The Writing of Bells Are Ringing
Plot Synopsis: Ella Peterson is a Brooklyn telephone answering service operator who tries to improve the lives of her clients by passing along bits of information she hears from other clients. She falls in love with one of her clients, the playwright Jeffrey Moss, and is determined to meet him. The trouble is, on the phone to him, she always pretends to be an old woman whom he calls “Mom.”
While it may not be one of Jule Styne’s three best scores, Bells Are Ringing is full of humor that is created by the composer. Certainly, the book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green contain a great deal of comedy, and Styne’s work supports every gag. But there are also times when the music is funny in and of itself, and that’s a pretty rare thing.
Much of what makes music great has to do with timing, and here Styne exhibits the timing of a classic comedian. “Drop the Name” is an example of a fairly nonsensical lyric that rolls along on Schottische-like triplets, each chord leading to the next. Then, when it’s time for Ella to add her contribution, the music halts, building tension over what she’s going to say. Usually, it’s the name of a dog from movies. On paper, the lyric’s nearly unreadable. In performance, with music providing the cadence, it’s hysterical.
Another song, “It’s a Simple Little System” is specifically about famous themes from classical music. When the chorus is repeating what they’ve learned from the soloist, the speed accelerates like a Mozart overture. Styne’s creating music that sounds like classical music to go along with the classical quotes.
The first musical joke in “Perfect Relationship” is a little subtler. Ella is singing about her love for a man to whom she places wake-up calls every morning. The main melody is a repeated ascending triad, just like the bugle calls that wake up troops. Then, as she begins to fantasize about him, the music shifts into Latin beats, starting with a bolero on “What does he look like?”
Ella’s other comedy songs are filled with changes of tempo that startle the listener, wringing some extra laughs out of their set-ups. “Is It a Crime?” is intentionally melodramatic and sentimental, switching from sung lines to spoken jokes seamlessly. “I’m Going Back” has an interlude in the middle that’s oh-so-French as she talks about a French restaurant, and then revs up for an Al Jolson-esque big finish.
There are also parodies: “Salzburg” sounds like a fake Vienna waltz because the character who’s singing it is fibbing about coming from Salzburg “by the sea. “The dentist who aspires to be a songwriter comes up with a song as bad as the sound of drilling, “The Midas Touch.”These sit comfortably besides such well-composed “hits” as “The Party’s Over” and “Just In Time.” Just as every librettist and lyricist should be able to utilize humor, it would behoove any composer to develop musical comedy skills. Styne’s were masterful.