The town is New York, and the time is the 1950s, when the cha-cha is the hottest dance craze and many people subscribe to telephone answering services such as Susanswerphone. Among the people whose phones connect to Susanswerphone's switchboard are:
- Blake Barton, an actor who obviously aspires to being the next Marlon Brando;
- Mme. Rosine Grimaldi, a coloratura soprano performing in La Traviata;
- Mr. Humboldt and Miss Stevens, who married and merged their accounts after a certain answering girl suggested to her that he had a male Siamese cat to mate with her female;
- Dr. Joe Kitchell, a dentist and amateur songwriter;
- Mrs. Mallet, mother of a boy who refuses to eat his vegetables;
- Jeffrey Moss (Plaza 0-4433), a playwright trying to work on the forthcoming Larry Hastings production of The Midas Touch without his longtime writing partner;
- La Petite Bergère Restaurant Français, which is closed for all August.
One might expect that, to serve such a wide variety of clients, Susanswerphone would need a "vast personnel of well-trained girls," as an advertisement for them says. In fact, three girls, including the owner, Sue Summers, handle all the calls, but Ella Peterson is skilled at finding a different voice to answer each of their subscribers. Sue complains that Ella's a bit too friendly with the subscribers, especially after a couple of misguided policemen open an investigation. But the threat of being sent to the Women's Detention Home does nothing to deter Ella from starting an affair with Mr. Moss, her Sleeping Prince, under the pseudonym Melisande Scott.
The story was very loosely inspired by Adolph Green's answering service operator, Mary Printz, who would go to extreme lengths to help her clients, far beyond just answering the phone. The musical was conceived as a star vehicle for Judy Holliday, who also appeared in a film version released in 1960, with Dean Martin as Jeffrey Moss. This film version, directed by Vincente Minnelli, was the last of the many movie musicals produced for MGM by Arthur Freed.
Tropes appearing in this musical:
- Busby Berkeley Number: "The Midas Touch," which is also an in-universe example of this trope, as we see it being performed on-stage as a giant splashy musical number.
- Crazy-Prepared: Ella sneaks into Jeffrey Moss's apartment in order to secretly wake him up for an important interview. He catches her in the act, then, hungover, says he needs a cup of coffee. Ella pulls a thermos out of her purse and hands it to him. He sarcastically adds, "And a cheese danish?" Ella looks in her purse, then shakes her head sadly.Ella (handing him a danish): Prune.
- Crowd Song: Played straight several times, but actually weirdly justified in "Hello, Hello There!" When Ella and Jeffrey Moss (Plaza 0-4433) are out on their date, Ella tries to prove that if you act friendly towards people, even complete strangers, they might turn out to be friendly too. She starts by introducing herself to a man in the street, who turns out to be so enthusiastic at finally meeting a friendly person on the streets of New York City that they start singing. More and more people in the crowd suddenly start introducing themselves to one another, resulting in a spontaneous demonstration of beautiful human connection ... then the light changes, and everyone turns into a charging mob to cross the street.
- Distant Duet: "Better Than a Dream." They're only in adjoining rooms of the same apartment, but it still counts.
- Final Love Duet: The final reprise of "Just in Time."
- The Eleven O'Clock Number: Ella's "I'm Going Back."
- Helping Granny Cross the Street: Ella, trying to con Inspector Barnes out of trying to arrest her, compares her job to saving downed baby birds and this:If it's a crime to help old ladies cross the street,Then put me in jail!Without bail!Bread and water from an old tin pail,If that, if that's a crime.
- "I Am" Song: Subversion: Ella, believing that all her work has been for naught and that the man she loves won't love her back, sings "I'm Going Back" about how she's not even sure who she is any more, and decides to going back to working a big, anonymous switchboard instead. Also qualifies as an inverted "Setting Off" Song, since she's returning to her old job and leaving New York City for good.I know you, your name is Sue,But who am I?I've gotta find out,At least ... I'm gonna try.
- Innocent Innuendo: The police suspect that Susanswerphone is a front for prostitution. While visiting Susanswerphone's office (undercover), they overhear Ella answering a call for Madame Grimaldi in a way that sounds awfully suggestive ...Ella: Why, for a friend of the madame, it's free!
- "I Want" Song: "It's A Perfect Relationship", in which Ella wonders what Jeffrey Moss (Plaza 0-4433) looks like, because she's fallen in love with him, but only ever heard his voice.I'm in love, with a man,Plaza 0, double-4, double-3,It's a perfect relationship,I can't see him, he can't see me.
