Comden, Betty 1917-
COMDEN, Betty 1917-
PERSONAL: Born Basya Cohen, on May 3, 1917, in Brooklyn, NY; daughter of Leo (a lawyer) and Rebecca (a school teacher; maiden name, Sadvoransky) Comden; married Steven Kyle (a designer and businessperson), January 4, 1942; children: Susanna, Alan. Ethnicity: "White." Education: New York University, B.S., 1938. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Jewish.
CAREER: Author of musical comedies and screenplays, collaborating with Adolph Green, 1915-2002. Actress, performing in night club act "The Revuers," in Broadway musicals On the Town, 1944, A Party with Betty Comden and Adolph Green, 1958 and 1977, and Isn't It Romantic, 1983, and in films The Band Wagon, 1953, and Garbo Talks, 1985.
MEMBER: Writers Guild of America (East and West), American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, Screenwriters Guild, American Guild of Variety Artists, American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, Dramatists Guild (member of council, 1948—), Authors League of America.
AWARDS, HONORS: Screenwriters Guild of America Award, 1949, for On the Town, 1952, for Singin' in the Rain, and 1955, for It's Always Fair Weather; Donaldson Award for lyrics, 1953, for Wonderful Town; Antoinette Perry ("Tony") Award for lyrics, 1953, for Wonderful Town, for best book of a musical (nomination), 1957, for Bells Are Ringing, for best score, 1968, for Hallelujah, Baby, for best book for musical, 1970, for Applause, for best book and lyrics, 1978, for On the Twentieth Century, for best book and lyrics (nomination), 1983, for A Doll's Life, and for best book of a musical (nomination), 1986, for Singin' in the Rain; Village Voice Off-Broadway (Obie) Award, 1959, for A Party with Betty Comden and Adolph Green; Woman of Achievement Award, New York University Alumnae Association, 1978; New York City Mayor's Award for Art and Culture, 1978; named to Songwriters Hall of Fame, 1980; elected to Theatre Hall of Fame; Kennedy Center Honors, 1991; New York University Musical Theater Hall of Fame Award, 1994; Governor Cuomo Award, 1994; Laurel Award for Screen, 2001.
MUSICALS; WITH ADOLPH GREEN
(Book and lyrics) On the Town, music by Leonard Bernstein, first produced on Broadway, 1944.
(Book and lyrics) Billion Dollar Baby, first produced on Broadway, 1945.
(Book and lyrics) Bonanza Bound, music by Saul Chaplin, first produced in Philadelphia at Shubert Theatre, 1947.
(Sketches and lyrics) Two on the Aisle, music by Jule Styne, first produced on Broadway, 1951.
(Lyrics) Wonderful Town, music by Leonard Bernstein, first produced on Broadway, 1953.
(Additional lyrics) Peter Pan, music by Jule Styne, first produced on Broadway, 1954.
(Book and lyrics) Bells Are Ringing (first produced on Broadway, 1956, revived on Broadway at the Plymouth Theatre, 2001), music by Jule Styne, Random House (New York, NY), 1957.
Say, Darling, music by Jule Styne, first produced on Broadway, 1958.
A Party (revue based on collection of their previously written songs and sketches), first produced Off-Broadway, 1958, expanded version produced on Broadway as A Party with Betty Comden and Adolph Green, 1958, new version produced on Broadway, 1977.
(Lyrics) Do Re Mi, music by Jule Styne, first produced on Broadway, 1960.
(Book and lyrics) Fade Out—Fade In (first produced on Broadway, 1964), music by Jule Styne, Random House (New York, NY), 1965.
(With others) Leonard Bernstein's Theatre Songs, produced at Theatre de Lys in New York, NY, 1965.
(Lyrics) Hallelujah, Baby, music by Jule Styne, first produced on Broadway, 1967.
(Book) Applause, lyrics by Lee Adams, music by Charles Strouse (based on film All about Eve, original story by Mary Orr; first produced on Broadway, 1970), Random House (New York, NY), 1971.
Lorelei (based on Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), first produced on Broadway, 1974.
(With others) By Bernstein, produced at Chelsea Theater Center Westside in New York, NY, 1975.
(Lyrics and music, with others) The Madwoman of Central Park West (one-woman show), produced at 22 Steps Theatre, New York, NY, 1979.
(Book and lyrics) On the Twentieth Century (based on plays by Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur, and Bruce Millholland; first produced on Broadway, 1978), music by Cy Coleman, S. French (New York, NY), 1980.
(Book and lyrics) A Doll's Life, (based on play A Doll's House, by Henrik Ibsen; first produced on Broadway, 1982), music by Larry Grossman, S. French (New York, NY), 1983.
