Bells Are Ringing
music by Jule Styne, book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, directed by Tina Landau, and starring Faith Prince
at the Plymouth Theatre, New York City
Jule Styne, the Broadway and Tin Pan Alley composer, had a bustling career that ran for more than half a century, before he died, at the age of eighty-eight, in 1994. If he’s known at all among the young today, it’s probably for scattered melodies from his mid-to-late work—like “People,” from Funny Girl (1964), which gets occasional play on oldies stations, or “Small World,” from Gypsy (1959), as sung by Johnny Mathis, whose numerous hits seem to keep getting reshuffled as late-night-television “special offers.” But to those of an older generation who recall his earlier triumphs, Styne inspires a solid, rooted loyalty. He was one of the composers who devised the background music for the strangest, most far-flung homecoming in our nation’s history, the one in which America’s boys in uniform—the sons of coal-miners, factory hands, tobacco farmers, cattle ranchers—returned from bloody sites as remote as they were unpronounceable: Corregidor, Tulagi, Bizerte, Avranches.
For Styne, it all came together during the Second World War. He teamed up with Sammy Cahn, the lyricist with whom he would form his richest partnership. He befriended and began collaborating with Frank Sinatra, who was of course a songwriter’s dream: a singer of gifts so great that he might plausibly launch hits for decades to come. And—less tangibly, but most notably—he captured the national moment, creating melodies that would later define and memorialize a tumultuous, ultimately triumphant era.
Styne’s music was heartsore and hopeful. “I’ll walk alone,” Dinah Shore sang, her chaste solitude a pledge of fidelity to soldiers thousands of miles away. “Saturday night is the loneliest night of the week,” Sinatra lamented, to a world whose workaday routines had been upended. “It’s been a long, long time,” Kitty Kallen sighed, in an immensely popular recording issued at the tag end of the war.
The man behind these tunes led an unexpected life—easy where you might have predicted it would be hard, and hard where it ought to have been easy. As a composer, Styne was often spared the birth pangs of artistic creation. Melodies came to him—as various collaborators attest—rapidly and with seeming effortlessness. Stephen Sondheim, who worked with Styne on Gypsy (fitting words to Styne’s melodies), marveled at the man’s facility: “The only thing annoying about Jule’s work habits is how fertile he is…. Jule would rather write a brand-new song than rewrite one that has good things but isn’t quite there.” Yet as one of the most successful songwriters of his generation, Styne struggled with prosperity. He was forever in debt. A compulsive gambler, he let hundreds of thousands—probably millions—of dollars slip through his hands. While many men in his circle reveled in the raffish atmosphere of the high-stakes poker table and the racetrack, most of them lacked Styne’s hell-bent need to pursue Lady Luck into dangerous terrain; he lived with constant threats of violence from irate, unpaid …