When Faith Prince was 18 years old, she first heard a recording of Judy Holliday in Bells Are Ringing. “I was studying at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, in my sophomore year,” Prince recalls, “and I found an LP in the library— that’ll date me, it was an LP, not a CD—of this musical comedy called Bells Are Ringing. The show and Judy Holliday’s character, Ella Peterson, just spoke to me. I thought, ‘I know this woman.’ And ever since, I’ve wanted to do Bells Are Ringing on Broadway.”
Well, she’s finally getting her chance. Prince, who won a Tony Award as Best Actress for her portrayal of Adelaide in the 1992 revival of Guys and Dolls, is starring at the Plymouth Theatre in the first-ever Broadway revival of the 1956 hit, winning a new Tony nomination in the process. The 2001 version co-stars Marc Kudisch, is directed by Tina Landau and choreographed by Jeff Calhoun.
Bells was written by Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green especially for the enormously talented Judy Holliday, who had risen to stardom as Billie Dawn, the not-so-dumb blonde in Born Yesterday in 1946. The original Bells ran for 924 performances, and in a year when Julie Andrews (My Fair Lady) and Ethel Merman (Happy Hunting) were nominated for Best Actress Tonys, Holliday beat them both.
In the show, Ella Peterson, an operator at Susanswerphone, a telephone answering service, falls for one of her clients, a playwright named Jeffrey Moss (Kudisch), telephone number "Plaza 0 double-four double three." But Ella, unsure of herself, assumes other identities—and the plot thickens. The show’s score, one of the lushest and cleverest in Broadway history, includes such hits as “The Party’s Over” and “Just in Time.”
Ella, Prince says, is “always there for everybody, but she doesn’t trust that she has what it takes to get what she herself needs. There’s a lot of me in her. I feel that in a way I’m Everywoman. I’m not something you aspire to be—I’m not a perfect five foot nine, 36-24-36, with exactly the right breeding. I am who I am. But who I am is enough. And it’s a great message, which I think a lot of people in the audience will relate to.” She is, she says, both awed and delighted to be taking on a role written for an actress of Holliday’s towering ability. “Judy Holliday was exceptionally bright,” Prince says of the legendary star, who died of cancer in 1965 at age 42. “I think she had an IQ of 185. People say about Ella Peterson, ‘Oh, that ditzy telephone operator,’ but it was anything but. If you watched Holliday work, it was so smart and so quick and so witty. Everything she did, including Born Yesterday, was so complex. I know that I try to approach roles, especially women’s roles of that era like Adelaide and Ella, with a dignity and a brain, and I think she did too.”
Bells’ director, Tina Landau—who directed Prince in a concert version of the musical three years ago at the Kennedy Center in Washington—has also wanted to do the show on Broadway since she was in college. She, too, related instantly and deeply to Ella. “I felt that she was a nonconformist in a world of conformity,” Landau says. “She lived in a time and place that was all about images of women in ads that told them how they were supposed to look and dress and talk. And here was a woman who was cut from a different cloth.”
Landau is also excited to be working with Comden and Green, Broadway giants for nearly 60 years whose Tony-winning credits include Wonderful Town, Applause, On the Twentieth Century and The Will Rogers Follies. “I’m living my childhood dream of directing a Broadway musical,” she says. “Betty and Adolph are icons of the musical theatre. We get to have them in a room and collaborate with them. What we’re doing is bridging the generations. It’s thrilling.”