Betty Comden

Betty Comden

Betty Comden (b. New York City, May 3, 1917; d. New York City, November 23, 2006) and her partner – but not husband – Adolph Green (1914–2002) constituted the writing team of Comden and Green that turned out lyrics, books, and screenplays for six decades of American hit musicals. At home primarily on Broadway (Wonderful Town 1953, Peter Pan 1954, Bells Are Ringing 1956), they also spent years in Hollywood, collaborating in Arthur Freed’s production unit at MGM on musical film classics like On the Town (1949), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), and The Band Wagon (1953).

 Betty Comden, born Elizabeth Cohen, attended Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn and studied drama at New York University, graduating in 1938. In that year, in the depths of the Great Depression, she met Adolph Green, who was working as a runner on Wall Street, and several other theatrically-inclined young people who decided to form a performing troupe called the Revuers. They established themselves at a club in Greenwich Village, the Village Vanguard, and did sketch comedy (“The Banshi Sisters,” “The Baroness Bazuka”), packing in the clientele even though the proprietor had no liquor license. Among the players were comedienne Judy Tuvim – who later became Judy Holliday – and a young piano accompanist who occasionally commuted from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia where he was studying, Leonard Bernstein.

 The Revuers’ fame reached the ears of Hollywood producers, and they were offered a spot in a Carmen Miranda-Don Ameche movie called Greenwich Village (1944), but in the end their parts were so negligible – Adolph was dropped altogether – that they all straggled back to New York. Meanwhile Bernstein had had his first great stage success collaborating with Jerome Robbins on the ballet Fancy Free (1944), and plans were afoot to turn it into a Broadway musical. Bernstein approached Comden and Green to write the book and lyrics, which they were only too happy to do, taking the opportunity to include substantial parts in it for themselves. The smashing success of the result, On the Town (1944),encouraged them to follow with two more musicals, Billion Dollar Baby (music by Morton Gould, 1945) and Bonanza Bound (1947), but neither of these did well, and Comden and Green again headed for California.

 They immediately found work with MGM, writing screenplays for Good News (1947) with June Allyson and Peter Lawford, for The Barkleys of Broadway (1949) with Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, for Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949) with Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Esther Williams, and then adapting On the Town (1949) for Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly. (Producer Arthur Freed thought little of Bernstein’s score, so most of it, except for “New York, New York,” was cut out.) The next project – screenplay only, and lyrics to one song – was Singin’ in the Rain, one of the all-time greatest of film musicals, and then The Band Wagon with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, which ranks nearly as high. Although – incredibly – Singin’ in the Rain never won an award, Comden and Green earned Screen Writers Guild Awards for On the Town, The Band Wagon, and their next musical feature, It’s Always Fair Weather (1955), as well as Oscar® nominations for the two latter screenplays.

 In the 1950s Comden and Green commenced a gradual return home to Broadway, with the revue Two on the Aisle (1951) starring Bert Lahr and Dolores Gray, Wonderful Town (Tony Award®, Best Musical, 1953) with Rosalind Russell and Edie Adams as two Ohio sisters trying to find their way in the Big City, and Bells Are Ringing (Tony Award® nominee, Best Musical, 1957) starring their old friend and colleague Judy Holliday. With tunes like “Just in Time,” “Long Before I Knew You,” and “The Party’s Over,” this score proved to be among their finest and most popular. Say, Darling followed in 1958 (meanwhile they furnished the screenplay for the film version of Auntie Mame), and in the same year a revue called A Party with Betty Comden and Adolph Green brought them in person to the Broadway stage doing some of their early sketches; another version of it was mounted almost twenty years later.

 The next decades brought repeated triumphs on Broadway stages: Do Re Mi (Tony Award® nominee, Best Musical, 1961), Subways Are For Sleeping (1961), Fade Out – Fade In (1964), Hallelujah, Baby! (Tony Awards®, Best Composer and Lyricist, Best Musical, 1968), Applause (Tony Award®, Best Musical, 1970), Lorelei (1974), On the Twentieth Century (Tony Awards®, Best Book of a Musical, Best Original Score, 1978), a staged version of Singin’ in the Rain (Tony Award® nominee, Best Book of a Musical, 1986), and The Will Rogers Follies (Tony Award®, Best Original Score, 1991). Among other credits are six songs for Mary Martin’s Peter Pan (1954), a modernized Die Fledermaus for the Metropolitan Opera, and stage vehicles for Carol Burnett, Leslie Uggams, and Lauren Bacall. Comden and Green received Kennedy Center Honors in 1991.

 Betty Comden’s acting career never really ended. In 1983 she played the mother in Wendy Wasserstein’s Isn’t It Romantic, and appeared on film in Sidney Lumet’s Garbo Talks (1984) and in James Ivory’s Slaves of New York (1989).

 In 1995 Comden published a memoir, Off Stage, reminiscing about her childhood in Brooklyn, her student years, and her family life. She was married to designer and businessman Steven Kyle, from 1942 until his death in 1979, and never remarried. They had two children, a daughter, Susanna, and a son, Alan, who died in 1990.

 A two-night series at Carnegie Hall in 1999 celebrated the long career of Comden and Green, with performances from their repertoire by Elaine Stritch and Brian Stokes Mitchell. The memorial for Adolph Green in December 2002 was a sad but gala affair, with performances and tributes by two dozen Broadway stars and friends; Comden paused during her reminiscences of their partnership, and confessed to the audience, “It’s lonely up here.”

 Comden died at 89 of heart failure at New York’s Presbyterian Hospital on Thanksgiving Day, 2006.

– LEC