Adolph Green, the legendary Broadway lyricist-librettist and screenwriter who, with partner Betty Comden, created On the Town, Bells Are Ringing, On the 20th Century and "Singin' in the Rain," died of natural causes at his Manhattan home Oct. 23, a spokesperson for his wife, Phyllis Newman confirmed.
Mr. Green, a native New Yorker from the Bronx who made a name in showbusiness starting as a scrappy downtown actor-songwriter in a 1930s sketch-comedy group called The Revuers, which included Comden and Judy Holliday, was 87 years old. (An earlier version of this obituary stated he was 86, based on three sources that indicated his birthday as Dec. 2, 1915; daughter Amanda Green later said he was born in 1914). He and Comden continued acting but honed their writing skills to create musical comedies over the next six decades that were light, breezy love letters to their native city. They gathered Tony Awards and international attention along the way.
With their pal composer Leonard Bernstein, they created On the Town (1944), for which they penned book and lyrics, inspired by the Jerome Robbins-Bernstein ballet, Fancy Free. The tale of three sailors on leave in Manhattan and the girls they meet included two choice roles for the writers — sailor Ozzie and student Claire de Loone. The couple's song, "Carried Away," was preserved on cast albums, and would be sung into the 1990s in Comden and Mr. Green's continuing specialty act, A Party With Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Their career reminiscences and songs (them singing with piano) are preserved on two separate cast albums of A Party, which are treasured by fans.
On the Town was viewed as one of several groundbreaking shows in which character was explained and explored through dance. The score also includes the memorable song, "Some Other Time," plus the brassy anthem, "New York, New York," in which the city is described as "a helluva town" where "the Bronx is up and the Battery's down." (For the M-G-M movie version, the lyric was cleaned up as "a wonderful town.")
That song would be a harbinger for their other New York set musicals: 1953's Wonderful Town (for which Mr. Green and Comden penned lyrics to Bernstein's music), 1956's Bells Are Ringing (a vehicle for Holliday set to Jule Styne's music, with book and lyrics and original idea by Mr. Green and Comden) and 1961's Subways Are for Sleeping (which starred Newman, who snagged a Tony, and had book and lyrics by Comden and Mr. Green). Their screenplays for the M-G-M color musicals "Singin' in the Rain" and "The Bandwagon" are famous for their craft and wit. They also penned screenplay and lyrics for the film, "It's Always Fair Weather."
Comden and Mr. Green were known for meeting every day and discussing ideas for new works. Their writing was refined by each other and blended into one voice.
"He was an inspired person," Will Rogers Follies librettist Peter Stone told Playbill On-Line. "He didn't write — that wasn't his job. [Betty Comden] wrote. He added madness, inspiration. He added what was really their recognizable — almost surreal — type of humor. Not that she didn't have it, she is still extremely funny and a knowledgeable writer. He was an imp, and it was the impishness that ultimately distinguished their work. Together, they added up to one person. I think Adolph was basically a performer who had this special thing ...he was touched in an odd way. There was a quality of sketch humor to their work that doesn't exist anymore in musical theatre."
Taking a break from rehearsals for his new Off-Broadway revue, White Tie and Tails, Tommy Tune, who staged The Will Rogers Follies, said, "Aside from my deepest respect for Adolph's work, I adored his personal sense of style. He was always impeccably turned out! Adolph had an abstract sense of humor, which shows up in his lyrics but more in his life. It was always fun to be in Adolph's company. I will miss him very much."
Their many projects included painful flops (Bonanza Bound, in which Mr. Green also appeared in its tryout, Billion Dollar Baby, A Doll's Life) and Tony Award-winning hits (Applause, The Will Rogers Follies). It seemed that from almost every show they wrote, a pop hit would emerge. Their catalog includes "Lucky to be Me," "Make Someone Happy," "A Little Bit in Love," "Ohio," "Just in Time," "The Party's Over," "Long Before I Knew You," "Never Never Land," "Comes Once in a Lifetime," "I'm Just Taking My Time," "My Own Morning," "Never Met a Man I Didn't Like," "Look Around" and more.
