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SCENE AND HEARD: Inside Bells Are Ringing Rehearsals

by Randy Gener
April 5, 2001

NEW YORK – Is it a crime... to revive Bells Are Ringing on Broadway? Not when Faith Prince is Ella, Marc Kudisch is Jeff and Tina Landau is the director.

On Wednesday, Jan. 31, Broadway producers threw open the rehearsal doors at the warmly anticipated revival of Bells Are Ringing to the press, rehearsals which have been underway now for four weeks at the 890 Broadway studios. The entire cast performed four numbers from the show –- “It’s a Simple Little System,” “Is It a Crime?,” “Independent” and “Just in Time” –- with only Beth Fowler and Martin Moran not performing. What’s more, lyricists/librettists Betty Comden and Adolph Green were in attendance, all smiles, for a show of support.

Led by director Tina Landau, this first major revival of the 1956 musical comedy began rehearsals Jan. 2. The $5.8 million production of the musical will begin pre-Broadway tryouts at the Palace Theatre in Stamford, CT, Feb. 20-25. The production is scheduled to begin previews March 13 and open April 12 at the Plymouth Theatre. The date has shifted slightly several times, but now appears to be firm.

Tickets for the Broadway production can be ordered online or by calling Telecharge at (212) 239-6200.

For those who’ve never seen or heard Bells Are Ringing, the general consensus among musical-theatre aficionados is that the story of a well-meaning telephone answering service operator who meddles in (and muddles up) the personal lives of her customers is one of the nuttiest and most endearing musical comedies ever written. The score includes that guaranteed show-stopper, "The Party's Over."

Bells Are Ringing is a hidden gem,” producer Mark Balsam told “I don’t want to sound overly noble about it, but we just thought that it was time to revive it. This is the right time, this is the right project, and we’re set.”

Added producer James Simon: “One of the things that help is that it’s well established. It’s a great musical from the late 1950s. It’s got so many great songs in it. We caught a lot of people by surprise when we told them that the show has never been revived before. I think part of the problem for a lot of producers is that Faith Prince has incredibly big shoes to fill. The show was written for Judy Holliday. So to come up and say we want someone else to fill Judy Holiday’s shoes, who do you find?”

During the rehearsals, Prince proved she was the natural choice for Bells Are Ringing when she drew laughs and smiles as she sang the number “Is It a Crime?” while dodging police inspectors who suspect Ella’s telephone answering service is a cover for a vice ring.

Director Tina Landau said the revival aims to present and preserve everything that’s beloved about Bells Are Ringing. There are no attempts to update the book or revise it for contemporary audiences. If anything, Landau’s Broadway revival takes a “21st century take on 1957” by way of the scenic design (by Tony Award-winner Riccardo Hernandez).

“The set echoes Kandinsky and Philip Johnson,” Landau said. “It looks very modern, and it uses chrome lines as opposed to kitschy oodles and pinks.”

Since she’s never seen Judy Holliday in the original musical, she doesn’t have any image of her doing the show; Landau can only rely on her own adoration for the show, a love that began since Yale Drama School when she directed a college version of it. In fact, it was her June 1998 Kennedy Center concert-version of Bells that impressed Broadway producers to hire her, choreographer Jeff Calhoun and Faith Prince for the Broadway revival.

“I loved everything about Faith and the way she performed Ella,” Landau told “I loved the physical comedy combined with Ella’s open, vulnerable heart of gold. I think of Bells as a classic tale of someone learning to accept themselves. Ella is the outsider who doesn’t fit in. She feels self-doubt and self-loathing and ultimately comes to her own.”

Faith Prince, who won a Tony Award for playing Miss Adelaide in the 1992 revival of Guys and Dolls, is taking on Ella with great aplomb.

“I’m just so happy,” Prince told “We’re in a good place. I’ve had almost four weeks of rehearsals. We’ve gone through all of it. It’s now a matter of detailing it. We’ve gone so much further than the Kennedy Center reading we did. When you do something like that it really just skims the ice. There’s no time to do anything. You’re staging and doing it all at once. But here we’re getting our hands in the dirt and making pottery.”

Prince expressed great admiration for Landau as a director.

“Tina presents us with a canvas,” Prince said. “It comes to life from moment to moment. It all falls into place, unlike some directors who get the shell of it up and it all runs seemingly well -- but the work has no depth. She texturizes everything as she goes and raises the stakes. I really like her way of working.

And Prince loves her ditzy character, Ella. “The musical is fun but it has a darkness to it. It’s essentially how a lot of us feel about ourselves. We feel we’re not enough. Even though it’s musical comedy, it has a great message that I think people will take with them when they leave the theater. She’s not somebody you aspire to be. She’s not a perfect blonde, or whatever it is your image of that thing is. She’s Everywoman with a lot of heart. She doesn’t have a lot of self-esteem and she gains that from this show.”

Bells Are Ringing is Prince's eighth Broadway show. “It’s definitely challenging. It’s the biggest role I’ve ever had. You have to work yourself up to it. We ran the second act yesterday, and I was so red. I was like, ‘OK I hope this goes away.’ I had a big number at the top of the second act and then I go into a dance number and then I do ‘Party’s Over.’ It’s just wow. But honestly, it’s nothing I can’t handle. I’m like a racehorse who’s at the gate and ready to go.”

Her co-star Marc Kudisch plays the role of Jeffrey Moss, the playboy role originated on Broadway by Sydney Chaplin and played on film by Dean Martin. Kudisch was on Broadway briefly in spring 2000 in Michael John LaChiusa's The Wild Party and before that in The Scarlet Pimpernel.

“Emotionally, I feel I am in a really good place with the part,” Kudisch said. “It’s hard to describe it. I just do it. Do you know what I mean? This is not to say we don’t talk about it. We talk quite a bit. It’s just that both Faith and I have a really good sense of where each character lives in. It’s just very easy to work with her on stage. It just happens, which I like. It’s never been about being in my own head and trying to figure it out. It’s always about being present to what she does and reacting off of that. I think we all feel solid of where we are with our characters.”

With a pre-Broadway tryout coming soon, Kudisch said that the company is revving up for all the elements to come into place. “Right now, it’s really just about the technical aspect of marrying the show together. We’ve been working on separate scenes as individuals, and for the first time we ran the second act. As we piece it together, we’re realizing the driving train that this thing is. And you go ‘Oh, my God, I have no time between scenes.’ You learn your stamina as you do it.” Indeed, what makes Bells Are Ringing something else as a Broadway experience is what Kudisch calls “the amazing momentum of the show.”

“We just discovered with Faith that from the beginning of the second act up until she sings ‘Party’s Over’ that she doesn’t have a minute to breathe,” Kudisch said. “Emotionally that’s a pretty charging thing too. There’s so many things happening to you physically, even just sensation-wise as well as with the work you’ve done. And those things only add to the arc, the drama of what you’re playing. I have a lot of that in the first act where I just don’t stop.”

“There’s not a cynical bone in Bells Are Ringing,” Kudisch said. “But in the beginning there’s an edge and a darkness when I come in. That’s the fun of it. Whats great about it is that ultimately in the end it’s about lightness. All of us just want to be the best people we know how to be. At times it’s difficult but if you’re fortunate and you’re open to what’s going on around you, ultimately you’ll find that joy and you’ll find that light.”