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'Bells' Finally Ring for Prince

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'Bells' Finally Ring for Prince

Persistence sometimes pays off, even in the theater. For 10 years, Faith Prince has wanted to play Ella Peterson, the goodhearted telephone operator in "Bells Are Ringing."

No matter that the role was originally owned on stage and in the movies by Judy Holliday. Prince knew she had a special kinship to the 1956 musical and to Holliday, who died of cancer nine years later at the age of 42.

It is a connection that was born in Prince's college days at the Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati, where she was a bright light and a big voice in the school's musical theater program. Fresh from small-town Virginia, she didn't know much about musicals. Until then, Prince had done only two _ local productions of "Oklahoma!" and "South Pacific."

"When I got to Cincinnati, I was the really green one in all my classes. I knew no names of shows. Everybody there knew everything. I was lost," she said during an interview in her dressing room at the Plymouth Theatre, where a revival of "Bells" opened April 12.

"Somebody turned me on to the album of `Bells Are Ringing,' and I thought, `Oh, they wrote it for me,'" the performer says with a giggle, speaking of composer Jule Styne and lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green. "Something about that show really spoke to me."

"Bells Are Ringing" chronicles the adventures of the ever-helpful Ella, who gets more than a little involved in the lives of her customers (especially a struggling playwright) at a telephone-answering service.

Prince used "Is It a Crime?"--a song in the show that helps define Ella's trusting, infinitely appealing character--to help her pass the twice-yearly boards at Cincinnati. The number got her an honorable mention. And a bond was formed with the show.

Flash forward to her success in the long-running revival of "Guys and Dolls" in 1992. As soon as Prince won a Tony for playing the influenza-impaired Miss Adelaide, people started asking her what she wanted to do next.

"Every time producers would say, `Well, pitch something,' `Bells Are Ringing' was first on my list," she says. But nobody was interested, usually saying the story of a woman in love with a man she only talks to on the phone--and never sees--was outdated.

`But it's not," Prince insists. "It's the Internet. When we e-mail someone, they don't have to see us."

In 1997, while doing the revival of "The King and I" on Broadway, she was introduced to Tina Landau, best known for her direction of such serious chamber musicals as "Floyd Collins" and "Saturn Returns." Who knew Landau had directed "Bells Are Ringing" as her student thesis while studying at Yale?

The two women hit it off immediately.

"Craft and instinct are essential in this business and Faith has that in spades," says Landau. "But she's not just technique. Combine that with a living, breathing heart and an incredible sense of humor."

Says Prince: "I always wanted a woman to direct `Bells Are Ringing' because it is a woman's show. I think it's every woman's story. Ella is not somebody you aspire to be; she is somebody you can relate to. Plus very few times does the comic woman in the show get the love story."

A concert version of the show, with Landau directing, was a big success at Washington's Kennedy Center in 1998. Three years later, director and star finally landed on Broadway through the efforts of producer Mitchell Maxwell.

These days finds Prince living, she says, as sort of a suburban Auntie Mame with husband Larry Lunetta and son Henry in Westchester County. Hubby is in the business, too, playing the trumpet in the orchestra of the current revival of "Kiss Me, Kate."

"I have done such different things. I feel like I have gone places I thought I would never go. I think some people wanted to keep me as Miss Adelaide. I have a lot more range than that.

"I did character roles in my 20s. I have been waiting 20 years to be this age," says Prince, who is 43.

Yet she wasn't frustrated during the years she waited to do "Bells Are Ringing." In the meantime, she did a play on Broadway, a couple of television series, including "Spin City," and joined the casts of several Broadway musicals including "The King and I" and "James Joyce's The Dead."

"Those roles have made this current experience more rich," Prince says. "I wouldn't have approached `Bells' in such a leading lady way if I hadn't had those experiences. I would have approached it much more comically--and it is comic--but you also have the responsibility of being the leading woman.

"People say, `Oh, you are one of the last musical theater performers.' And I say, `Well, I don't know.' I'm sure Judy Holliday, Ethel Merman and Mary Martin had their own set of issues in their day. Maybe not the same issues.

"I'd love for somebody to write something new for me, but until then, all I ever wanted to do was great theater. And if people come and see 'Bells Are Ringing' and get joy and love and a kick out of it, man, I'm doing my job."

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Copyright 2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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