The play opens in Brooklyn in 1938 on the eve of Mack Sennett's unwilling departure from his film studio. He is a large man, in his late 50s, who soliloquizes about the future of films and reminisces about the past (MOVIES WERE MOVIES).
The sound stage comes to life and the scene flashes to 1911 where a young Mack Sennett is busy shooting a silent film. Mabel Normand, a waitress from the nearby Delicatessen enters with an order which the leading lady takes-without paying. Her behavior so infuriates Mabel's Irish temper that she angrily berates everyone on the set. Mack who is still filming, decides to keep her in the film and orders her back the next day. She initially refuses but looks up and is amazed to see herself on the screen (LOOK WHAT HAPPENED TO MABEL).
Mack decides to move from Brooklyn to California, where he can make more films in larger, better, studios. Ella, the piano player; Frank, one of the unpaid actors; Mabel, who just discovered that movie stars get paid; and Lottie all enter to urge Mack to get the financial backing necessary. Everyone awaits the arrival of Kleiman and Fox, who will help finance the move to California. When the two arrive and meet the staff they suspiciously ask to meet the writers, whom Mack has just fired. He quickly hires the New York Times delivery boy and introduces him as their chief writer. They get the backing and the company begins packing (BIG TIME).
On the observation platform of the train, Mabel is admiring the desert by moonlight and making up a poem when Mack overhears her and interrupts. Mabel, attracted to this demanding director, invites him into her compartment for dinner but Mack insists she knows the rules he lives by which don't include marriage (I WON'T SEND ROSES). The train arrives in California and Mack rushes off promising Mabel nothing. She wistfully watches him leave but realizes that she loves Mack and is willing to play the game his way (I WON'T SEND ROSES [REPRISE]). In front of Los Angeles's Union Station, Kleiman and Fox, who see the successful D.W. Griffith pass, urge Mack to make Griffith-type extravaganzas, but he only wants to direct comedies (I WANNA MAKE THE WORLD LAUGH). As the song continues a screen composite of early Sennett films is shown.
One year later in the new studio paid for by Mack's extremely successful films, Frank, the writer, attempts to convince Mabel she is an actress, not just a Comedienne. Mabel seems to ignore him but when Mack and the actors enter for the days shooting Mabel begins asking for her motivation. Mack tells her that he is her motivation, which so angers her that she throws a pie in his face. The rest of the company join in the melee (I WANNA MAKE THE WORLD LAUGH [REPRISE]).
The scene shifts to The Orchid Room of The Hollywood Hotel where Mabel is dancing with William Desmond Taylor, a melodramatic director she admires. When he informs her that he has asked Mack to loan her to him for several pictures she is surprised. Mack enters and cold-shoulders Taylor who gives Mabel his card and urges her to call. Mabel verbally attacks Mack for thinking she is only good enough for two-reelers. As he walks out she tells him she is determined to become a respected actress (WHEREVER HE AIN?T).
Later that day, at the Studio Gate, where everyone is packing for the day's shooting, Mabel informs Mack she is finished with him and with two-reelers. He tells her off in front of the company and forces her to walk out. Everyone urges him to get her back at any cost but his pride won't let him; he is convinced that he can train anyone to replace her. A hot Dog Vendor starts on and the scene shifts to Santa Monica Beach, which is full of bathing beauties, all potential Sennett Stars (HUNDREDS OF GIRLS). He adds the bathing beauties to his films but realizes that he misses Mabel (I WON'T SEND ROSES [REPRISE])
At the start of Act II, Mabel has been making dramatic films for five years. Kleiman and his friends urge Mack to get her back because the public is beginning to tire of the Sennett bathing beauties. Mack finally agrees and Mabel returns to the studio where she is warmly greeted by Eddie, the watchman, and the company (WHEN MABEL COMES IN THE ROOM). Mack arrives, obviously glad to see her back. The two dance and everything appears to be going smoothly until Mack decides to clown up the film he is directing by adding the keystone cops. While everyone is in their dressing rooms he describes the action to Kleiman and Fox as the Kops enter and the business begins (HIT ?EM ON THE HEAD). Mack becomes so involved with shooting his two-reeler Kop films that he never gets around to directing Mabel's serious film and she leaves for the coast and a trip to Europe.
Mack finds Mabel on the New York Pier preparing to sail for Europe with Taylor. He enters carrying a box of Roses and tries to tell her he loves her but she realizes he can never change and says goodbye. Mack, to cover his real emotions, begins clowning and exits without giving her the flowers. Taylor tries to get Mabel to forget about Mack by giving her a snort of cocaine and leaves Mabel to wonder if anything can make her stop loving Mack (TIME HEALS EVERYTHING).
In a solo spot, Mack tells the audience that all his friends and company members have deserted him for bigger studios and talking movies. As he talks, the various characters walk by including Mabel who unsteadily weaves on supported by Taylor. He finishes his story by mentioning Lottie, his girl tap dancer, and her dancers, who give an example of the newest movie musicals (TAP YOUR TROUBLES AWAY).
When Mack is told by Frank that Mabel is finished in pictures, since the scandalous murder of her lover, Taylor and the public knowledge that she is a heroin addict, Mack promises he will star her in a serious picture. Mack goes to her room and promises to change her life (I PROMISE YOU A HAPPY ENDING). During the number the lights fade on Mabel and Mack continues the story. It seems the film's producers refused to release the movie, certain that Mabel's name was too scandalous to merit the promotional expense. Mabel died in 1930. Mack, however can never admit that Mabel's story ended so tragically and will always remember her as she was. He calls everyone onstage and re-writes the ending of her life, the way he would have wished it, complete with Mabel in a wedding gown surrounded by the Kops, the bathing beauties and the preacher with a pie in the face.
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