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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 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 and Green.

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 has money.

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.

Plymouth Theater

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 without costumes.

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 done.

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 has mine.