"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 Tina Landau to the Betty Comden-Adolph Green-Jule Styne musical.
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." Previews begin March 13 at the Plymouth Theatre, toward an April 12 opening.
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 day."
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 — Faith Prince (Ella) and Marc Kudisch (as the playboy-playwright Jeff Moss, who falls in love with Ella but doesn't know she's his answering service operator) 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."
"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 because of where it's placed in the overture," Landau told Playbill On-Line. "We're hoping this time around it is. It's a ballad that deserves to be a standard."
At the open rehearsal, the company performed "Is It A Crime?" (with Prince, Robert Ari and Jeffrey Bean), "It's a Simple Little System" (led by David Garrison), "Independent" (with Kudisch and company) and "Just in Time."
Martin Moran (Titanic, Cabaret) plays a singing dentist named Kitchell, Robert Ari (Laughter on the 23rd Floor) and Jeffrey Bean (Amadeus) play cops investigating Sandor's illegal bookie operation, which has a classical-music mail-order business as its front. Julio Agustin 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 pal of Carl and Ella's who isn't afraid to cha cha.
Bells Are Ringing will be heard at the Plymouth Theatre beginning March 13, following an out-of-town engagement at Stamford, CT's Palace Theatre Feb. 20-25. Official opening on Broadway is April 12. Box office at the Plymouth opens Feb. 12.
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 1956 musical has traditionally been recognized as a charmer rather than a spectacle.
Prince appeared on Broadway and regionally in James Joyce's The Dead, and starred in Little Me for the Roundabout Theatre Company. She took home the Tony Award playing Adelaide in the Jerry Zaks revival of Guys and Dolls.
Mitchell Maxwell is producing Bells Are Ringing with Victoria Maxwell and Mark Balsam for Momentum Productions, Inc.; Robert Barandes; Richard Bernstein; and James L. Simon.
Director Landau is known for helming The Ballad of Little Jo, Space, Floyd Collins and Dream True. Bells Are Ringing is her most high-profile conventionally commercial project. Jeff Calhoun (Grease!, Annie Get Your Gun) choreographs.
Capitalization is $5.8 million. 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.
"What attracted me to the show was the fact that we had a spectacular talent in Tina Landau, who has a contemporary take on the show," said Mitchell Maxwell previously told Playbill On Line.
The show is still set in 1956, but the 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 1956 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 "Mu-Cha-Cha," "I Met a Girl," "It's a Simple Little System," "Salzburg," "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.
Revival tickets are $50-$85 and are currently on sale by phone at (212) 239 6200. The Plymouth is at 236 W. 45th Street.