(Lyrics, with others) Diamonds (two acts), produced at Circle in the Square Downtown, New York, NY, 1984–85.
The Will Rogers Follies, music by Cy Coleman, produced at Palace Theatre, New York, NY, 1991.
(With Adolph Green and Mike Nichols) The New York Musicals of Comden & Green: On the Town, Wonderful Town, Bells Are Ringing, Applause Books (New York, NY), 1997.
SCREENPLAYS; WITH ADOLPH GREEN
Good News, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1947.
The Barkleys of Broadway, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1949.
(And lyrics) On the Town, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1949.
(Lyrics) Take Me out to the Ballgame, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1949.
(And lyrics) Singin' in the Rain (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1952), Viking (New York, NY), 1972.
(And lyrics) The Band Wagon, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1953.
(And lyrics) It's Always Fair Weather, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1955.
Auntie Mame, Warner Bros., 1958.
(And lyrics) Bells Are Ringing, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1960.
(And lyrics) What a Way to Go, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1964.
(With Adolph Green) Good Morning, Good Night, Holt, Rinehart & Winston (New York, NY), 1967.
Off Stage (memoir), Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1995.
Also author, with Adolph Green, of music, book, and lyrics for night club act, "The Revuers," 1939-43; musical television comedy specials for the American Broadcasting Company; and of book, Comden and Green on Broadway. Contributor to magazines, including Esquire and Vogue.
SIDELIGHTS: Together with her collaborator, Adolph Green, Betty Comden has written the lyrics, and often the librettos, for some of the most memorable musicals of all time. Cited by the New Yorker's Brendan Gill as being "among the most gifted people on Broadway," Comden and Green have had successes through the years that include On the Town, Singin' in the Rain, Applause, On the Twentieth Century, and Hallelujah, Baby.
Singin' in the Rain, which starred Gene Kelly, was described by New York Times reviewer Frank Rich as "the happiest movie musical ever made." Chicago Tribune reviewer Howard Reich said: "Ask any film buff to name the greatest movie musical of all time, and odds are he will cite Singin' in the Rain or The Band Wagon, both of which Comden and Green wrote." Of the 1985 Broadway stage version, however, Rich declared: "It says much about the stage version of the film that it doesn't send us home with the image of a joyous man singing and dancing. What is most likely to be remembered about this Singin' in the Rain is the rain." Rich attributed the play's shortcomings to a fundamental difference in genre which director Twyla Tharp was unable to overcome. "Singin' in the Rain was a fantasy movie about the dream factory of the movies," Rich said. "Once transposed to the stage in realistic terms, the fantasy evaporates even as the rain pours down. No matter how much Miss Tharp recreates specific gestures from the film, they play differently in the theater. Watching her Don Lockwood splash about, we aren't carried away into never-never Hollywoodland. . . . We're still in the humdrum everyday world, wondering how stage technicians achieve the effect and watching an actor get very, very wet."
One of Comden and Green's biggest hits was not a conventional Broadway show. A Party with Betty Comden and Adolph Green, originally produced in 1958 and revived in 1977, presents an overview of the pair's best material, performed by the authors themselves. Some portions of the show date back to their nightclub revue days of the late 1930s; although much of the satire contained in the skits was topical when first produced, audiences and reviewers found it no less entertaining the second time around. Said Gill in the New Yorker, "Comden and Green's acute, affectionately bantering view of human frailty covers a period of four decades and manages to end up looking little worse for the wear. And no more do they; in their eager determination to win all hearts, they might be charming young folk at the very beginning of their careers. . . . [They] have never lost their freshness, and it is plainly their intention, growing older, never to grow old. I salute them with respect and envy."
The Nation's Harold Clurman praised Comden and Green's singing, noting that while they are not professional singers, "they deliver [their lyrics] with gusto in unaffected good humor. . . . Their intelligent and spirited joshing is infectious. They strike one as part of our family, a family of citizens aware of the absurdities and peccadilloes we enjoy poking fun at. There is something 'clean' and fresh about them (Betty Comden possesses a natural dignity) and, without being in the least condescending about it, one can honestly call their 'party' nice home revelry."
A Time critic agreed with these assessments, concluding that "a party, according to Webster's, is a social gathering for pleasure, and by the definition—or any other—an evening with Betty Comden and Adolph Green is an invitation into high society. . . . Rarely has so much wit and fun been packed into two hours. To cop a line from another songwriter, Cole Porter, what a swellegant, elegant party this is."
Despite numerous Tony awards and household-name shows, Comden and Green are best known for their longevity as a team. Said the Chicago Tribune's Reich in 1990, "No one . . . has written more hit songs over the decades than Comden and Green, who, after fifty triumphant and oft-tumultuous years together, remain unchallenged as the longest-running act on Broadway." Citing standard tunes such as "New York, New York (It's a Hell of a Town)," "Make Someone Happy," and "Never Never Land," Reich described Comden and Green as "the wordsmiths who have helped define—and energize—the great American musical."
