FIRST PERSON: On the Way to Bells
By Martin Moran
April 30, 2001
About the author:
Martin Moran is currently playing frustrated songwriting dentist Dr. Kitchell
in the first-ever Broadway revival of Bells Are Ringing. He's so wonderful
in the over-the-top comic role that it's hard to remember that he first got
our attention in dramatic musical roles in Cabaret (as Nazi Ernst Ludwig)
and Titanic (as radio operator Harold Bride). He's also appeared on Broadway
in How to Succeed..., Big River, Oliver! and Doonesbury. In addition, he's been a part of such noteworthy off-Broadway productions as Cider House Rules at the Atlantic and Floyd Collins at Playwrights Horizons. Here, he shares
a behind-the-scenes Bells diary with Broadway.com readers.
September 2000: I was playing Ernst,
the Nazi in Cabaret, when one afternoon I received a call to come in for
the "Dentist" in Bells. Didn't know the part, didn't know the show. I looked
over the three-page side and managed to get myself to Chelsea Studios to
offer some notion of a doctor of dentistry so desperate to be a songwriter
that he bursts frequently into joyous, ridiculous tunes. I remember thinking
up until the last second that I should just cancel and leave. I was praying
for a trap door to swallow me away when casting director Stephenie Klapper's
warm smile beckoned me into the room. Oy.
Director Tina Landau (with whom I'd worked a lot), musical director David
Evans, choreographer Jeff Calhoun and company proved to be a gracious group.
I sang an absurd song and made a stab at the scene. They liked what I did
and asked me to come the following day to meet Betty and Adolph and the rest
of the producers. "Okay," I said. Trouble was, I hadn't a clue what I'd done.
The bizarre gods of wacky comedy had taken over my body and delivered the
desperate dentist. How would I repeat it?
I thought of canceling but my feet took me to West 26th Street and I did
the absurd again. There was some laughter--thanks to the audition gods, the
ones that inhabit your body and channel, at the appropriate moment, an understated
Nazi or a frustrated dentist. God knows the gods don't always show.
A call came that Betty and Adolph needed to see me one last time. Oy. "Come
on," I thought. "How many hoops?" My agent, Steve Stone, and Stephanie urged
me on and made it sound as painless and positive as possible. I didn't want
to face the masses again so they arranged for me to meet with only Comden
Chelsea Studios once again. Audition number three. As I waited, the hallway
was teeming with young princes and ingenues trying out for a musical version
of Cinderella. They all looked eighteen, very Up-With-People. Such teeth,
such skin. "If only they knew," I thought. "They'd leave right now and get
an MBA!" I spotted Betty's giane glasses and Adolph's silver hair coming
through the hall of youth. They entered the room. I thought about canceling
but--too late. I did my song and the scene and made sure to do them loudly,
cleanly, so Comden and Green could hear every word they wrote. I was a much
different idea for them. They were thinking Bernie West, their original Kitchell--bald
and bespectacled and older. A call came an hour later that they convinced
enough to give a guy with a full head of hair a chance.
January 5, 2001: As the entire company
meets for the first time at 890 Studios, there's a palpable sense of excitement
and relief after all the rumors that the show wasn't financed and wouldn't
happen. There's actually coffee and fruit and a big bowl of bagels, so someone
Tina, in her warm and self-effacing way, talks about why the piece still
speaks to us in the age of the Internet--"I'm in love with a voice..." and
the yearning for a simple kindness and the absence of cynicism. It's good
and grounding to hear her speak from the heart. It's touching to hear Betty
and Adolph talk about the day they came up with the idea for the show when
visiting a grungy answering service. The most galvanizing moment comes when,
in the midst of introductions, Faith speaks of how this is a dream come true.
Her eyes fill with tears and the room with her big heart. In that instant,
I feel the company gather close around Faith's dream.
January 6: Tina spends the morning introducing
The Viewpoints, the improvisational techniques she's developed with Anne
Bogart, to the company. It's exhilarating to watch a Broadway company get
hold of these physical techniques.
January 11: Most rehearsal hours center
around the larger numbers so I work along on Kitchell. Terrified, wondering
who the guy is. David Evans and I go through the scenes, playing around with
some musical ideas for the silly tunes. He's very helpful.
January 18: It's my last night in Cabaret,
along with Michael Hayden and Katie Finneran. I'm weepy all day, reluctant
to say goodbye to Berlin and the wonderful Kit Kat company, but I know it's
time for a change, time to use different muscles.
January 19: Had our first run-through
of the first act today. I was terrified. It's unnerving waiting an hour before
entering, but nerves work well for Dr. Kitchell. Faith says to me: "Let's
just play. I'm there for you. I'll be your straight man." She certainly is
and the physical life of Kitchell, his dropping tools and trips, his relationship
with Ella, all seem to take off. The team is pleased.
January 23: Put "The Midas Touch," my
Act Two nightclub song, together today. The girls as hygienists and the guys
as patients is hysterical stuff. Jeff and Patty d'Beck and the dancers have
done great work. They encourage me to just jump around and play, which I'm
happy to do. Jeff decides that the air hose must be in the number.
