Party's Starting: Bells Are Ringing Opens at Bway's Plymouth April 12
by Kenneth Jones
April 12, 2001
The New York City of Betty Comden and Adolph Green's imagination — where subway rides
are friendly and an urban park at night is the perfect setting for a soft-shoe
routine — comes to life in the first Broadway revival of Bells Are Ringing,
opening April 12 at the Plymouth Theatre.
After a one-week test run at The Palace Theatre in Stamford, CT, the Tina
Landau-directed staging of the 1956 musical, with book and lyrics by Comden
and Green and music by the late Jule Styne, returned to a rehearsal studio
and then began the preview period (March 13), during which moments were tweaked,
revised and refined. The dance number "Mu-Cha-Cha" is said to be new since
the first preview.
Tina Landau, known for such "downtown" work as Space, Dream True and Floyd
Collins, makes her Broadway directorial debut with the mainstream musical
comedy, starring Faith Prince in a role created by Judy Holliday. The show's
score produced two standards: "Just in Time" and "The Party's Over." The
show's famous opening, "Bells Are Ringing," an advertisement for an answering
service company, is seen as a giant 1950s-style TV commercial complete with
smooth, sincere spokesman and rudimentary animation (part taped, part live).
The show's overture offers a video montage of the period.
Tony Award-winner Prince (Guys and Dolls) stars as guileless answering-service
operator Ella Peterson, who gets involved in the lives of her clients, including
a sexy if unfocused playwright named Jeff Moss (played by Marc Kudisch, late
of The Public Theater's The Wild Party and La Jolla's Thoroughly
Modern Millie). Prince appeared on Broadway and regionally in James Joyce's
The Dead, and starred in Little Me for the Roundabout Theatre
Beth Fowler (Beauty and the Beast) is Ella's cousin, Sue, who runs
Susanswerphone and falls for a con man, Sandor, played by David Garrison
Martin Moran (Titanic, Cabaret) plays a caffeinated, singing
dentist named Kitchell (he stole scenes in previews, as he hummed and composed
on his dental air hose), Robert Ari (Laughter on the 23rd Floor) and
Jeffrey Bean (Amadeus) are cops investigating Sandor's illegal bookie
operation, which has a classical music mail-order business as a front.
Julio Agustin (Fosse) plays neighbor Carl, who teaches Ella to cha-cha,
Darren Ritchie plays the Brando-like actor, Blake Barton. Caitlin Carter
is a socialite sexpot named Olga and Angela Robinson plays Gwynne, a co-worker.
The company also includes Joanne Baum, David Brummel, Lawrence Clayton, James
Hadley, Roy Harcourt, Stacey Harris, Joan Hess, Emily Hsu, Shane Kirkpatrick,
Marc Oka, Greg Reuter, Josh Rhodes, Alice Rietveld, Darren Ritchie, Linda
Romoff and Kelly Sullivan.
Jeff Calhoun (Grease!, Annie Get Your Gun) choreographs.Designers
are Riccardo Hernandez (set), David C. Woolard (costumes), Donald Holder
(lights). Don Sebesky handles orchestrations, David Evans is musical director.
Producers are Mitchell Maxwell, Victoria Maxwell and Mark Balsam for Momentum
Productions, Inc.; Robert Barandes; Richard Bernstein; and James L. Simon;
in association with Fred H. Krones, Anthony R. Russo and Allen M. Shore.
"I know you," the character Ella Peterson sings to her cousin Sue, in Bells
Are Ringing, "but who am I?"
A deep question for such an entertaining musical comedy, but it's that searching
quality of telephone operator Ella that attracted director Landau to the
classic by lyricist-librettists Betty Comden and Adolph Green and composer
At a Jan. 31 "open rehearsal" for the press, Landau and company talked about
their experience rehearsing the first Broadway revival of the 1956 show that
gave the world "The Party's Over" and "Just in Time."
The action of the musical is still set in the same year the Judy Holliday
vehicle debuted, but Bells Are Ringing is oddly timely, according
to Landau. "[It] basically follows a woman who sits behind what was new technology
at the time, an answering service switchboard, and experiences the world
that way and develops a series of intimate relationships — but all the time
hiding behind this technology," she said. "It's become really clear to me
how relevant that is in how we all deal with e-mail and the internet these
Timely, yes, but also timeless, she further explained. "The other thing I've
been thinking a lot about is the way in which the piece is timeless," Landau
said. "It's mythic in its structure. One of the first things that struck
me was how much like the Cinderella story it is. The lead character, her
name is Ella. I started charting how she sort of becomes characters in her
life and eventually meets her Prince Charming and gets to go the ball with
him, but ultimately is afraid to reveal herself for who she is. She is afraid
that she's not good enough as she is. In this world, in 1956, there's a right
way to be a woman, and to act and look and dress. She's a nonconformist in
a world of conformity and high style."