In 1999 performers including Nathan Lane, Faith Prince, Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Amanda Green came together in Carnegie Hall Celebrates Betty Comden and Adolph Green, to sing the duo's famous show tunes. Variety reviewer Charles Isherwood concluded that "one of the hallmarks of their works is energy, a zest that infuses both their funniest songs and their most reflective ballads." The show included performances of "Perfect Relationship" from the musical Bells Are Ringing, "Captain Hook's Waltz" from Peter Pan, and "100 Ways to Lose a Man," from Wonderful Town. Isherwood noted that the duo's "witty words have shaped some of the century's most cherished musicals and movies."
In addition to their works for stage and screen, Comden and Green wrote The New York Musicals of Comden and Green: On the Town, Wonderful Town, Bells Are Ringing with Mike Nichols. The work includes the complete book and lyrics for all three musicals, as well as more than a hundred photographs.
While most of her creative energy was spent working as one half of a team, Comden's autobiography, Off Stage, focuses on her life apart from Green. Off Stage chronicles Comden's life as a young girl growing up in Brooklyn, to the death of her husband, Kyle, to her son's losing battle with drug addiction. Some reviewers criticized the book for not covering more of her career and what inspires her talent, but J. D. Reed of People declared the book "an engaging portrait of a woman of the theater away from the theater."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television, Volume 39, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 2002.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 265: American Song Lyricists, 1920-1960, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 2002.
International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 4: Writers and Production Artists, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Robinson, Alice M., Betty Comden and Adolph Green: A Bio-Bibliography, Greenwood Press (Westport, CT), 1994.
Women Filmmakers and Their Films, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1998.
America, March 11, 1978.
American Theatre, September 1998, Rachel Shteir, "Betty Comden: That Ol' Zappo Punch," p. 76.
Booklist, February 15, 1995, Jack Helbig, review of Off Stage, p. 1050.
Chicago Tribune, August 10, 1990.
Christian Science Monitor, November 21, 1996, Merle Rubin, review of The New York Musicals of Comden and Green: On the Town, Wonderful Town, Bells Are Ringing, p. B3.
Insight, June 5, 1989.
Life, April 3, 1970.
Michigan Quarterly Review, William Baer, "Singin' in the Rain: A Conversation with Betty Comden and Adolph Green," p. 1.
Nation, April 20, 1970; May 7, 1977; March 11, 1978; October 16, 1982, pp. 378-379.
New Leader, March 27, 1978.
New Republic, May 23, 1970; March 18, 1978.
Newsweek, April 13, 1970; February 21, 1977; March 6, 1978.
New York, October 4, 1982, pp. 91-92.
New Yorker, April 11, 1970; May 12, 1975; February 21, 1977; March 6, 1978; October 4, 1982, p. 122.
New York Times, July 27, 1971; November 1, 1971; November 7, 1971; September 24, 1982; November 4, 1984; June 9, 1985, pp. 1-24; August 3, 1985; June 20, 1993, David Zippel, "Together Again—and Again—and Again," p. H8; June 7, 1998, Nora Sayre, "Orchestrating the Show Within; In Their Hollywood Musicals, the Writers Adolph Green and Betty Comden Didn't Dance around their Emotional Conflict," p. AR14; December 25, 1998, Peter Applebone, "Still Fancy Free? Of Course!," p. E1; September 5, 1999, Terry Teachout, "That Tune You're Humming? These Two Probably Wrote It," p. AR23; April 12, 2001, Jesse McKinley, "Comden and Green's Office. They're on Broadway. Any Message?," p. B1.
New York Times Book Review, David Kaufman, review of Off Stage, p. 14.
People, April 3, 1995, J. D. Reed, review of Off Stage, p. 32.
Publishers Weekly, January 16, 1995, review of Off Stage, p. 448.
Saturday Review, April 18, 1970; April 22, 1972; April 15, 1978.
Stereo Review, April, 1973.
Time, April 13, 1970; February 21, 1977; March 6, 1978.
Variety, June 21, 1999, Markland Taylor, theater review of On the Twentieth Century, p. 88; September 27, 1999, Charles Isherwood, theater review of Carnegie Hall Celebrates Betty Comden and Adolph Green, p. 160.
Wall Street Journal, Joanne Kaufman, "Comden without Green in Lyrical Memoir Off Stage," p. A16.
Leonard Bernstein Web site,http://www.leonardbernstein.com/ (October 31, 2003), "Comden and Green."
Writers Guild Awards Web site,http://www.wga.org/ (October 31, 2003).