a Broadway production that basically failed. And I often wonder why – especially a musical that had the creative team that that musical did – why it didn’t last more than eight performances on Broadway. And [I] started to dig in to the research, the real story of Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand… and figured out that it basically, in my opinion, got overproduced and lost sight of what the real story between those two people was."
Mack & Mabel is based on the lives of silent-era film pioneers Mack Sennet and Mabel Normand, and their troubled relationship made for a musical that wasn’t as carefree and upbeat as audiences of the time were used to.
“In the ‘70s, there wasn’t really a taste for musicals that weren’t just entertaining,” says Alchemy Theatre managing director Carol Hickey. “The dark musical is kind of a recent [phenomenon].”
“I think audiences now are far more accepting of a dark story, and if people don’t know the love story of Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand, it’s not a happy, cheerful relationship,” Cooper says. “And I wanted to present that in the most real way possible, which is what The Alchemy Theatre is all about.”
“I think that… we have a unique approach to the work,” Hickey says. “As an acting teacher, I’ve been teaching actors in Austin now for twelve years, and the work became so real and so impactful that I thought, ‘we gotta find an outlet for this to be expressed on a bigger scale.’ So we started The Alchemy Theatre with that intention of giving voice to this kind of work that is not theatricalized or dramatized or entertainment-led. It’s really about being accurate to storytelling and being very real and honest.”
That ethos fits nicely with the way Cooper wants to present Mack & Mabel. “I call it a reimagining, which every director does – they imagine the story in their own way and present it,” he says. “But this was a refocusing on that relationship and the reality of that relationship. And we discovered a lot of truths that were in the book [and] in the score that I think got overlooked or bypassed in some way back in 1974.”
“And this world of the play… the silent film era, which was a magical time in Hollywood history and in filmmaking history,” Hickey says. “It takes place in a very transitional time in the world of filmmaking. You know, Mabel Normand was the first woman to own her own film production company and create and direct and produce and write.”
“Both Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand are iconic, powerful Hollywood legends,” Cooper says. “And that’s all great [and] good, but if people dig underneath that, they’re going to find out the real story, and what their relationship was like. And that’s what we focus on. I think that’s what makes it all interesting. And oddly enough, the music supports it. I truly believe… Michael Stewart and Jerry Herman probably sat in a bar in the ‘70s in New York and said ‘let’s tell the dark love story of Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand.' And that’s what it started out to be. And I think once it got up there and investors starting investing, I think it just got, in my opinion, too big. So it’s been a great journey to refocus. It’s a challenge… and I’m pretty happy with it so far.”