Misguided Faith in Bells Are Ringing
Marc Miller gives a close listen to Fynsworth Alley's new Broadway cast CD of Bells Are Ringing.
The 1956 original Broadway cast recording of Bells Are Ringing is historically significant for two reasons: It's the first cast album issued in stereo, and it has Judy Holliday all over it. Betty Comden and Adolph Green wrote this romantic musical comedy very specifically for their friend the Oscar winner, tailoring the star part of Ella Peterson, answering-service operator extraordinaire, to Holliday's unique talents. The actress brought warmth, zaniness, vulnerability, pathos, and inimitable comic originality to Ella. She sang Jule Styne's lively and sweet melodies in a small but sure voice. She made a smash hit out of slightly old-hat material, snatched a Best Actress Tony from Julie Andrews' Eliza Doolittle, preserved her stage triumph in a faithful M-G-M film version of the musical, and put such a personal stamp on Ella Peterson that, for decades, no Broadway actor dared touch the part. Until Faith Prince.
Prince's take on Ella is digitally rendered in the new revival cast album on Fynsworth Alley, Bruce Kimmel's enterprising little label devoted to Broadway and cabaret. The recording is, first of all, quite different from your grandfather's Bells Are Ringing; fans of the old LP (and there are many) will enjoy comparing and contrasting. The new Bells is more complete, with reprises and longer dance breaks and "Better Than a Dream," a nice duet added to the show late in the run and included in the movie. Comden and Green have tinkered with the lyrics, often fascinatingly. (Case in point: Ella's unseen suitor at the other end of the wire now "thinks I'm ninety-three," not "sixty-three"; apparently sixty-three is no longer out of the ballpark. Gray power lives!) The new orchestrations, by Don Sebesky, are less full than Robert Russell Bennett's originals--there were only 15 players in the pit for the revival--but they have unusual snap, with plenty of Nelson Riddle-ish brass and even some jazz-fusion chords snuck in. If we must put up with cut-rate charts, let's hope they're all this imaginative and evocative. There are two fun bonus tracks on the Fynsworth CD (one hidden), better heard than described. The new CD is also generous with essays, info, and photos, though the latter are byte-size.
And then there's Faith. An excellent though inconsistent musical-comedy diva, she's technically a more accomplished singer than Holliday, and she would appear to possess many of the right qualities for Ella Peterson: impishness, impulsiveness, spunk, generosity of spirit. But, on this disc at least, Prince overworks almost everything. She can't get through "It's a Perfect Relationship" without giggling at her own jokes, squealing in between lyrics, commenting on her own adorableness. The same overzealousness mars her other big comic numbers, "Is It a Crime?" and "I'm Going Back." She does make it through "The Party's Over" without resorting to coy mannerisms, but Prince's big Broadway belt is less affecting than Holliday's wavering, introspective interpretation.
Prince's leading man, Marc Kudisch, has about 12 times the voice of Holliday's original vis-à-vis, Sydney Chaplin, and Kudisch is a callow, appealing Jeff Moss. Those fine old pros David Garrison and Beth Fowler fail to make much of an impression in their second-couple roles; on stage, I blamed Tina Landau's direction, which reduced everyone but Jeff and Ella to one-note characters. At least the CD spares us the revival's physical production with its cheap minimalist sets and unflattering costumes, especially for poor Faith.
I saw Prince in this revival, twice, and she was more genuine and less prone to schtick than she is here. Perhaps, going into the studio knowing that her pet stage project wasn't going to be the hoped-for smash hit, she felt a need to underline everything for posterity's sake. Less would have been more--but let's not be too rough on the lady. Prince campaigned long and hard to get this revival on, and her belief in the material and obvious dedication are to be admired, even if the results are a little off the mark. Really, how could it have been otherwise? The role of Ella Peterson is so organically Holliday's--and, thanks to film and LP, Holliday's performance is so ingrained in our memories--that anyone else is bound to fall short.
Bells is a good but not great show. Its score, a fine specimen of conventional musical comedy writing, was its biggest asset in 1956 apart from its star. New recordings of shows like this don't come along every day, so let's be grateful for this one. But maybe future stage revivals of Bells should be tabled until the world is given another Judy Holliday. And that could take centuries.
[For more information or to order this recording on line, visit the website www.fynsworthalley.com]