By Peter Filichia —
What musical gave its leading character the best opening song as well as the best closing song? For men, the answer is probably My Fair Lady, as Rex Harrison got to sing “Why Can’t the English?” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” For women? I’d say Bells Are Ringing, which opened 55 years ago this week, on Nov. 29, 1956.
Really, aren’t “It’s a Perfect Relationship” and “I’m Goin’ Back” the best first-and-last punch for a woman in musical theater history – especially as delivered by Judy Holliday?
Hear the original cast album, on which Holliday plays Ella Peterson, a switchboard operator at Susanswerphone, her cousin Sue’s eponymous answering service. This was a genuine necessity for busy people in pre-answering machine ‘50s. What’s coincidental is that twenty some years before Holliday did the musical, she, then Judith Tuvim, actually was a switchboard operator for Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater.
Sue keeps telling Ella that her only responsibility is to “give and take messages,” nothing more. But Ella can’t help becoming greatly involved with the private lives of her clients. She’s especially taken with Jeffrey Moss, who was half of a Kaufman-and-Hart-like playwriting team until they ended their collaboration. Since then, Jeff hasn’t done much – which worries Ella.
“What does he look like?” Ella muses to a delicate Jule Styne melody. (Yes, the master of brassiness could write elegantly, too.) Ella seems to believe that “It’s a Perfect Relationship” that she has with Jeff, because “I’ll never meet him, and he’ll never meet me.” She admits “I’m in love,” but is more than willing to let it remain platonic. Oh, she does wonder, “Is he six-foot-seven, or three-foot-two? Has he eyes of brown or baby blue?” before asking herself a litany of other questions.
Of course, one could wonder why Ella doesn’t know what Jeff looks like. Certainly one of the tabloids must have run a picture of the famous playwright at some opening night. Bookwriter-lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green would have been well-advised to establish that Jeff has always been extraordinarily camera-shy and has never allowed his picture to be taken.
Ella says, “Well, I don’t care!” Oh, really? After she ostensibly finishes her dainty song, she returns to work – but then orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett has his band play a little more pleasant music before the drummer crashes a cymbal. The raging tide Ella holds inside can hold no more, as Holliday roars, “Whatttttttttt! does he look like?” The frustration and longing ensures that she’ll soon find out. There wouldn’t be much of a musical if she didn’t.
On the other hand, by show’s end Ella has come to terms with never getting Jeff. That brings us to her excellent final number. What’s amazing is that when Bells Are Ringing opened in New Haven and Boston, “I’m Goin’ Back” wasn’t even a gleam in the eyes of Styne, Comden or Green. And while Holliday and Comden and Green had been pals for almost 20 years (they’d performed together in an act called The Revuers), the friendship was getting strained because the writers couldn’t give their star a dynamite eleven o’clock number.
According to Styne biographer Theodore Taylor, everyone was pretty miserable until Styne called Comden and Green into his hotel suite one night. He’d had an idea for a song, of which he sang eight bars: “I’m goin’ back where I can be me to the Bonjour Tristesse Brassiere Company.” Green screeched “Yeah!” All three went to work and finished the song in an hour.
It happened because Styne had noticed during the tryouts that audiences had always laughed at a first-act joke in which Holliday said that she once worked for the Bonjour Tristesse Brassiere Company. Had Styne not been watching his show at every performance and hearing the audience consistently take delight in the idea of a brassiere company named Bonjour Tristesse, one of Broadway’s greatest 11 o’clock numbers wouldn’t have been written.
The songs that come between those two numbers are well worth hearing, too. Sue, as it turns out, needs love as well and believes that she’s found it with Sandor, the founder of Titanic Records. (If he had stayed in business, would he have recorded the original cast album of Titanic?)
But Sandor is actually a bookie, who’s having his bettors use the answering service to place bets under the guise of buying records. We learn the whole ruse in a great production number, “It’s a Simple Little System,” where classical musicians’ names are substituted for racetracks: Beethoven is Belmont Park; Puccini is Pimlico; Rachmaninoff is Rockingham. What luck for Comden, Green and Styne that the composer of the “Hallelujah Chorus” had a name that started with “H,” for otherwise one of the great lyric jokes of all time: “What is Handel? Hialeah! Hialeah!” — wouldn’t have worked. As Stephen Schwartz wrote in Pippin, “It’s smarter to be lucky than it’s lucky to be smart.”
Styne set Comden and Green’s exceptional idea to pseudo-classical music. That wasn’t hard for him, because he’d been a classical music scholar and a prodigy who’d played with many symphony orchestras before he was ten years old.
Sue, by the way, is portrayed by Jean Stapleton, the screechy-voiced actress who had already been in Damn Yankees and would later appear in Juno. Her fame would come a dozen years after Bells Are Ringing, when she literally became a household name in the trailblazing TV series, All in the Family. The actress who played the put-upon Edith Bunker won three Emmys.
“Is It a Crime?” has Ella explain why she helps every Susanswerphoner. Holliday insists that if she’d worked for Veronaphone, she would have relayed important information to Romeo and Juliet – and “Those two kids would be alive today!”
After Jeff meets Ella – who tells him she’s actually Melisande Scott and not a mere telephone receptionist – she encourages him and everyone else on the subway to shed their shyness and speak to each other. “Hello, Hello There” is probably the only charm song set to an oom-pah-pah waltz. Later he takes her to a party, where Ella tries hard to “Drop That Name” to the swellegant guests, While they’re talking about “Jose Ferrer and Janet Blair and Fred Astaire and Vincent Minnelli,” Ella can only think to mention “Rin Tin Tin” – and one other famous canine that rhymes with “Raymond Massey.”
We haven’t even got to the show’s two breakout hits. The first is “Just in Time,” when Jeff realizes how Ella has rescued and inspired him. It’s joyful until the very end, when Jeff gets very sincere, and Ella matches him. Listen to the way Holliday sings her final “in time,” and you’ll hear the depth of feeling here. Not long after, Ella realizes that because she hasn’t been honest with Jeff, “The Party’s Over.”
Plenty of musical theater enthusiasts, however, prefer the romantic song that wasn’t a hit: “Long Before I Knew You,” between Ella and Jeff. He was played by Sydney Chaplin (Charlie’s son). Comden and Green once told me that director Jerome Robbins didn’t want him, but they convinced their ol’ pal (with whom they’d worked on On the Town) to give Chaplin at least the New Haven tryout to prove himself. The audience liked him, and Chaplin stayed long enough to win the Tony as Best Featured Actor in a Musical. And if you ever want to win an easy bet, say that Holliday, not Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady, won the Tony as Best Actress in a Musical. She indeed did.
Of the three collaborators, Green could be said to have profited the most. He fell in love with Holliday’s standby, one Phyllis Newman. They married in 1960, and stayed wed until Green died in 2002. Newman went on to win a Tony for Subways Are for Sleeping, and has had a nice career — as has the man who was Chaplin’s understudy: Hal Linden.
But everyone connected with Bells Are Ringing wound up a winner. When it closed, only 10 book musicals had ever run longer than its 924 performances (Now 86 have.) Bruce Vilanch once told me that he saw it sixteen times, although he was a mere nine and had to take the bus in from Paterson, New Jersey to see it.
One can understand the appeal. At the end of the show, Ella winds up getting what she wanted. So does Holliday, who appears in nine of the show’s fifteen songs. True, in four of them, her castmates are the main event. But “It’s a Perfect Relationship” and “I’m Goin’ Back” are all hers.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.kritzerland.com;. His new book Broadway Musical MVPs: The Most Valuable Players of the Past 50 Seasons is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com