Comden, Betty (1915—)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated

Comden, Betty (1915—)

American playwright, lyricist, screenwriter, and performer, best known for her work with Adolph Green, with whom she wrote the screenplay and lyrics for the movie classic Singin' in the Rain. Born Basya Astershinsky Simselyevitch-Simselyovitch Cohen on May 3, 1915, in Brooklyn, New York; daughter and one of two children of Leo (an attorney) and Rebecca (Sadvoransky) Cohen (a teacher); attended Brooklyn Ethical Culture School; graduate of Erasmus Hall High School; New York University, B.S., 1938; married designer Steven Kyle (d. 1979), on January 4, 1942; children: daughter Susanna Kyle; son Alan Kyle (d. 1990).

Theater musicals (in collaboration with Adolph Green):

On the Town (book and lyrics, 1944); Billion Dollar Baby (book and lyrics, 1945); Two on the Aisle (sketches and lyrics, 1951); Wonderful Town (lyrics, 1953); Peter Pan (lyrics, 1954); Bells Are Ringing (book and lyrics, 1956); Say, Darling (lyrics, 1958); Do Re Mi (1960); Subways Are for Sleeping (1961); Fade Out—Fade In (book and lyrics, 1964); Hallelujah, Baby! (lyrics, 1967); Applause (book, 1970); On the Twentieth Century (book and lyrics, 1978); A Doll's Life (book and lyrics, 1982); The Will Rogers Follies: A Life in Revue (co-lyricist, 1991).

Films (in collaboration with Green):

Good News! (screenplay, 1947); The Barkleys of Broadway (screen-play, 1949); On the Town (screenplay and lyrics, 1949); Take Me Out to the Ball Game (lyrics, 1949); Singin' in the Rain (screenplay and lyrics, 1952); The Band Wagon (screenplay, 1953); It's Always Fair Weather (screenplay and lyrics, 1955); Auntie Mame (screenplay, 1958); Bells Are Ringing (screenplay and lyrics, 1960); What a Way to Go (screenplay and lyrics, 1964).

Betty Comden's collaboration with Adolph Green, likely the longest and closest collaboration in American musical theater history, has produced librettos, screenplays, and lyrics for Broadway and Hollywood for over 50 years. Beginning as performers as well as writers, they were part of the evolution of the musical—from the thinly plotted shows of the 1940s with clever showstopping numbers and catchy ballads, to modern almost operatic plays with musical numbers so integrated with plot and character that a single popular tune rarely emerges. Through the years, Comden and Green have teamed up with a number of different composers and countless performers, but they have always worked together. In her memoirs, Off Stage, Comden writes that her long association with Adolph Green has led people to assume they are married, though he has been married for years to actress Phyllis Newman . Comden, married to Steven Kyle since 1942, was widowed in 1979. "Confusion still reigns," she quips. "I always say as long as we are not confused, everything is all right."

Born Basya Astershinsky Simselyevitch-Simselyovitch Cohen (changed to Betty Comden around the time her "distinguished" nose was altered), she grew up in Brooklyn, in the arms of a loving Jewish family. Fascinated by words even as a child, Comden wrote and acted as early as grammar school, her most vivid memory being a seventh-grade dramatization of Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, in which she played an under-sized Rebecca. Though she shunned her high school plays because she felt she was not pretty enough, by 1938 when she received her degree in drama from New York University, she wanted only to perform.

While making the rounds of theatrical agents, she met the similarly unemployed actor, Adolph Green, a toothy, brilliant eccentric whom she once described as "a man who reads while crossing the street." They joined forces, and with a couple of Green's friends, including Judy Tuvim (who would become Judy Holliday ), formed the Revuers, a satirical group that wrote and performed topical sketches and songs. Leonard Bernstein, another friend and Green's sometime roommate, often sat in as the group's accompanist. Their first show, called Where To Go in New York, included the first Comden and Green song "The Subway Opening," a melodic history of the Sixth Avenue line. This, as well as other songs from these early revues, mostly about New York City and show business, typify the satirical, sophisticated, and urbane approach that would become the hallmark of the Comden-Green lyric. The Revuers' Sunday night performances at Greenwich Village's Vanguard theater were soon expanded to three nights, then six. By 1939, they were appearing five nights a week at the Rainbow Room atop the RCA Building. They made weekly appearances on NBC radio and performed at the Blue Angel, Radio City Music Hall, and Loew's State Theatre. "We turned into a New York institution," said Comden.

