The second show we will look at in our series of “lost” musicals is Bells Are Ringing. Bells Are Ringing is a musical with a book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and music by Jule Styne. The story revolves around Ella, who works at an answering service and the characters that she meets there. The main character was based on the life of Mary Printz, who worked as an answering service operator who catered to many of the New York theater and business A-listers in the 1950s. Three of the show’s tunes – “Long Before I Knew You,” “Just in Time,” and “The Party’s Over” – became popular standards.
The original Broadway production, directed by Jerome Robbins and choreographed by Robbins and Bob Fosse, opened on November 29, 1956 at the Shubert Theatre, where it ran for slightly more than two years before transferring to the Alvin Theatre, for a total run of 924 performances. It starred Judy Holliday as Ella and Sydney Chaplin as Jeff Moss, Jean Stapleton as Sue Summers, Eddie Lawrence as Sandor, as well as George S. Irving, Jack Weston, and Peter Gennaro. It was also adapted into a movie in 1960 starring Judy Holliday reprising her role as Ella and Dean Martin as Jeff Moss.
In Bells Are Ringing, Ella Peterson works in the basement office of her boss, Sue, of “Susanswerphone”, a telephone answering service. She listens in on others’ lives and adds some interest to her own humdrum existence by adopting different identities – and voices – for her clients. They include Blake Barton, an out-of-work Method actor, Dr. Kitchell, a dentist with musical yearnings but lacking talent, and playwright Jeff Moss, who is suffering from writer’s block and desperately needs a muse. As suggested by the song title, Ella considers the relationships with these clients “perfect” because she can’t see them and they can’t see her, yet she derives great pleasure from meddling in their lives.
I always thought the plot of this show seemed dated considering it is nearly impossible to get an actual person to answer a phone when you call a business and, of course, the internet has rendered answering services somewhat obsolete. You can Google any problem you might have! Apparently, I was not the only one. The show was staged in 2010 by New York City Center’s Encore! with mixed reviews. Positive reviews for the lead Kelli O’Hara, but tepid reviews for the show itself. Ben Brantley of the New York Times wrote: “Ms. O’Hara is the possessor of a liquid soprano that was made for the shimmering romantic confessions so essential to classic American musicals. Offering sincerity without saccharine, her voice seems to emerge almost involuntarily, as if she just couldn’t help acting on an irresistible urge. Though obviously highly trained, that voice brims with a conversational ease that makes you forget that singing is not usually the form we choose for confiding in others, even in this age of ‘Glee’…This 1956 musical … was revived on Broadway only nine years ago (with Faith Prince), and it seemed irretrievably dated then.”
While I think musicals such as Bells Are Ringing would be fun, it would probably be tough to convince a younger audience that strangers would listen to other strangers’ problems on the phone. Although, I guess it’s not too hard to imagine considering how people meet and interact on the internet today. Maybe it could be adapted and updated somehow. But don’t ask me. I’m not a playwright! But it sure would be an interesting take on a Tony Award winning musical.