ON THE RECORD: BELLS ARE RINGING and early Rodgers & Hart

By Steven Suskin
July 15, 2001

BELLS ARE RINGING Fynsworth Alley 302 062 115 2
This spring's unhappy revival of Bells Are Ringing opened April 12 at the Plymouth Theatre and closed June 10 after a mere 68 performances. This Bells was beset by a series of misfortunes, starting - perhaps - with the general unsuitability of the piece for revival. (That is to say, the material is not as good as most people remember it to be.) The revival cast album, surprisingly enough, comes across much better than the show did in the theatre. While the revival was tuning up, Sony Classical released a remastered version of the original 1956 Broadway cast album [SK 89545]. So we now have two new Bells Are Ringing in circulation.

BELLS ARE RINGING Fynsworth Alley 302 062 115 2
This spring's unhappy revival of Bells Are Ringing opened April 12 at the Plymouth Theatre and closed June 10 after a mere 68 performances. This Bells was beset by a series of misfortunes, starting - perhaps - with the general unsuitability of the piece for revival. (That is to say, the material is not as good as most people remember it to be.) The revival cast album, surprisingly enough, comes across much better than the show did in the theatre. While the revival was tuning up, Sony Classical released a remastered version of the original 1956 Broadway cast album [SK 89545]. So we now have two new Bells Are Ringing in circulation.

The original starred Judy Holliday, in her greatest musical role. (It was, also, her only successful musical role.) Holliday was a wonderful actress; much of her magic shines through on film. But as a star she had only two major hits: Born Yesterday, which she played onstage in 1946 and recreated on film in 1950 (winning an Oscar); and Bells, which won her a Tony over Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady. Many of her other roles were, to some extent, ineffective copies of her Born Yesterday character Billie Dawn.

Bells was written to order for Holliday by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who knew her talents well; they had started together as three fifths of a Greenwich Village nightclub act, The Revuers. Composer Jule Styne - an old-time Hollywood vocal coach — knew how to make a non-singer look good, so the role of Ella fit Holliday like a comfortable old corduroy carpet slipper. Holliday's performance on the Bells CD is wonderfully lovable.

Sydney Chaplin, son of Charles, charms his way through the role. This show is a Cinderella story — Ella is really Cinderella, the Traviata dress is her glass slipper, and Jeff Moss, her sleeping prince, is Cinderella's fairy tale prince. Chaplin wasn't much of a singer, but on stage opposite Holliday he looked "Better than a Dream." Which is why, presumably, he filled the very same shoes opposite Barbra Streisand in Styne's Funny Girl. Not because of his singing or acting talent, but because he was the physical embodiment of the swell-egant prince of Fanny and Ella and Cinderella's dreams.

The revival starred Faith Prince, a top-notch musical comedy performer who has yet to get a star role written to suit her talents. She does a fine job with Ella, singing the songs with a confident assurance lacking in Holliday's performance. The two are not comparable, though; Prince performs it— and performs it well; Holliday simply wears it, like — well, like that comfortable old slipper. Marc Kudisch, too, gives a much more skilled performance of the material than Chaplin — but Syd seems to float through it all effortlessly. (He won a Tony Award too, over My Fair Lady's Robert Coote and Stanley Holloway.) Which album is better? The surprise here, for me, is that the revival CD is even in the running against the grand old classic.

This new Bells is lively, bright, and exuberant. (On CD, that is; on stage it seemed like an out-of-place, forlorn orphan.) The 1956 disc, on the other hand, is definitive, staid, and classy. Original orchestrator Russel Bennett gave the show a classic Broadway sound, which is one reason the 1956 album remains so satisfying. The revival uses a new orchestration, which is unavoidable when a show scored for 26 musicians is booked into a small theatre that can only afford 15. One of the saving graces of the revival CD is that orchestrator Don Sebesky seems to like and respect Bennett's original work; it sounds like he tried to replicate Bennett as much as possible. (Sebesky did the very same type of Bennett adaptation on the 1999 Kiss Me, Kate, with admirable results.)

So both Bells CDs are highly listenable; something of a surprise, given the lack of impact of the revival in the theatre. The 1956 reissue contains bonus tracks of composer Styne performing three songs, welcome curiosities but by no means indispensable. One of the songs that was cut, "Boogie Woogie Shoogie, Baby of Mine," is -- well, pretty strange. (The authors wrote a somewhat better song, "Do It Yourself," for this spot in the 1960 film version.) The revival CD contains two bonus tracks, one containing song fragments by the singing dentist Dr. Kitchell (Martin Moran) and the other featuring Faith's swinging tag to "Is It a Crime?"

AND SPEAKING OF RICHARD RODGERS. . . .

With the Richard Rodgers Centenary underway, it seems pertinent to call attention to two obscure recordings that have recently been released on CD by a new label out of Miami called Bayview Recording Company. Both were originally released in 1982 — and not terribly widely — by a (British?) group called Beginners Productions.

Rodgers and Hart first attracted attention with the 1925 revue The Garrick Gaities, with a mostly perky score led by the songhit "Manhattan." The success of the Gaities — a two-performance benefit that converted to an open-ended allowed run — allowed the boys to find a backer for Dearest Enemy [Bayview RNBW008]. But it was written in 1924, just before Rodgers and Hart developed the sound that gave them eight hit shows in three years. The score can best be described as quaint, and it is not helped by a four-piece arrangement with a very loud snare drum.

Still, it is the only complete recording of Rodgers and Hart's first musical, and therefore instructive to those of us interested in such things. (A 1955 TV version, with dialogue snippets and poor sound, was also issued on CD; but this new Dearest Enemy - recorded on purpose, as it were -- is far more representative of the score.) The show had one minor song hit, a foursquare ballad entitled "Here in My Arms," which I don't suppose fans of Rodgers would naturally ascribe to him (although the "adorable/deplorable" rhyme indicates Larry Hart). Bonus tracks include two vintage recordings sung by Sidney Burchall, of the 1931 Australian cast, and they are mighty sleepy.

Hollywood Party [Bayview RNBW009] is something else again. Those eight hit shows in three years were followed by a string of failures and a nationwide Depression (neither caused by the other). Rodgers and Hart wafted to Hollywood, where they had a miserable time of it. In 1935 they returned East and wrote numerous remarkable songs for scores like On Your Toes, Babes in Arms, The Boys from Syracuse, and Pal Joey.

When did they develop the new, advanced style that sparked these shows? While they were writing — or, rather, trying to write— M-G-M's Hollywood Revue of 1933. The film shut down in production; Louis B. Mayer, apparently, hated it. A truncated version was released in 1934 under the title Hollywood Party, with only three Rodgers and Hart songs remaining. Manuscript copies of the other songs have been circulating ever since, and the Beginners Productions people had the keen idea of calling some singers into the studio to record eleven of the "lost" songs.

While the songs are not necessarily world-beaters, fans of Rodgers and Hart will find this material a key step in the boys' development. One of the songs, "Prayer," did turn out to be a world-beater. Music publisher Jack Robbins thought the melody was brilliant, and bugged the boys to come up with a pop song version. They did, under the title "Blue Moon." (Richard Rodgers: His Top 50, a handout compiled from ASCAP records by the Rodgers office for the Centennial, places the song in first position on the list, just ahead of "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" and "The Sound of Music.") Other Hollywood Party songs of which I've long been fond are "You Are," a baritone ballad (part of which was developed into Pal Joey's "What is a Man?"); a corny vaudeville turn called "Fly Away to Ioway"; and "My Friend, The Night," an introspective song of yearning that clearly looks forward to the final stage of Rodgers and Hart's work (despite a singer who can't quite handle it). The album is helped enormously by snappy piano arrangements and playing by Tom Gilhooly.

Four obscure songs have been added for the CD. (They were recorded along with the rest, although the master tape is missing and the sound is less than optimal.) These lesser efforts include "Moonlight Lane," an interpolation in the 1923 Kalmar & Ruby, Kaufman & Connelly musical Helen of Troy, N.Y. (Yes, Helen of Troy, N.Y.) This collaboration with W. Frank Harling is one of the few published songs Hart wrote with a composer other than Rodgers. A truly dreary song, mind you, though unique. But the Hollywood Party CD is clearly of interest to fans of Rodgers and Hart.

— Steven Suskin, author of "Broadway Yearbook 1999-2000" and "Show Tunes" (both from Oxford University Press) and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books.