In the mid-1940s, Bernstein called on them to write the book and lyrics for On the Town, a stage musical based on his popular ballet Fancy Free, which told the story of three sailors on 24-hour leave in New York City. Considered one of the most literate shows Broadway had produced, it opened on December 28, 1944, to critical acclaim. Lewis Nichols of The New York Times called it "the freshest and most engaging musical show since the golden days of Oklahoma! Everything about it is right… a perfect example of what a well-knit fusion of the respectable arts can provide for the theatre." The musical also marked the debut of Comden and Green as performers. Comden played Claire de Loon, an anthropology student who falls in love with Ozzie, a sailor played by Green. Cue magazine called Comden faintly reminiscent of a young Fannie Brice.

Their second show, Billion Dollar Baby (1945), with music by Morton Gould, enjoyed only a modest run, and a third, Bonanza Bound, closed in Philadelphia. But with their names now established on Broadway, Comden and Green found themselves courted by Hollywood. Their first film assignment was a new scenario for the 1947 film remake of the stage musical Good News (1927), for which they created lyrics for the memorable song "The French Lesson," introduced by June Allyson and Peter Lawford. Three other films followed in 1949: The Barkleys of Broadway, the last partnering of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers ; the film adaptation of On the Town (1949), for which they received their first Screenwriters Award for lyrics; and Take Me Out to the Ball Game. Although Comden and Green returned to New York in 1951, they would script other Hollywood musicals throughout their career. Perhaps most memorable was the screenplay and lyrics for Singin' in the Rain (1952), a satire of Hollywood in the late 1920s, that noted film critic Pauline Kael called "about the best Hollywood musical of all time." They created the screenplay for The Band Wagon (1953) and It's Always Fair Weather (1955), for which they received a second Screenwriters Award. Later films included Auntie Mame (1958), Bells Are Ringing (1960), and What a Way to Go (1964).

Meeting each day from one to five in the afternoon, Comden and Green established a working pattern early in their career that endured. "We meet daily on the great theory that nothing is wasted," Comden once explained. "I usually sit at the typewriter with a carbon in the machine for Adolph to take home. Sometimes we just sit staring at each other for hours without saying a word." Comden also refers to a "kind of radar" between them, "based on stuff we have both read or heard or shared." She further describes the lyric-writing process as requiring long sessions with the composer and then further work alone. When a show finally reaches the rehearsal stage, it becomes an around-the-clock ordeal, with each assignment bringing its own particular problems.

Wonderful Town (1953), another collaboration with Bernstein, is considered by some to be Comden and Green's finest work. It contains some of their sharpest lyrics, including "One Hundred Easy Ways (To Lose a Man)," a specialty number created for Rosalind Russell 's limited singing talents, and the comic dance number "Conga!" with its delightful kooky rhymes (rhythm bands/ monkey glands/ hot-dog stands). Comden and Green won a Tony and a Donaldson Award for their lyrics. However, they would not work with Bernstein again, though the composer remained one of Comden's dearest friends until his death in 1990.

Sketches and lyrics for the musical revue Two on the Aisle (1951) launched Comden and Green's first collaboration with composer Jule Styne and a relationship that endured for three decades. With him, they created a new production of Peter Pan (1954) and the book and lyrics for Bells Are Ringing (1956), which proved not only to be a starring vehicle for their old friend Judy Holliday, but also the greatest box-office success of their Broadway career—with a run of 924 performances, a nationwide tour, and a motion-picture adaptation. The show boasted a number of satirical songs, including "It's a Simple Little System," a comic number based on The Racing Form, and "Drop That Name," a parody on the guests at exclusive parties. Comden and Green produced the lyrics for two songs from the show that became standards: "The Party's Over" and "Just in Time." Following this triumph came lyrics for the more moderately successful Say Darling (1958).