- List Song: "It's A Simple Little System" (composers and racetracks) and "Drop That Name" (celebrities).
- Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Ella Peterson steps into and improves the lives of three clients of the telephone answering service she works for. She helps a dentist realize his ambitions to become a songwriter, makes a washed-up Brando wannabe actor stop mumbling, buy a suit and get a part, and a struggling playwright overcome his Writer's Block and, incidentally, fall in love with her.
- However, Ella is too shy and withdrawn to help all these people openly, so she has to use fake names and act very differently around them. She's smitten with Jeffrey Moss (Plaza 0-4433), but even though she's worried about his prospects as a writer, she can't talk to him like a normal person and instead tries to help him out from behind the scenes. Even once they start dating, she continues to use a fake name. Ella may be quirky and flit in and out of men's lives, charming them and solving their problems, but because the play is told from her perspective, she comes off as more well-rounded and interesting than your standard MPDG. It is, in the end, her story, not anyone else's.
- Woman of a Thousand Voices: Ella, both out- and in-universe. Ella speaks in a wide range of accents, personalities, and characters in order to help her clients. For a woman whose son won't eat his vegetables, she pretends to be Santa Claus. For a French restaurant, she puts on a phony French accent. For struggling artist Jeffrey Moss (Plaza 0-4433), she adopts the comforting voice of an elderly woman whom he can call Mom. Any actress who wants to portray Ella needs to have one hell of a vocal range.
- The Matchmaker: Ella arranged for two of her switchboard clients to meet, resulting in their eventual marriage.
- Misspelling Out Loud: Ella, being threatened by Sandor and the Corvello henchmen, tries to tell them that the police are in pursuit:Ella (to Sandor): Inspector Barnes!
Ella: Barnz! B-A-R-N-Z!
Ella: Z!! The whole thing was a trap. He was after you the whole time.
- Mumbling Brando: Blake Barton and everyone else who hangs out in the same Malt Shop.
- Spy Speak: Well, not spies, mobsters, but the principle is the same. A group of bookies is trying to secretly place bets on horse races over the phone. How do they do this? They set up a fake classical music company, Titanic Records, which sells recordings of various symphonies and takes phone orders through Susanswerphonebut the phone orders are code for the bets being placed. For example, as laid out in the song "It's a Simple Little System" by the "president" of Titanic Records, Sandor, the names of composers correspond to various major racetracks:Sandor: What is Beethoven?Goon 1 (reading off list): Belmont Park!Sandor: Who's Puccini?Goon 2: Pimlico!Sandor: Who is Humperdinck?Goon 3: Hollywood!
- This gets them into trouble when, just before a major race, many "customers" place "orders" for "recordings" of "Beethoven's Tenth Symphony"when Beethoven, famously, only wrote nine symphonies. The well-meaning employees of Susanswerphone helpfully change all the previous orders to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, which causes quite a problem for Titanic Records ...
- Telephone Song: The song "A Perfect Relationship" is about how Ella has a crush on one of her clients. They can only hear each other's voices, too bad she put on an old woman voice to talk to him at first and is now stuck.
- Trouble Entendre: After Titanic Records accidentally loses thousands of dollars of horse racing bets, the Corvello gang sends a pair of goons to approach Sandor, president of the operation, in a café. Sandor explains to Sue, his unknowing girlfriend, that they're "musicians from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra," but is horrified to learn that Titanic Records might want him to attend a "recording session", over the East River, of "Siegfried's Rhine Journey and Funeral March."
- Unintentional Period Piece: Answering services were largely replaced by answering machines in the '80s, and then replaced again by voicemail, so it's rare for people these days to know exactly what Ella's job is.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Mary Printz was an answering service operator whose clients included many A-list New York City theater actors, producers, and other celebritiesincluding Adolph Comden. She was known for going above and beyond for her clientsnot just answering their phone calls but walking their dogs, picking up their laundry, or getting a case of scotch for a dinner party while the liquor stores were closed. Up until her death in 2009, she continued to provide answering services for about 90 clients, including Woody Allen and Steven Spielberg.
- The Voice: Inverted. Ella is, to her clients, just a voice (or, in some cases, several voices). She, in turn, knows them only by their voices. A good chunk of the story is her getting to know them and helping them, in person and in secret.
- Waiting for a Break: Dr. Kitchell wanted to write musicals, but became a dentist due to pressure from his father. He composes songs using the air-hose of his dental instruments.
- Writer's Block: Jeff suffers from a bad case of this, and almost kills himself struggling to write The Midas Touch.