Second chances

The curtain rises Sept. 19 on “Mack and Mabel” at the Leicester Haymarket, and the question being asked is whether a show known locally to musical cultists and ice skating devotees can become a mainstream hit.

The Jerry Herman-Michael Stewart show has Britain’s Olympic skating champions Torvill and Dean to thank for the show’s recognition factor in the U.K., since the overture from the 1974 musical accompanied their 1982 gold medal routine (a scenario somewhat akin to the curious fact that “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” from “Carousel,” became a football anthem in Liverpool).

The monthlong run at the 752-seat Haymarket – an early home to the smash revival of “Me and My Girl” and Richard Eyre’s less successful “High Society” – sold nearly 80% of its seats prior to the first preview. Director Paid Kerryson expects the show to play to 96% of capacity overall, well surpassing attendance at the theater’s previous productions of “Merrily We Roll Along” and “Follies.” The Haymarket is picking up about 30% of the London-bound musical’s $4 million tab.

The acid test, of course, comes on the West End, where the production opens Nov. 7 at the Piccadilly, some seven years after American co-producer Jon Wilner first thought of remounting the Broadway flop in London.

“What would happen is I’d raise the money but I wouldn’t have a star,” ad exec Wilner says, “then I’d have a director but not the money – it never all jelled at the same time.”

Casting the leading role of “king of comedy” Mack Sennett proved a major hurdle: Robert Lindsay turned it down, and Britain’s McGann brothers – Joe and Mark – couldn’t sing it. Wilner found his Mack, Howard McGillin, in “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” which he was handling on Broadway. Says Wilner: “Howard is the first actor who can play Mack who will truly sing it the way it was written to be sung.”

At capacity, says Wilner, the show can recoup in 17 weeks at the 1,100-seat Piccadilly at a weekly gross of £290,000 ($450,000); break-even is 40%. The show is on an unusual 70-30 profit share between investors and producers, as opposed, says Wilner, to the traditional 60-40 London split and New York’s 50-50 share.

“Having been in the business 20 years, I’m tired of watching everybody make money in the theater except the investors,” Wilner says.

And as for the so-called “curse” of the Piccadilly, recent home to “The Roy Orbison Story,” Elaine Paige’s dreadful “Piaf,” and, yes, “Metropolis”?

“I saw Angela Lansbury in ‘Gypsy’ at the Piccadilly,” Wilner recalls, “and it was one of the great experiences of my life.”

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