In December 1958, Comden and Green returned to performing with a successful Off-Broadway revue, A Party with Betty Comden and Adolph Green, which included a repertoire of their own songs dating back to the Greenwich Village days. After 82 performances, the show toured, then returned to New York in 1959, where it won an Obie. In 1975, an expanded version was performed at the Loeb Center at Harvard University, before it returned to New York in 1977. In his review of the show for The New York Times, Clive Barnes summed up Comden's and Green's talents as both writers and performers. "They have a manic dexterity with words," he wrote, "a gift for rhyme and an ear for reason. As performers they have this dazzling charm, which makes them the kind of people you would really like to invite into your home."

At the height of her professional success, Comden's life also included a husband and two children, Susanna and Alan, who were raised amid a busy work schedule and numerous separations from their mother. Of her 37-year marriage to designer Steven Kyle, she says "We were deeply, closely happy with each other and about each other." Their happiness did not preclude unresolved issues including that of her more prominent and lucrative career and the strain and complications of working with Adolph—not romantic complications, as she is quick to point out, but every other kind. These problems paled, however, alongside the tragic death of Comden's talented artistic son Alan, who died of AIDS in 1990 after a troubled childhood and years of drug addiction. Of the many poignant

referrals to Comden's children in her book, none is considered more heart-wrenching than the chapter in which she replays motherhood, changing the script at various junctures to reflect a more favorable outcome.

Beginning in the 1960s, the narrow scope of Comden and Green's standard musical conventions began to grow stale, especially with the advent of tighter librettos and character lyrics in shows like Hello Dolly!, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Cabaret, Company, and A Chorus Line. Their next two shows with Styne, Do Re Mi (1960) and Subways Are for Sleeping (1961), managed respectable runs in spite of weak librettos and unimpressive scores. After Fade Out—Fade In (1964), a comic vehicle for Carol Burnett , Comden and Green worked again with Styne on one of their more ambitious projects, Hallelujah, Baby! (1967), about the plight of black Americans from 1900 to the 1960s. An uneasy mixture of musical comedy and politics, the show never quite jelled, and the score was regarded as merely pleasant, with no bite. The team floundered until the hit Applause (1970), starring Lauren Bacall , with its tight, smart libretto based on the 1950 film All About Eve.

A fresh approach was evident in On the Twentieth Century (1978), with composer Cy Coleman, for which they received Tony Awards for both the book and lyrics. Everything about the show, which provided a comeback role for Imogene Coca , was larger than life, including sets by Robin Wagner that included replicas of the streamlined Twentieth Century Limited train. Comden and Green's animated lyrics, including pastiche numbers "Veronique" and "Babette," were reminiscent of their work in the two Bernstein musicals. The best song from the show, "Our Private World," was considered their most imaginative work in years. The show, however, proved too stylized for most audiences and enjoyed only a limited run.

In 1982, the team showed their range with a serious musical A Doll's Life, designed as a sequel to Ibsen's A Doll's House. With music by Larry Grossman, the story traces Nora's life after she leaves her husband and children. "This show," explained Comden, "is closer to the kind of thing we want to be doing, having arrived at this stage of our lives. It examines things we hadn't gone into very much in other works—human relationships and sexuality." The show did not survive unfavorable reviews and closed after five performances. Undaunted, Comden and Green supplied the lyrics for another Cy Coleman musical, The Will Rogers Follies, in 1991, which ran for 983 performances and won the New York Drama Critics Award as Best Musical of 1990–91.

Armed with a fax machine and a long-resisted computer, Betty Comden maintains her optimism while admitting that in her youth she would not have believed that life could be so full of "wrenching sadness." Amid gloomy predictions that the American musical is a dying art form, she and Green, as they used to say, are "back at the old fruit stand," creating yet another happy ending.

sources:

Comden, Betty. Off Stage. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1995.

Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1945.

Ewen, David. American Songwriters. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1987.

Gottfried, Martin. Broadway Musicals. NY: Harry N. Abrams, 1979.

Smith, Cecil. Musical Comedy in America. NY: Theatre Arts Books, 1950.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts