Comden, Betty (originally, Cohen, Basya),and Adolph Green
Comden, Betty (originally, Cohen, Basya),and Adolph Green
Comden, Betty (originally, Cohen, Basya), and Adolph Green, clever American lyricists, librettists, and screenwriters. Comden (b. N.Y., May 3, 1915) and Green (b. N.Y., Dec. 2, 1915) maintained a remarkably durable partnership lasting more than 60 years, during which they wrote the lyrics for 14 Broadway musicals. In many cases they also wrote the books for the musicals, and they wrote screenplays and songs for movies. Their primary collaborators were Jule Styne, Leonard Bernstein, and Cy Coleman. Their efforts brought them six Tony Awards and a Grammy Award. Usually set in contemporary N.Y., their works were peopled by eccentric characters, and their stories and lyrics generally had a satiric tone. Though best known for their shows, which included On the Town, Bells are Ringing, and The Will Rogers Follies, they also scored several song hits, among them “Just in Time,” “The Party’s Over,” and “Make Someone Happy.”
Comden was the daughter of Leo Cohen, a lawyer, and Rebecca Sadvoransky Cohen. She studied drama at N.Y.U., graduating with a B.S. in 1938. Green, the son of Daniel and Helen Weiss Green, became a runner on Wall Street after graduating from high school. The two met as aspiring actors and formed a nightclub act, the Revuers, along with Judy Tuvim (later Holliday), Alvin Hammer, and John Frank, in 1938. They were sometimes accompanied by a friend of Green’s, pianist Leonard Bernstein. Writing their own shows, the group performed successfully at the Village Vanguard in N.Y., then at the Rainbow Room in 1939. They also performed on radio and records. Green married Elizabeth Reitell on June 20, 1941. Comden married designer Siegfried Schutzman (later Steven Kyle) on Jan. 4, 1942. They had two children and remained married until Kyle’s death in 1979.
The Revuers went to Hollywood, where they had small parts in the film Greenwich Village, released in September 1944. By that time the group had split up, and Comden and Green had their own nightclub act back in N.Y. They gave it up when they were approached by Bernstein, who was expanding his ballet, Fancy Free, into a Broadway musical. The result was the war-themed On the Town, about three sailors on leave in N.Y., with book and lyrics by Comden and Green, who were also members of the cast. Opening in December 1944, the show ran 462 performances. They then wrote book and lyrics for the 1945 musical Billion Dollar Baby, which had music by Morton Gould. It was less successful but still ran 220 performances.
Comden and Green signed to MGM in 1947, and although they never moved permanently to Hollywood, they worked primarily in film for the next several years. They wrote the screenplay and the lyrics to one new song with music by Roger Edens for an adaptation of the De Sylva, Brown, and Henderson musical Good News, which was released in December 1947. With Edens, they wrote four songs for the box-office hit Take Me Out to the Ball Game, released in March 1949; they wrote the screenplay for the final Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film, The Barkleys of Broadway, released in May 1949; and they wrote the screenplay and six new songs with Edens for the movie version of On the Town, released in December 1949.
Comden and Green returned to Broadway to write sketches and lyrics to Jule Styne’s music for the revue Two on the Aisle, which opened in July 1951 and ran 281 performances. Back in Hollywood they wrote the screenplay and the lyrics to one song with Edens for the box-office hit Singin’ in the Rain, released in March 1952. They scored their biggest Broadway hit yet in February 1953, writing lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s songs for Wonderful Town, based on the story and play My Sister Eileen, which ran 559 performances and won them a Tony Award for Best Musical. The cast album was a Top Ten hit. In July, MGM released a film version of the Arthur Schwartz Howard Dietz musical The Band Wagon starring Fred Astaire. Comden and Green’s screenplay earned them an Academy Award nomination.
The pair wrote several songs with Jule Styne for a musical version of Peter Pan starring Mary Martin that opened on Broadway in October 1954. The film It’s Always Fair Weather, released in September 1955, for which they wrote the songs with André Previn, brought them their second Academy Award nomination, for Best Screenplay. They released their own album of the songs written for the film, as well as an album of their own recordings of songs written for earlier shows and movies.
Comden and Green reunited with Judy Holliday, by now a successful singer and comic actress, who starred in the 1956 musical Bells are Ringing. They wrote the book and collaborated with Jule Styne on the songs. The show was their longest running yet, with 924 performances; two chart singles emerged from the score: “Just in Time/’ which reached the Top 40 for Tony Bennett, and “The Party’s Over” for Doris Day; and the cast album reached the charts. Comden and Green’s next musical was Say, Darling, for which they wrote the songs with Styne. Opening in April 1958, it ran 332 performances, and Perry Como scored a Top 40 hit with “Dance Only with Me” from the score. Comden and Green next wrote the screenplay for Auntie Mame, released in December, and they performed in their own revue, A Party with Comden and Green, opening in December and running 82 performances. Their cast album for the show earned them their first Grammy nomination for Best Comedy Performance, Musical.
