A Conversation with Betty Comden and Adolph Green

A Conversation with Betty Comden and Adolph Green With Betty Comden and Adolph Green, you don’t know if you’re getting an interview or a sweater.

With Betty Comden and Adolph Green, you don’t know if you’re getting an interview or a sweater.

“Close-knit” doesn’t begin to cover it. They have been finishing sentences, polishing lyrics, amplifying ideas for each other for so long you begin to accept them as a single fluid unit. They are married in rhyme and reason, if not in fact and reality. Theirs is the longest-running, most successful collaboration in show business, and you don’t argue with a force of nature. So . . . knit one, purl two, and away we go!

On this particular afternoon, Adolph has dropped by Betty’s for a little press meet. It’s a calming and tasteful living room in the West 60’s. In fact, who couldn’t write Tony-winning lyrics in this place?

Unlike lesser legends in their autumn years, these two have grass growing. Which is not to say they won’t be harvesting another lifetime achievement thing this month at the Abbott Awards, named for George Abbott, the director who got the Comden and Green ball rolling on Broadway with On the Town.

It’s On the Town that’s putting them on the top again -- that, and their Peter Pan, which swings into the Marquis Theatre four days after Town takes over the Gershwin. Given this double blast of entertainment, a sentimental journey back 50 years seems called for. "It was the end of ’44, beginning of ’45," believes Adolph. Betty nails it, then waves it away: "It was 54 years ago, but let’s not get too picky about that." On the Town, a summertime hit up in Central Park summer before last, plays younger, thanks to its energetic, ethnically eclectic young cast. "Well," chimes in Betty about the first On the Town, "we didn’t have any ethnically mixed principals -- except for Sono Osato, our leading lady, who was half-Japanese -- but we did have four black singers and four black dancers, which was unheard of in those days. This new On the Town has all kinds of people in it. It looks like New York today, except that it’s in period."

Adolph contends that the nicest thing about the reviews which this revival won was the word that wasn’t used. "We read all the reviews, and not one of ’em referred to the show as nostalgic. We hate nostalgia."

"Hate nostalgia," seconds Betty.

Comden and Green first surfaced at the Village Gate in January of 1941, half of a night-club act called The Revuers. Alvin Hammer and Judy Tuvim completed the foursome who did Comden and Green skits and lyrics (the latter to the music of accompanist John Frank), regaling cafe society in the early war years.

Eventually, 20th Century-Fox waved The Revuers west to provide a little local-color for its back-lot opus, "Greenwich Village," "one of the worst movies ever done," reviews Betty. "We filmed two numbers, and both were cut. All that’s in there is me checking Don Ameche’s hat."

Adding injury to that insult, Fox dangled a contract at Tuvim and effectively dismantled the act. "Judy didn’t want to do it, but we urged, begged and literally made her take it," recalls Adolph. "Because," fills in Betty, "we felt the act had really gone as far as it could. We were wonderful only in New York."

The two returned from California without any professional prospects - Betty to see her husband [Steven Kyle], who was on leave, Adolph to visit his mother who was in the hospital -- then, blast of trumpets, Leonard Bernstein asked them to write the lyrics and book to On the Town -- basically what they did for The Revuers, only bigger, Broadway-bigger. "You don’t know you can do it till you do it," shrugs Betty by way of explanation. "It was the first time we’d written not just the whole show but also real songs. We wrote `Lonely Town,' `You Got Me' and `Some Other Time,' which may be our favorite."

They also wrote themselves into the act -- er, show -- and gave themselves a song. "It was `Carried Away,' " says Adolph. "We didn’t know if we’d do it well, but it was energetic, and, turns out, we did do it well."

They credit Bernstein for their making this sharp right turn into Broadway history. "He’d been a friend for years," Betty recalls, "and a big Revuers fan as well. He knew all our lyrics, better than we did. I remember sitting with Leonard the day he died. For some reason, we were reminiscing about The Revuers, and I said, `Lenny, there’s a line in the verse to this number called "The Psychopaths." ' He just started at the top and rattled off the whole song, two verses and three choruses of it. We laughed so hard -- first of all, that we were taking about it at all, and, secondly, that he remembered every bit of it.”

Their Peter Pan, which then starred Mary Martin and now stars Cathy Rigby, was not written with Bernstein (he wrote another one, but Betty hesitates to call it "a rival Peter Pan") and Comden and Green downplay their contribution. With composer Jule Styne, they added "about eight songs" (including "Never Never Land") to the already existing score of "Moose" Charlap and Carolyn Leigh, boarding that vehicle only in response to an S.O.S. from Leland Hayward and Jerome Robbins.

"They wanted to cut all the songs," remembers Adolph, "which we thought was silly, especially since so many of them were good. The songs that were needed were songs that would make it really a musical comedy and also would advance the plot the right way. It hadn’t been quite a musical; it was more of a play with music. Whatever we did somehow turned the show around."

On the Town -- a jubilant valentine to NYC, as viewed through the wide eyes of three sailors on shore leave -- became a landmark musical onstage and on screen, and Comden and Green have continued their bicoastal, bimedia careers. They’ve done only ten films -- nine for the famed Arthur Freed unit at MGM, and "What a Way To Go!" at Fox -- but every one of them count. Their "Singin’ in the Rain" came in No. 10 among The 100 Best Movies of the Century, just posted by The American Film Institute. Their scripts for "The Band Wagon" and "It’s Always Fair Weather" got them Oscar nominations. And the Film Forum recently had a Comden and Green fest including "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," "Auntie Mame" ("financially, the biggest hit we were ever involved with," says Adolph), "Good News" and "The Barkleys of Broadway."

"Most of the pictures we wrote were produced," says Adolph. "And also, astonishingly, no one else ever came to do a rewrite on us. When we finished -- boom! -- the cameras were turning."

Their seven Tonys are spread among Wonderful Town, The Will Rogers Follies, Applause, On the Twentieth Century and Hallelujah, Baby! Among their other 11 Broadway shows: Million Dollar Baby ; Two on the Aisle ; Bells Are Ringing (which won a Tony for Judy Tuvim, who’d translated her last name from Yiddish into English, added an “l” and became Judy Holliday); Say Darling ; Do Re Mi ; Subways Are for Sleeping (a Tony winner for Mrs. Adolph Green, Phyllis Newman), Fade Out—Fade In ; Lorelei ; and A Doll’s Life. Also, they have a present for the Metropolitan Opera that’ll be opened on Christmas Eve: a new book (in English) for "Die Fledermaus." "They’re still singing in German," Betty says. "We couldn’t stop that." And yes, she adds with her fast ball, they do have a new show on the way -- with Cy Coleman -- "but we can’t go into details. It’s a work very much in progress so we can’t say anything yet."

For now, Comden and Green are perfectly content to be seeing On the Town back where it belongs, back where it began for them. "Back to Square One," he beams. "Just say that we’re thrilled to see it again," she wraps up, "and that we’re working on a new show. We go on, that’s all. That’s the best thing to say."

You’re right, as ever, Betty: It is the best thing to say. Keep the thought. Knit one, purl two, binding off . . .

--Harry Haun