With Comden, who survives him, Mr. Green co-wrote the book to Applause, and the pair contributed to Do-Re-Mi, Two on the Aisle, Peter Pan, Say, Darling, Fade Out — Fade In, Hallelujah, Baby!, A Doll's Life and The Will Rogers Follies.
In an interview in the 1980s, Mr. Green bristled and said he didn't like being quoted giving opinions on the new trend of pop musicals because he was still a vital writer, not a sage. "We're writing new musicals," he said. In 1991 he and Comden proved they were indeed writing "new musicals" when they (and composer Cy Coleman) won the Best Score Tony Award for The Will Rogers Follies: A Life in Revue.
Coleman said from London, upon hearing the news of Mr. Green's death, "It's a very sad day."
Mr. Green, though slowed by age, never seemed to lose his love of performing. He sang and acted Pangloss in concert versions of what Bernstein considered a definitive draft of Candide, captured on CD, shortly before Bernstein died. As late as 1999 Comden and Mr. Green were still performing a version of their career retrospective, this time at the hip Joe's Pub at The Public Theater.
In recent years, On the Town and Bells Are Ringing received short-lived Broadway revivals. In 2002, a special 50th anniversary edition of "Singin' in the Rain" was released in a two-DVD format, with a two-CD soundtrack reissue, as well. Mr. Green's Hollywood credits with Comden include the screenplay to "Auntie Mame," lyrics for "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," screenplays for "The Barkleys of Broadway" and "Good News" (for which they also wrote the song, "The French Lesson," with frequent film collaborator composer Roger Edens).
"He was an authentic eccentric," Arthur Laurents said, adding that Mr. Green was working in recent weeks on a rewrite of 1968's Hallelujah, Baby!, the Styne-Comden-Green-Laurents musical comedy survey of black entertainment in America. The show won the 1968 Best Musical Tony Award and won the songwriters a Best Score Tony, as well.
Mr. Green was a Tony winner as early as the fourth annual Tonys, in 1954, when Wonderful Town was named Best Musical. Applause, with a score by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, won Best Musical in 1970. The Comden-Green-Coleman score to On the 20th Century won Best Score and Best Book in 1978. Even their flop, A Doll's Life, a musical imagining of what happened to Ibsen's Nora after she left A Doll's House, earned nominations for Best Book and Score in 1983.
Comden and Mr. Green were nominated for Best Book for the Broadway stage adaptation of "Singin' in the Rain," in 1986. Mr. Green later admitted it was a project they grudgingly adapted; he felt the picture was perfect and didn't necessarily belong on stage, but said he felt it was going to be adapted anyway, with or without him and Comden.
Mr. Green's musical comedy librettos and songs often showed the writers' roots in sketch comedy, much to the delight of the crowd. There were sections of their shows that seemed to spring from the world of sketch comedy — set pieces you imagine could fit snugly on "The Carol Burnett Show" or Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows."
In Subways Are for Sleeping, for example, Newman played a former beauty queen who recites a "musical dramatic playlet" about the Civil War that is still hilarious on the cast album, and is credited as helping win Newman the Tony in 1962. In Bells Are Ringing, Judy Holliday's character, Ella, does a vaudeville turn — part Jolson, part Irish melodrama — to avoid a police detective, in a song called "Is It a Crime?"
And in the little-known Fade Out — Fade In, about an usher who becomes a movie star, Carol Burnett sang a song called "You Mustn't Feel Discouraged," a spoof of cloying Shirley Temple songs.
Among their numbers in A Party, seen Off Broadway, on Broadway and in special engagements around the country, were old songs from the days of The Revuers, including "The Reader's Digest," in which classics were boiled down to one-sentence blurbs such as "Jean Valjean, no evil doer, stole some bread 'cause he was poor; a detective chased him through a sewer — the end!" (representing Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables").
Until recent years, their Party turns included Mr. Green and Comden vigorously jumping up and down, playing peasants "gamboling on the green" in one sketch. At those shows, audiences raised on The Second City and "Saturday Night Live" were given a window into the topical comedy of a time when a sailor sweetly kissed a girl in a city that seemed full of graspable dreams.
Survivors include a son, Adam Green, and daughter Amanda Green, a singer-songwriter who has sung soulfully in recent years about her father in a song called "Daddy's Shoulders."