On Jan. 23, 1960, Green married singer-actress Phyllis Newman; they had two children. Comden and Green adapted Bells are Ringing into a film starring Judy Holliday and Dean Martin, released in June 1960. The soundtrack album spent three months in the charts. They then wrote the lyrics to Jule Styne’s music for the musical Do Re Mi, which opened in December. The show ran 400 performances, the cast album was in the charts for five months, and Perry Como scored a chart entry with “Make Someone Happy.” A year later, Comden and Green wrote the book and lyrics for Subways are for Sleeping, another musical with Styne. It ran 205 performances and the cast album was in the charts for two and a half months.
Comden and Green’s stage and film projects came less frequently after the early 1960s. Lena Home reached the charts in November 1963 with “Now!,” a civil rights song for which they provided lyrics with music adapted from “Hava Nagila” by Jule Styne. They wrote the screenplay and collaborated with Styne on the songs for the May 1964 box-office hit What a Way to Gol The same month, the musical Fade Out—Fade In, for which they had written the book and lyrics and Styne had written the music, opened on Broadway. It ran 271 performances and the cast album spent two months in the charts. They next wrote the lyrics to Styne’s music for the musical Hallelujah, Baby!, which opened in April 1967, running 293 performances and winning them their second Tony Award, as Best Lyricists. Their third Tony Award came for Applause (N.Y., March 30, 1970), named Best Musical, for which they wrote the book only.
Comden and Green next collaborated with Jule Styne on a reworking of his show Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Retitled Lorelei and featuring a revised score, the show opened in January 1974 and ran 320 performances. The lyricists first worked with composer Cy Coleman on songs for the Off-Broadway revue Straws in the Wind (N.Y., Feb. 21, 1975), directed by Phyllis Newman. They wrote the book for another Off-Broadway revue, By Bernstein (N.Y., Nov. 23, 1975), which featured little-known Leonard Bernstein songs cut from earlier works. They then revived their own revue, A Party with Betty Comden and Adolph Green (N.Y., Feb. 10, 1977), again recording it and performing it on television.
On the Twentieth Century, based on the 1934 film Twentieth Century, marked Comden and Green’s return to writing both book and lyrics for a Broadway musical in 1978. The show, with music by Cy Coleman, ran 460 performances, winning Tony Awards for Best Book and Best Score. The lyricist /librettists collaborated with composer Larry Grossman on the unsuccessful A Doll’s Life in 1982 and adapted their screenplay into a musical book for Singin’ in the Rain (N.Y., July 2, 1985). But they capped their career by writing the book and lyrics to Coleman’s music for The Will Rogers Follies in 1991. The show ran 963 performances and won the Tony Award for Best Score, while the cast recording won the Grammy Award for Best Musical Show album. Comden and Green’s shows continue to be revived in regional productions and on Broadway, such as the Broadway revival of On the Town during the 1998– 99 season.
(only works for which Comden and Green were primary, credited lyricists are listed): musicals/revues (dates refer to N.Y. openings): On the Town (Dec. 28, 1944); Billion Dollar Baby (Dec. 21, 1945); Two on the Aisle Quly 19, 1951); Wonderful Town (Feb. 25, 1953); Bells Are Ringing (Nov. 29, 1956); Say, Darling (April 3, 1958); A Party with C. and G.(Dec. 23, 1958); Do Re Mi (Dec. 26, 1960); Subways Are for Sleeping (Dec. 27, 1961); Fade Out—Fade In (May 26, 1964); Hallelujah, Baby! (April 26, 1967); Lorelei Qan. 27, 1974); On the Twentieth Century (Feb. 19, 1978); A Doll’s Life (Sept. 23, 1982); The Will Rogers Follies (May 1, 1991). films:Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949); On the Town (1949); It’s Always Fair Weather (1955); Bells are Ringing (1960); What a Way to Go! (1964). television:I’m Getting Married (March 16, 1967).
B. C, OffStage (N.Y., 1995); A. G., ed., The New York Musicals ofC. and G.: On the Town, Wonderful Town, Bells Are Ringing (N.Y., 1996).
A. Robinson, B. C. and A. G.: A Bio-Bibliography (Westport, Conn., 1994).