If “movies were movies” when Mack Sennett ran the show, then it can certainly be argued that musicals are musicals when his alter ego, Michael Ball, takes the stage, as he is soon to do at the Edinburgh Playhouse in the current UK tour of Mack and Mabel.
One of the UK’s most beloved musical theatre stars, Ball has headlined multiple shows from Les Miserables (creating the role of Marius in the original production) to Aspects of Love, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Hairspray, and Chichester Festival Theatre’s 2013 production of Sweeney Todd. So fruitful was this latter collaboration that the theatre asked him what he would like to work on next. Without hesitation, Ball jumped at the chance to put Mack and Mabel on the boards – with one stipulation: it had to be Big.
‘Mack and Mabel has one of the best scores of anything I’ve ever heard,’ he enthuses to the collected journalists at the Playhouse’s Mack and Mabel press day. ‘The songs lend themselves to really big production values, but it’s never been done in a really big way, not even in the original production.’
Based on the real-life 1910s/20s love affair between silent film pioneer, Mack Sennett (Ball), and his actress protégé, Mabel Normand (played by American newcomer, Rebecca LaChance), Mack and Mabel is an unusual hybrid of jolly showbiz tunes (“Tap Your Troubles Away“) and poignant, even raw, ballads that present a more realistic (if not-so-saccharine) type of love than is generally found in musicals. “I Won’t Send Roses“ is widely considered one of the best show-tunes in the musical theatre canon, and Ball is not alone in counting Jerry Herman’s score among the greats.
Since its original 1974 staging, however, the reception for Michael Stewart’s book has proven more complex, it having received mixed responses at its opening, and undergoing multiple rewrites in the intervening years. Perhaps this is the reason that the show has never won any Tony Awards, despite being nominated for an impressive eight, though Ball has plenty of insight into the possible contributing factors: ‘The show wasn’t what people in 1974 expected from a Jerry Herman musical,’ (Herman’s previous credits included Hello, Dolly! and Mame) ‘The Vietnam War was on, and the public didn’t want “real”, they wanted froth. But musical theatre audiences have become much more sophisticated since then.’
The changing tastes of theatregoers might well work in the show’s favour, and Ball is not worried that audiences aren’t as familiar with it as they are with many other revivals, as this allows them to come to it fresh and judge it for themselves. Certainly, they seem willing to take the punt; Mack and Mabel has already sold more advance tickets than any other Chichester production to date. Ball is undoubtedly responsible for much of this success, though his fans are getting their money’s worth: as Sennett, he is hardly ever off the stage. Nevertheless, he is quick to praise his fellow cast members: ‘A show’s only as good as its weakest link – and we don’t have any.’ He describes his co-star, LaChance, as an “extraordinary” Mabel, and Anna-Jane Casey’s tap-dancing Lottie as “phenomenal”. His joy in this production extends even to rehearsals (his professionalism is legendary, refusing to go off even when he is sick), and with Jonathan Church directing and Chichester’s renowned Associate Choreographer, Stephen Mear, at the dancing helm, this production is already in extremely capable hands.
However, Chichester’s co-producer, Matthew Byam Shaw of Playful Productions, is equally quick to credit Ball with valuable producorial input, and in person, Ball is as passionate about the show as any PR rep could wish him to be. When asked whether he shares any traits with his equally driven character, he laughs off any close comparisons: ‘He loved his work, like me, but he was single-minded and ruthless, he didn’t care about people so long as he made what he wanted to make. Ironically, the thing that made him happiest was making people laugh at his movies, but he achieved this by making so many people cry!’
By contrast, Ball is unfailingly polite to everyone present, and manages to be humble without poo-pooing the admiration of his fans (of whom are numbered many among the press). Affable, funny, and a little bit naughty, Ball has the effortless ability to put his audience at ease, be they an auditorium of thousands or – as here – a roomful of journalists queuing up to ask him questions and have their selfies taken with him.
There is no doubt that Ball is highly-proficient at the PR merry-go-round, and that he could fake enthusiasm if he wanted to (he is an actor after all), but there is something delightfully childlike in the way he interrupts himself repeatedly in his eagerness to explain and share his passion. In fact, he takes pains to emphasise that this animation is genuine, that he could not be involved to this degree in something that he did not care so much about, and of Mack and Mabel, he says, ‘I am as proud of this show as I am of anything I’ve ever done before.’ From Michael Ball, this is a meaningful statement indeed. With his vision and his vocal gift combined, this musical might be more than a musical: like Mabel in her day, and Mack Sennett in his, it could be Big.
Bonus Question for Musical Theatre Fans:
Would you ever play the character of Jean Valjean (in Les Miserables)?
‘I’ve been asked many times, and I did once, in a concert at Windsor Castle for the Queen and Jacques Chirac, but my voice doesn’t really have the right range, so I wouldn’t be able to do it properly on stage night after night. Besides, it would be weird to do another part in that show. I’m Marius.’ [Yes, Mr Ball, you are. And there won’t be many raised eyebrows round here if you turn out to be Mack Sennett as well.]
[Editor’s note: Cast member Alex Giannini sadly passed away on Fri 2 Oct, shortly after this interview took place. Our sincere condolences go to the cast, friends and family.]