At the press preview — a Manhattan rehearsal-hall media event with performers
in street clothes — Prince (as middle-class Ella) and Kudisch (as the playboy-playwright
Jeff) prepare to attend a society party that she's nervous about. Ella has
no self-esteem about her looks, her manner, her ability to small-talk.
"That, to me, is the hook of the show," Landau told Playbill On-Line. "It's
what we all relate to: 'I don't fit in, I don't belong, I'm not good enough,'
and it's the journey of woman who goes from that to believing in herself.
It's so classic and universal and corny and wonderful and true."
Prince said she loves that she's playing a "regular" woman, with human fears.
"I've always said, she's Everywoman,'' Prince told Playbill On-Line. "She's
not somebody you aspire to be, she's somebody you relate to. And seeing her
journey, even though it's a musical, you walk out and you go, 'I'm lovable
— I'm enough.' It's just so great to see normal people fall in love. It's
not the blonde and the great-looking guy — I mean, Jeff Moss is handsome,
but in a way he has his own demons."
Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who wrote book and lyrics, were in attendance
at the press event. They confirmed that the somewhat obscure "Better Than
a Dream" is part of the score.
"We wrote it well after the show was playing and it went right into the show
and stayed in," Comden told Playbill On-Line. Green added, "It wasn't on
the original cast album because we hadn't written it yet." The song is also
heard in the 1960 film version that starred Holliday and Dean Martin.
"It's a particular thrill for me, working on this show, because I get to
collaborate with two icons of the American musical theatre," Landau said.
"We're doing revisions in 'Hello, Hello There,' a song in the first act —
they did two new verses to that. We asked for a new lyric, which they provided.
I'm telling you, it was thrilling. I remember when I was sitting in a room
with them and we were having a writer-direction session, and I left and I
just had to take a moment where I thought, I can't believe I'm working with
Betty and Adolph."
Landau, Comden and Green and Prince privately expressed affection for a song
that didn't become a hit from the show — "Long Before I Knew You."
"We think when they did the piece they expected it to be the big hit..."
Landau told Playbill On-Line. "We're hoping this time around it is. It's
a ballad that deserves to be a standard."
Landau has directed the show twice before, including a concert version starring
Prince, in Washington DC.
The show was originally announced for the 1,752-seat Broadway Theatre (where
Miss Saigon roosted until Jan. 28) but changed to the 1,079 Plymouth (where
Jekyll & Hyde closed Jan. 7) to better suit the material: The musical
has traditionally been recognized as a charmer rather than a spectacle. Capitalization
is $5.8 million.
The show is still set in 1956, but Riccardo Hernandez's scenic elements will
be "fabulous minimalism," a trend of the time, Maxwell said. Playwright Jeff
Moss' apartment, for example, is expected to be made up of a city skyline,
a hanging mobile-like sculpture and a lima-bean-shaped coffee table, with
the audience using its imagination to fill in spaces. The idea recalls the
recent minimalist 1950s Damn Yankees revival, but Bells will take the visual
idea even further, said Maxwell.
There will be a floating plexiglass skyline that glitters and rises and falls,
changing the perspective depending on the setting — whether an Upper East
Side penthouse or the basement of a brownstone, where "Susanswerphone" has
its headquarters. The scenic design underlines the tension between the haves
and have nots, Maxwell said.
Early in the show, working-class Ella Peterson, falls in love with playwright
Moss but hasn't met him: She only knows his voice and his foibles because
she is his telephone answering-service operator. When they do meet, she passes
herself off as Melisande Scott, a smarter version of herself.
Theatre fans know the score and the film version starring Judy Holliday but,
said Maxwell, "It's not a title like Guys and Dolls, it's not one of the
titles that's done and done and done, so the theatrephiles will be really
attracted and then there are the people who will discover it as a 'new' show."
The tuner was written with Holliday in mind. She was the longtime pal of
Comden and Green. The trio performed sketch comedy in the late 1930s, billed
as The Revuers. Holliday died in 1965.
The show offers a breezy, satiric, but sweetly affectionate view of then
modern New York City, where subway rides turn friendly ("Hello, Hello There!"),
meetings in the park become reasons for singing ("Just in Time") and celebrity
soirees can make a working-class girl feel inferior ("The Party's Over").
The score also includes "Independent," Drop That Name," "Mu Cha-Cha," "I
Met a Girl," "It's a Simple Little System," "Salzberg," "I'm Going Back,"
"Long Before I Knew You," "Is It a Crime?," "It's a Perfect Relationship"
and "The Midas Touch."
The original production of Bells Are Ringing ran 924 performances,
under the direction of Jerome Robbins. Robbins and Bob Fosse choreographed.
Judy Holliday took home the Best Actress (Musical) Tony Award and Sydney
Chaplin won the Best Featured Actor (Musical) Tony, playing Jeff Moss.
Broadway Bells tickets are $50-$85. The Plymouth Theatre is at 236 W. 45th
Street. For tickets, call (212) 239 6200.