By Peter Filichia —
I’ll never forget the day I was at a big musical theater exhibit at the Lincoln Center Library of the Performing Arts. To enhance our experience, the sound system was playing selections from original cast albums. As the music swelled near song’s end of “Make Our Garden Grow” from Candide, I suddenly heard humming from behind me. I was startled, because I hadn’t at all felt the presence of someone there.
When I turned around quickly, my face clearly showed that I’d been surprised. The hummer, realizing that she’d unnerved me, blushed, and said, “I’m sorry.”
Now I was even more startled, because I recognized the woman. “That’s perfectly all right,” I told her, putting my hand on hers. “Betty Comden can sing along with anything she wants.”
What really impressed me was that Ms. Comden was still so moved by a decades-old melody that had been written by a man whom she knew well, and with whom she’d collaborated on two glorious occasions. In this case, familiarity didn’t breed contempt, but contentment. For Comden, who’d heard that melody Lord knows how many times, was still moved by its glorious strains to hum along. If that doesn’t prove that the fan component of Betty Comden was still in place, how about that she wanted to attend a public exhibit for musical theater?
I’m sorry that I’ll never have the chance to have another lovely encounter with her again. Although she’s been gone for almost five years, let’s celebrate what would have been the former Basya Cohen’s 92nd birthday on May 3.
Comden was, of course, one of the greatest lyricists both Broadway and Hollywood have ever known. Not just one of the greatest female lyricists, mind you – although she fit that description as well. But along with Adolph Green, her partner of six decades, she was one of the all-time greats.
In May, 2001, when a revival of Bells Are Ringing was playing on Broadway, I had the chance to interview both her and Green at a Dramatists Guild presentation. “Do you remember who wrote what on your shows?”
“No,” they both said immediately.
I smelled a mousie. “But,” I immediately said, “if you did remember, would you tell me?”
“No,” they both admitted with an unapologetic laugh.
I wasn’t surprised or offended, for I expected they’d say that. Long-time collaborators would, wouldn’t they?
When I asked if The Revuers, their night-club act with Judy Holliday, broke up because she wanted to go to Hollywood, both said that all three of them had been signed by Fox to do movies. But Holliday was awarded a three-picture contract, while they only got a one-film deal. Comden and Green filmed Greenwich Village, but were pretty much cut out of it. Comden’s only surviving line was, “Check your hat, sir?”
So she and Green came back to New York and wrote On the Town. When people start naming the best songs about The Big Apple, Comden and Green’s “New York, New York” is mentioned quite quickly. They called it “a helluva town,” although they had to sanitize the phrase for the film version to “a wonderful town.” That was inadvertently prescient, for they would soon work on a new show set in New York and called Wonderful Town.
If I could be a fly on the wall during the creation of any musical, I’d opt for the weeks that Comden, Green and Leonard Bernstein wrote Wonderful Town. And I do mean weeks. Not long before rehearsals were to begin, the score by Leroy Anderson and Arnold Horwitt was found wanting, so the three new writers had to finish the show in no time in order to make an already-in-place rehearsal schedule.
One of their more delightful concoctions was “Conversation Piece.” It brought us to a dull party that doesn’t come off – but the musical scene comes off splendidly. Also terrific is “100 Easy Ways to Lose a Man.” Rosalind Russell wanted a song with not much vocal range, but with a joke at the end of each sequence. They came through perfectly — well, almost. As a lifelong baseball fan, I wonder if their having to write in a hurry is the reason why Ruth’s explanation of the bunt and the triple play makes no strategical baseball sense.
Wonderful Town wasn’t their only rescue mission. When Peter Pan was found wanting in its West Coast tryout, Comden and Green came in to help, along with Jule Styne, who’d spell composer Moose Charlap. Everything they added was superb – “Distant Melody,” “Hook’s Waltz,” “Mysterious Lady,” “Wendy,” and the best of them all, “Neverland.”
Bells Are Ringing happened because Comden became curious about the identity of the woman who provided the elegant voice for their own answering service, so she and Green went to her office. They found a heavy-set, not-so-meticulous woman who was on the phone, saying “Gloria Vanderbilt’s residence.”
Comden admitted that during the Boston tryout she and Green had a big fight with Bells’ composer Jule Styne; they feared their collaboration was over. Then Styne suddenly came back into the room, wearing only a towel, and pretended to be Cupid, shooting imaginary arrows to say that he still loved them. (Well, he should’ve!)
At that time, Sony had recently re-released a new disc of Bells Are Ringing. When I asked why Styne sang “Plaza four double-oh double three” – and not “Plaza oh double-four double three” – Comden said that he had simply made a mistake. She and Green purposely chose “Plaza-oh” because they wanted to make sure it was no one’s phone number — much the way writers use “555” today.
When I asked whether the musical Happy Hunting — which had music written by a dentist — was an influence in their creating their would-be-composer dentist Dr. Kitchell, Comden said no, but her own dentist was the inspiration. Not that he composed on the air hose, as Kitchell did, but he did use that very device to accompany the music that was playing on the office radio.
While they wrote the screenplay of Bells Are Ringing, they weren’t invited to Hollywood, let alone be involved in the filming. They mourned the loss of “Is It a Crime?” but knew the Hollywood policy that a writer is the low man (and woman) on the totem pole. (Luckily, we can still hear Holliday do “Is It a Crime?” on the original cast album.)
We took some questions from the crowd, and someone soon asked if each of them had started writing at an early age. Comden started talking about writing on the back of a shovel as a kid, and went on and on like that, piquing our intense interest — before she finally expressed surprise that none of us had recognized the story as one attributed to Abraham Lincoln. Good for you, Ms. Comden! The joke was on us!
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia;. His new book Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit & the Biggest Flop of the Season, 1959-2009 is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com.