January 24: Had my first fitting with
David Woolard, our costume designer. The straitjacket quality of the white
dentist smock is fitting and funny for a guy desperate to break free from
saliva and drills. David and I talk about brightly colored socks--Kitchell's
little burst of rebellion under the gray pants.
February 3: We're able to have a second
full run-through at 890 and everyone is there. It goes smoothly and Betty
and Adolph and Mrs. Styne make a point of getting up and enthusiastically
congratulating everyone and expressing how thrilled they are, and how excited
to see it on stage. Betty and Adolph have a way of finishing each others'
sentences and cracking us up with one-liners. When they stand up, they invariably
do stand-up--sixty years working together.
February 9: The Palace Theater in Stamford
is under major renovation and it's difficult to even locate an entrance amidst
all the scaffolding and construction. It's a cold, confusing and unwelcoming
place, though the staff, particularly the wardrobe folks, give a warm welcome.
It's Friday, my first call, though the company has been here since Tuesday.
Tech has gone slow and tonight I still don't get on stage so Coy Middlebrook,
Tina's great assistant, heads to the lobby with me to play with dentist equipment.
I am so happy with the drawers and tools and the chair that does it all!
This is the first time I'm seeing the stuff. Function can give such form
to the comedy. I spend all evening finding all the moves the dental chair
can make, thinking how I can incorporate it into the scene. It reminds me
of the radio room in Titanic, in so far as the importance of devising my
character's place of work, his habits and routines.
February 14: The sitzprobe is thrilling.
Orchestrator Don Sebesky seems nervous and delighted, smiling like a kid
as he hears his ideas come together. He leans down now and then to make a
mark in the giant score. His orchestrations are thrilling. Poetry, really.
Marc Kudisch and Faith sound sublime. David Garrison and I discuss, again,
the stylistic challenges of the piece and the heightened quality of our characters.
"It's big, but you've got to make it authentic. That's what makes it hard
and fun," he comments. I always love watching David work.
February 20: The first preview goes without a hitch, though it
runs incredibly long. We come down at 10:50 or so, encouraged but knowing
there's lots of work to do before the show will land. The stage here is particularly
large and our set, built for the Plymouth, feels marooned in the middle of
nowhere. Lighting seems particularly difficult in such a strange and unwieldy
space and the first row of seats is forty feet across a huge orchestra pit.
It's like playing a cavernous opera house, a football field, which rubs us
and our intimate musical a bit the wrong way. Faith and Marc continue to
lead us with positive strength and energy.
February 25: Audiences build in number
and enthusiasm as the week goes on. I am having a blast with Kitchell, though
I can't remember when I've been so nervous going onstage. It's a combination
of things: That I don't enter for an hour and there's lots of exacting physical
business. I find I'm practically nauseous before my entrance every night.
Faith puts her hand on my shoulder reminding me to breathe. "Love you," she
calls out as I slide toward stage in the dentist chair, heart thumping.
February 27-March 3: We're at Westbeth in the West Village this
week. Charming neighborhood, deadly rehearsal space. We are in a big black
hole with no windows, a real let down after performances, but Tina and Jeff
manage to accomplish great work changing transitions, cleaning dances, creating
more fluidity between scenes. The placement of "Is It a Crime?" is changed
to later in Act One. Good idea, all agree.
March 6: The moment we see the set tucked
cozily into the Plymouth, everyone's spirits soar. It's so perfect and we
immediately feel at home in this beautiful theater. Some changes have been
made, the backdrop for Susanswerphone is tackier and lighting seems sharper,
more focused. There's a good feeling in the air.
March 10: Time is short; tech's been
slow. Tina and the producers are determined to have the invited dress Monday
night--no canceling of previews. A dress of Act One is suddenly scratched
when Suzi, our dear head dresser, unwittingly drinks bleach that's been left
in the basin of an improperly cleaned water cooler. She's off to the ER--going
to be okay. Everyone takes a deep breath and we continue tech of Act Two
March 12: The invited dress has my stomach in knots but it goes
wonderfully well, full of the uproarious laughter of colleagues on their
night off. At one point in our first scene, Faith screams as I lower the
back of the dentist chair. I scream too and we begin a little fugue of high,
breathless yelps. The audience goes crazy and I know we'll keep this. Faith
is heaven to play with. We come down at 10:50. Lots of cutting still to be
March 22: The show is tighter now; the
ever-changing "Mu Cha Cha" is morphing into a dance style more appropriate
to the show. I'm getting more feedback regarding Kitchell, which makes me
happy but nervous that I'll lose it, lose him. "Hold steady, just do the
work," I tell myself.
April 7: Tina gives me a few final cuts,
taking out a few words and two bits of business. Though they are small we
both agree that it steamlines the destist office scene. "Tight, bright and
right," as my dad, a writer, would say. Jeff Calhoun reminds me to remain
free and fearless in the Kitchell "break dance" in "Midas Touch" and not
to worry about setting it. Critics start coming tomorrow. Oy.
April 12--Opening Night: It feels as
though we are at the top of our game. The show flies and the ovation as we
bow resounds through the old Plymouth. Bells and its sweet story is back
after nearly fifty years. I glance down to the front row center, where Betty
and Adolph were sitting and are now standing. They are beaming. They cheers
are like a thousand bells ringing. I wonder if the joy of this night might
add some years to their already long, rich lives. I hope so. I believe it